The City Churches of Sir Christopher Wren

by Paul Jeffery 1996 Hambledon Press

reviewed by Leslie Barker



I came across the pre-publication order form for this book while touring the city of London churches, on an open day one September, arranged by the Friends of the City Churches. I ordered the book and was not disappointed. It is complementary in its treatment to other books, whether on Wren or the city of London churches, and it is also the first book in over 40 years to examine Wren's churches as a whole including those which no longer survive. A gazetteer, taking up half the book, has plans of each church, drawings or photographs not widely published elsewhere, and lists of the individual craftsmen employed on each church.


To quote the dust jacket, "Paul Jeffery describes how and when the churches were built, exploring the respective contributions of Wren and of his two principal assistants, Robert Hooke and Nicholas Hawksmoor." Therein is one point of interest, and while the youthful hand of Hawksmoor can quite easily be detected, especially in the later church towers, it is impossible to disentangle the work of Wren and Hooke, fellow scientists and friends since meeting at Oxford University.


As today Wren as head kept a few prestigious commissions for important clients to himself, not least St. Paul's Cathedral and Hampton Court, left the less important projects to his assistants, but generally worked together with them on a number of the designs. However as Head, or rather Surveyor General, Wren successfully led his staff and oversaw the management side, "obtaining what he wanted from Parliament, tactfully managing the Commissioners, convincing the parish church wardens that he knew what they wanted, controlling the enthusiasm of the difficult Robert Hooke, and nurturing the talent of the precocious Nicholas Hawksmoor. He successfully handled large sums of money derived from the coal tax [and] satisfied the auditors."


Just as today finance was a problem! The programme had its difficulties as the Coal Tax revenue could not keep pace with the rate of building, and the priority list of churches kept changing, particularly once their place in the queue depended on how much they could raise for themselves for later repayment by the Commissioners.


Some churches were repaired after the Great Fire at their congregation's, or a donor's expense, only to need rebuilding later, as St. Vedast by the Commissioners and St. Mary Woolnoth designed by Hawksmoor under the 1711 Act. Some probably did not require complete rebuilding but took the opportunity to have a better building at public expense when they saw what other parishes had got! Towers were a necessity for the bells, but eventually every parish wanted a steeple as well.


While Wren was responsible for around fifty churches (the exact number depending on whether you count repairs like those to St. Sepulchre which is still regarded as a medieval church, and St. James Piccadilly outside the city) and there are still approximately fifty churches in the square mile, only 23 of Wren's remain, many of them extensively restored following the Second World War.


The first Wren church to be demolished was St. Christopher-le-Stocks after the Bank of England had acquired almost the whole parish and in 1728 obtained an act of Parliament to purchase and demolish the building. The second to go was St. Michael Crooked Lane for the approach to the new London Bridge in 1831, and Mammon again claimed the third when the Bank of England demolished St. Bartholomew by the Exchange. In 1834, 1854 and 1855 abortive attempts were made to close churches due to the declining city population, and it was not until 1867 that redundant churches began to be demolished.


Since the losses of the Second World War a number of churches have become Guild Churches or used by other denominations or Christian organisations, but once more in the late 1990s their future use was in question even if their preservation was assured. The ecclesiastical Templeman Report of 1994 proposed reducing the number of parishes to four, and was unclear of the role of the redundant churches; and Alan Baxter and Associates more architectural report again seems inconclusive according to Jeffery. And fire continues to strike about one church per decade, though restoration has followed; then there is the occasional accident such as a crane falling through the roof of St. James Garlickhithe, and the IRA blowing up St. Ethelburga and causing structural damage to several others (though not Wren's).


One of the glories of the Wren churches are the interior fittings, but in general the Commissioners provided the building and the parishioners contracted and paid for the fittings themselves. Many of these are not in the churches they were originally designed for, and even those that are may not be original but later, even if still of the Wren period. This does not detract from their interest or value but underlines the continuing change the churches have undergone ever since their construction.


Jeffery particularly highlights this change in the centrally planned churches like St. Anne and St. Agnes where over the centuries the open space where the cross axes met has been taken over by east facing pews, under church wardens unconcerned with or ignorant of the building structure. The recently installed central altar at St. Stephen Walbrook might be thought liturgically appropriate and fitting the church plan, even if aesthetically questioned itself, but Wren's interior has a longitudinal emphasis. The church now has two foci for the Eucharist - a central altar, and Wren's original communion table and reredos arrangement against the east wall - and this leaves the Wren pulpit stranded. This also of course raises questions of churchmanship, not simply liturgical fashion but theological understanding, an issue which was also responsible for moving original three decker pulpits to a central position in the 18th century, but then moving the pulpit alone back to the side in the Victorian period and dismantling the lower decks.


One small criticism of the book; I would have liked to have seen the ceiling layouts on the plans because these are essential to showing the spatial organisation of the churches, and might also remind liturgical reorderers to relate to this as well as the floor plan. But to end with the last sentence on the dust jacket, "The City Churches of Sir Christopher Wren presents a clear case both for their importance and their preservation."


Jeffery's book has inspired me to visit the churches again, for which essential information is their opening times, which can be found in a free leaflet, City of London Churches,

published by the Corporation of London, and the next date for their co-ordinated opening, which can be had from The Friends of the City Churches on 020 7228 3336.


Leslie Barker






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