Hawksmoor’s Docklands Churches by Fran Bulwer

Fran’ s talk on Monay was on Sir Christopher Wren’s pupil, the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, with particular focus on four of his churches in the Docklands. A scheme to extend state-sponsored church-building, which had started with Wren’s 52 City churches after the Great Fire of 1666, was revived in 1711 under Queen Anne with funds for 50 more churches in the new suburbs, paid for by a tax in London-bound coal. These churches would reaffirm Anglicanism as the national religion in areas with high numbers of dissenters and different Protestant groups, seen as something of a threat to the established Church.

St Anne's Limehouse. Photograph by Sue Wallace CC BY-SA 2.0

St Anne’s Limehouse. Photograph by Sue Wallace CC BY-SA 2.0

Hawksmoor led the Commission into selecting, buying and surveying appropriate land and then overseeing the designs, construction, quality and cost of the building project. The number of churches was soon scaled back to twelve for financial reasons. He designed six himself, worked on two with John James, who did two himself, while John Gibb did one and Thomas Archer two. Eleven of the twelve are still in use today, although not all for their original purpose.

St Alfege’s, Greenwich was the first of the churches in Thameside areas and was to replace a collapsed medieval church on the site. It shows Hawksmoor’s characteristic boxy nave and classical references. It was restored after serious WW2 bomb damage and survives today in central Greenwich, unfortunately next to a very busy one-way system.

St Anne’s Limehouse, with its very high tower – the design of which was transposed from St Alfege – was designed as a Thames shipping landmark with its illuminated clock regulated from Greenwich and its naval ensign constantly flying from the tower. While restored externally in recent years, the interior is not in prime condition but it remains as an imposing reminder of the role of the Church in Docklands communities.

St George-in-the-East in Wapping was built for a rapidly growing, mixed class port community which became increasingly poor and multi-cultural during the 18th and 19th centuries, providing much material for Dickens, Conan Doyle and sensationalist newspapers. It was badly damaged by the Luftwaffe in 1941, along with much of Wapping, and the shell of Hawkmoor’s original church now contains a small 1950’s church within the old nave.

Christ Church Spitalfields is the most flourishing of the churches in East London today, thanks to its location next to the recently renovated Spitalfields Market on the edge of the City. Although damaged by fire and changed in the mid1800’s and threatened with demolition in the 1970’s when nearly derelict, it now looks magnificent after many years of restoration and flourishes as a church and concert venue with a popular crypt cafe.

St George’s Bloomsbury and St Mary Woolnoth in the City are also doing well after restoration work.

Hawksmoor had a remarkable career and London, Oxford and Yorkshire all continue to enjoy the masterpieces of Wren’s ‘draughtsman’, who never quite achieved the fame of his more illustrious master but was surely his equal in originality and style. His style was despised for many years after his death in 1736 but his genius is now fully acknowledged.


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