Vic Keegan’s Lost London 26: St Mary Woolnoth

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 26: St Mary Woolnoth

This Nicholas Hawksmoor masterpiece has God on its side. St Mary Woolnoth was the only City church to survive the Second World War unscathed and has escaped demolition on several occasions, most recently in 1897 when the City and South London Railway was given permission to demolish it to make space for Bank Underground station.

Yes, demolish a Hawksmoor! It was only after a public outcry that a compromise with Mammon was reached. Much of the crypt was sold to the railway company to accommodate a lift shaft. You can still see bits of its ceiling above the station lift beneath the entrance by the church. The rest of the building was underpinned with steel girders, which actually made it stronger. 

The other (western) side of the church hosts a Starbucks coffee shop – yes, a Hawksmoor Starbucks! – as a means to raise money. Centuries earlier, the then churchyard was sold to the City authorities and the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence, was built there.

If you feel such survival could not have happened without the gift of grace, you would not be far wrong, for John Newton, a former slave ship captain who renounced his evil ways to become a pastor, was incumbent at this church from 1780 to 1807. Among other things, Newton wrote the words of Amazing Grace, probably the most internationally popular hymn ever written.

Designed in Hawksmoor’s borderline gothic style, St Mary Woolnoth has been a site for worship for over 2,000 years. Traces of Roman and pagan religious structures have been found under its foundations. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, it was repaired by Sir Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor’s mentor and collaborator, though it had to be rebuilt by Hawksmoor as it turned out to be unsafe.

Others associated with the church included Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, which was more popular in its time than most of Shakespeare’s plays. Kyd was baptised there and William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, worshipped there. The church has a walk-on part in T S Eliot’s The Waste Land – St Mary Woolnoth “kept the hours” – and until recently the space in the tower above the bells was being used by an architect as an office.

The church itself has charisma bordering on the sublime. Outside, it looks like a Greek temple sitting on a sculptural base with angular parallel lines that wouldn’t look out of place at Tate Modern. At the top there are two archways which look like eyes watching over the City – balm to Hawksmoor’s psycho-geographic disciples, who read mystical interpretations into practically anything he has built. 

Inside, you are struck by four sets of Corinthian columns laid out as triplets in what Ian Nairn described as “a square within a square…where space is made so tangible that you can experience for the price of a bus ticket to the City, the super-reality of the mystics”.

The church is built on an impossibly small triangle of land between two City streets with brutalist skyscrapers blocking what must once have been a magnificent setting. But when you push open its formidable doors, you are into a different world that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Mammon is nowhere to be seen.

Read more of Vic Keegan’s Lost London pieces here.

Categories: Culture, Lost London

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