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The Wren churches that didn’t make it

by
24 February 2023

In the centuries after Wren’s death, his churches have suffered a mixed fate, says William Whyte

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St Stephen’s, Coleman Street, engraving by William Pearson, 1815

St Stephen’s, Coleman Street, engraving by William Pearson, 1815

STANDING on the roof of All Hallows’-by-the-Tower on 5 September 1666, the diarist Samuel Pepys witnessed “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; every where great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning”. Perhaps as many as 13,000 houses were destroyed in the Great Fire of London. It is certain that more than 80 churches were consumed by the flames. In the aftermath, it was decided that only 51 of those churches would be rebuilt. Of those 51, only 23 now remain.

They are not hard to find. Starting at the Memorial to the Great Fire in Pudding Lane and heading west, a short stroll will take in a little over half a dozen: St Magnus the Martyr and St Mary Abchurch, St Stephen Walbrook and St Mary Aldermary, St Mary-le-Bow, St Vedast-alias-Foster, St Martin’s, Ludgate, and St Bride’s, Fleet Street. From the dome of St Stephen’s to the spire of St Mary-le-Bow, these are not merely remarkable works of art: they are also familiar figures in the London landscape.

If you look carefully, you can also spot the absences, the gaps where churches used to be. Only the pulpit survives from St Benet Gracechurch; only the tower of St Alban’s, Wood Street. Both the tower and interior of the demolished church of All Hallows’, Lombard Street, are now in Twickenham. The ruins of St Mary Aldermanbury were transported and re-erected in Fulton, Missouri, in the mid-1960s.

Christopher Wren was not directly responsible for all the churches built in London after the Great Fire. No individual could single-handedly mastermind such a mammoth and multifarious set of individual buildings, much less do so as he also worked on St Paul’s Cathedral and a host of projects. He relied on draughtsmen and craftsmen as well as other architects — especially Robert Hooke and the now near-forgotten Edward Woodroofe.

But it is entirely right that more than two score of churches built in London after 1666 are known by his name. Appointed with Hooke and Woodroofe to oversee the reconstruction of the churches lost to the Fire, it is clear that Wren was the leading figure of the three. He was paid at least twice as much as the others. He had control of the finances. Most importantly, he was the driving force in encouraging a spirit of experiment and innovation in design.

The result was square churches and rectangular, octagonal, and decagonal, Gothic forms and fashionable French Baroque details. In one or two, there were even hints of Byzantine influence. The Wren churches were an extraordinary set of variations on a theme.

This makes it all the more extraordinary that more than half now no longer exist. Of those that were lost, 19 went in the Blitz. Thirteen, indeed, were bombed on the night of 29 December 1940. Some, such as St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, St Michael Paternoster Royal, and St Nicholas Cole Abbey, were rebuilt.

But others were left as ruins, or retain only a tower to recall what was once there. The sites of one or two have been lost beneath office blocks and other developments. Anyone looking for St Stephen’s, Coleman Street, for instance, will now find a smart café in its place.

Half a dozen other churches were destroyed less dramatically. The first to go was St Christopher-le-Stocks, demolished in the 1780s to make way for the expansion of the Bank of England. A clutch of others were lost in 19th-century road-widening schemes. The fabulous, inventive ten-sided St Benet Fink was pulled down in the 1840s to improve the view of the Royal Exchange.

 

WORSE than bombers or road builders, the single biggest threat to the Wren churches throughout history has been the Church itself. As the historian Ben Weinstein has shown, there were recurrent attempts by the diocese of London to rid itself of supposedly superfluous buildings. Almost 30 went in the aftermath of 1666, of course.

As the resident population declined in the City of London, so the Wren churches became vulnerable, too. In 1860, the Union of Benefices Act envisaged the destruction of two dozen — and 14 were actually pulled down. Further efforts were made in the 20th century, with a report of 1919 recommending the demolition of 19 more.

For those in the Church who favoured such destruction, the issue was a simple one. Instead of underwriting empty churches and redundant clergy, the sites could be cleared and the incumbents reallocated. An essay in 1898 estimated that millions could be raised by the sale of sites alone.

It was an argument made more potent by the parlous state of so many City churches at the time. In 1860, Dickens described dusty, mouldy, empty, visibly decaying places. Each Sunday, he wrote, “I don’t see as many as four people at once going to church, though I see as many as four churches with their steeples clamouring for people.”

alamySt Benet Fink, Threadneedle Street, engraving by George Shepherd, 1810

It didn’t help that for much of the 18th and most of the 19th century, Wren’s architecture was seriously unfashionable. Wren was widely seen as a pioneering architect, an important scientist, a brilliant manager and public servant, but, from the moment he died, his reputation as an architect was vulnerable to changing fashions. The Palladian Classicists of the 18th century and Gothic Revivalists of the 19th each condemned him for not conforming to their ideals.

Although nearly everyone recognised that he was important, few believed that his work was brilliant. Many agreed that “his churches are ugly to an excess”, as one writer put it in 1864. Victorian visitors to the Temple Church, were appalled at Wren’s “hideous altar screen rich in pagan symbols, and . . . pulpit such as Gulliver might have sat under had he attended Divine Service in Brobdignag”.

When the architect G. E. Street proposed demolishing — and then rebuilding — St Dionis Backchurch, in 1857, he defended his proposals on the grounds that “The small congregations in the City Churches are without doubt caused in some degree by the want of attractiveness which is so conspicuous” in them.

 

TO MAKE matters worse, the sheer variety of his churches made them hard to categorise, much less see as a distinctive collection of buildings worth defending as the work of a mastermind. As late as 1947, the historian John Summerson could observe that the Wren’s London projects were still “Conspicuous in the category of unwanted churches”.

Helped by the catastrophic destruction of the Blitz, the post-war period saw a renewed appreciation for Wren and for his churches. In part, this was surely because of the Blitz. The sheer wantonness of the destruction concentrated minds, emphasising the national, even international importance of these buildings. All of the remaining churches were given the highest possible grade of protection when the listing system was introduced.

Still more, the way in which the churches were understood slowly changed. For one thing, the work of scholars such as Summerson enabled people to understand them better. He showed that in Wren’s eyes the variety of plan and style and details that made them so hard to categorise was precisely the point. Instead of seeing each church as a wholly separate exercise, their collective importance as a group of experiments became clearer.

Allied to this appreciation was the acknowledgement that this was a collection of the highest importance. Nowhere else on earth had such a significant group of churches built in a single campaign. In other words, what saved the remaining Wren churches was recognition of their value as a collection of art objects rather than the part they played as places of worship.

This was a trend encouraged by the continued problems facing parishes with an ever-shrinking resident population. In 1995, another diocesan report recommended the closure of 15 Wren churches, and a handful of other places of worship in the city. It was a conclusion greeted with “applause” by the clergy of London. But the author of this report was clear that, even if they ceased to be used for services, the churches should be preserved as monuments.

“The buildings are magnificent,” Lord Templeman observed. “They belong not only to the Church of England, but to the City and to the nation. It is out of the question to pull them down.” Later that year, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres became Bishop of London and the report was shelved. Instead of closure, there was investment, and plans to open the churches for midweek events and other sorts of worship.

Not for the first time, the Church discovered that attractive buildings did actually attract people, if only they were allowed to. These churches are now one of the success stories of the diocese and of the Church of England as a whole.

More than 100 years ago, one Victorian proponent of closure and demolition decried those who sought to preserve these churches. The “Wren craze” was, he went on, nothing but “twaddle and cant”. Contemporary history suggests quite the reverse. Keeping these buildings open is not just good for heritage: it is good for the Church itself.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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