Changing London

City churches: Where only towers and steeples survive

Continuing my series on the City of London’s churches, I take a look this week at examples of buildings where only towers and steeples survive.

St Dunstan in the East in the City is a place that you will probably have all to yourself if you visit at the weekend. On a sunny day, the tidy, minimalist garden – with a small patch of grass and beds of shrubs – created in the shell of the former church nave that was wiped out by Blitz is the perfect place to while away some time away from the hustle and bustle of modern London.

St Dunstan in the East tower

But come during the working week, the benches set in a semi-circle around the paved slabs are popular with office workers looking for a spot to smoke, eat their lunch or merely read a book. With limited outdoor space in the City, you will certainly not be on your own unless the weather is really bad. The City of London corporation which manages the site also hires the venue out for special occasions, including weddings – it must be a great place for taking photographs of the bride and groom.

In many ways the history of St Dunstan seems familiar. The church, dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury, was first built on the site in Saxon times. It was re-built (in 1697) by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London and was then hit by the devastating Blitz of the Second World War. As with a number of the 52 churches in the City constructed by the architect and his colleagues, it was not re-built and in 1970 was opened as a pubic park.

Wren re-built the tower in Gothic style and, such was his confidence in the construction, that when he was told that the steeple of every City church had been struck by lightening in 1703, his response was: “Not St Dunstan’s, I am sure.” He was right and it is today the only complete part of his church that remains.

Blitz on City churches

The devastating Blitz of 1940 and 1941 resulted in 23 of the 49 remaining Anglican City churches being badly damaged or destroyed – five were never re-built. As with St Dunstan’s, Christ Church Newgate was not re-built after the Blitz and in its place a garden was creared. It is also somewhere that City workers flock to at lunchtimes on sunny days to sit on benches where the nave once stood. The benches and flower beds have been cleverly laid out to mark where the church – originally built in the 14th century and part of Greyfriars monastery – used to be.

Christ Church was once the second largest church after St Paul’s and four queens are said to have been buried there. But it is only the tower, replaced by Wren during construction works after the Great Fire, that survives and is joined on to the more modern former vestry house building, which is occupied by the appropriately named Vestry House dental centre.

Not all lone church towers that survived the Blitz when the main building they once adjoined was wiped out are set in pretty gardens however. St Alban Wood Street, not far from the Museum of London, stands alone lone on a traffic island. Offa, King of Mercia and founder of St Albans Abbey (hence the name), apparently once had a palace and chapel here. The remaining walls were pulled down in 1954 and the tower is today used as a residential property.

Some of the surviving towers which once were joined onto churches now form part of bigger, modern buildings. The remaining structure at St Augustine with St Faith (re-built mostly by Wren after the Great Fire and largely wiped out by the Blitz) has, for example, been incorporated into St Paul’s Cathedral School.

Planned demolition

As devastating as the Blitz was, it would be wrong to assume that it was the only reason why, post the Great Fire, churches were left with only their towers. Some of these beautiful buildings were pulled down as a result of conscious decisions made by people who thought their sites could be put to better use.

With less people living in the City from the 19th century onwards, as a result of migration to the suburbs, there was, on paper less of a need for churches (in 1841 it was 125,000 but by 1901 it was just over 25,000). New legislation, namely the 1860 Union of Benefices Act, allowed church authorities to sell unused churches, and many of the sites were quickly bought up by services companies looking for plots to build new offices.

The fact that only Wren’s tower survives at St Mary Somerset in Upper Thames Street is a direct result of the Act. First mentioned in 1170, the church was re-built by Wren after the Great Fire of 1666, but was demolished in 1871. The tower, surrounded by a small garden and on a traffic island, was used as a woman’s rest room before the Second World War.

At St Olave Jewry in Ironmoger Lane the surviving tower – today known as St Olave’s House – is leased as offices to a firm of solicitors (the medieval church itself was re-built by Wren after the Great Fire, but demolished in 1892). It is surrounded by secluded garden, which used to be the churchyard however when it was disinterred the remains of those buried there were moved to the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park.

St Olave’s House

All Hallows Staining, opposite Fenchurch Street Station and hailing from the 15th century, was pulled down in 1870, leaving only the tower. Elizabeth I said the church’s bells had been “music to her ears” when she was in the nearby Tower of London, so she donated bell ropes to the institution once she was released. Today, the surviving structure, which has a crypt underneath, is looked after by the Clockworkers’ Company.

All Hallows Staining

While it’s sad that many City churches have been destroyed over the years, we should celebrate the fact that so many of their towers remain. These romantic ruins are very picturesque and provide a fitting reminder of times gone by.

Next week: After the IRA bombs of the 1990s, the City’s churches look to the future

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