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July 7, 2017

It was my birthday recently and as part of my present to myself I took 48 hours off, went to London to see my sister and meet up with friends. We didn’t intend to go to Spitalfields, but due to collective incompetence and inability to check museum opening times an exciting and innovative change of plan we went to Shoreditch and then walked down to see Christ Church


Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

(No idea how David Iliff managed to take that photo without losing life or limbs to the traffic. It took us 10 minutes just to get across the road.)

It is a lovely little church, built in the early 18th Century and one of the first of the ‘Commissioners Churches‘ or ‘Queen Anne Churches‘. The intention had been to build fifty new churches within London as a show of Anglican strength/pride/attempted conversion in those areas that had large non-Anglican populations. Spitalfields was largely populated by Huguenots and later Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms – so, to Queen Anne and the British Government it an obvious place to start evangelising Anglicanism. Remember that in Britain while it was no longer illegal to be non-Conformist, Unitarian, Catholic or anything other than an Anglican Protestant, only Anglicans were allowed to hold office or assemble for prayers – amongst other injustices. In typically British fashion, however, the full fifty churches were never built, the money ran out so only ten new churches were created and a two others were revamped.

Christopher Wren was one of the commissioners on the committee and his protégé Nicholas Hawksmoor was one of the surveyors. It has changed since Hawksmoor drew up the original plans. As recorded on a memorial outside, extensive rebuilding had to be done after a fire nearly destroyed the interior and spire in 1836. In 1866 they had a major re-fit and changed the entire interior, then in the 1960s it was decided to return the church to its original state (more information here and here). Knowing nothing of this, I simply admired the cool beauty of the interior:


By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

That makes it look enormous, whereas it’s remarkably small for such an extensive parish, but I’d temporarily forgotten I can take photos with my phone so I’m relying on what I can find on the interwebs – there’s a lot, this is particularly good for all things Hawksmoor. It has a very restrained plastered ceiling (particularly restful on such a hot day) except over the chancel* where cherubs run riot and there’s an especially nonthreatening lion with his traditional unicorn adversary


It also has a beautiful restored organ,


By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

which unfortunately led to an outbreak of infantile sniggering – as an aside ‘Crikey, that’s a huge shiny organ’ is not something to say out loud in the company of a certain respectable archaeology lecturer and an equally respectable museum curator. I know that now.

It is a surprisingly large organ for a small church though. Look, this is what Wikipedia says ‘With over two thousand pipes it was, when built, the largest organ in England, a record it held for over a hundred years’. And it is very shiny, as I think you’ll agree. And this is probably not the moment to mention that the church is now also an events venue and  hosted a documentary and dinner celebrating Gilbert & George – they live in nearby Fournier Street. Whether the documentary featured enormous shiny organs I couldn’t say, but knowing Gilbert & George it seems extremely likely. Although I have to say their Jason Donovan picture was one of my favourite paintings in the Southampton City Art Gallery along with Chris Ofili’s poo pictures

I appear to have sidetracked myself. Hawksmoor, churches, eighteenth century architecture, Spitalfields, I had a plan when I started this. It all came together in my head and I thought it would make a good blog post but I seem to have got caught up in double entendres and modern art. I’m a bit out of practice at this blogging business.

Now, unlike Martyn, I haven’t read Peter Ackroyd‘s Hawksmoor (I tried, but really? My life is too short. I couldn’t get along with London, the biography either which I very much wanted to read) so I can’t do clever linky stuff to the histories of archaeology.  However, as I’ve said before, chuck a brick in London and you’ll hit some archaeology and Spitalfields has a lot of archaeology and history. I mentioned the Huguenots and the evidence for silk weaving and all forms of cloth production is still extant, Fournier Street (home of Gilbert & George and also Jeanette Winterson) is one of the best examples of early Georgian domestic town houses in Britain, Spitalfields Market has been extensively excavated  revealing multi-period occupation and Spitalfields is on the route of the Elizabeth Line, the new underground train route being dug by Crossrail, which has uncovered so much archaeology a lot of which is on display at the Museum of London Docklands. Add in the old Bedlam Hospital and there’s an awful lot that can be said about the past in Spitalfields.

But not today.

I’ve run out of time and written too many irrelevant words. I shall write some more next week, hopefully a little more cogent and coherent.

In the meantime, have a wonderful weekend


*It may not be the chancel, none of us could remember anything about ecclesiastical architecture or interiors despite having done directly relevant archaeology courses. ‘Squinches’ said E authoritatively ‘unless they’re pendentives’ I suggested we were looking at pilaster strips (it being the only term I remember from Anglo-Saxon church studies, and no, there is no reason an 18th century church would have Anglo-Saxon features but I was trying my best) and L, who knows a considerable amount about architecture, tried to decide if the columns were Ionic or Doric. It just goes to show, let 3 archaeologists loose in London for an afternoon and we will have a lovely time even if we haven’t a clue what we’re looking at.

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  1. This week | HARN Weblog

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