Christ Church Spitalfields

Christ Church, Spitalfields was officially reopened last week after 30 years of restoration work, £10m spent, and a battle for its survival that started back in the fifties and sixties.

The brief for Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece in 1714 demanded that Christ Church should have an ‘awe-full majesty’. Two and a half centuries later the monolithic Spitalfields church was simply in an awful state, and came within a whisker of demolition. That Christ Church escaped the wrecking ball and emerged this week, refurbished, resplendent and ready for business is of massive credit to local people and architectural enthusiasts who were determined that the flower of Britain’s brief blossoming of Baroque architecture should not be lost.
Hawksmoor and Christopher Wren

Christ Church was to have been one of 50 new churches for London, themselves only part of a bigger plan – nothing less than the complete rebuilding of London itself. Its architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor, a figure now shrouded in mystery and myth, and a student of Sir Christopher Wren, who fancied himself the architect of the new London.

Hawksmoor had been born to a family of Nottinghamshire farmers, probably in 1661, just five years before the Great Fire would raze London to the ground. Precociously fascinated by architecture he arrived in London in the late 1670s to take up a post as a clerk with Wren, the Government’s Surveyor General. This would have been little more than a draughtsman’s job, realising the detail of the master’s grandiose plans, but Hawksmoor learned quickly, and was promoted quickly too.

New St Pauls Cathedral, 1680

During the 1680s, Hawksmoor worked on the new St Paul’s Cathedral, Chelsea Hospital, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. As well as needing reconstruction after the fire, London was growing fast, and it was an exciting time for an architect, with new ideas reaching England from the Continent. Men would travel to Italy and Greece to observe Classical architecture, incorporating the pillars and pediments of the Greek and Roman forms into their work.

Hawksmoor, who by the turn of the seventeenth century was working with the other star architect of the era, John Vanbrugh, was not immune to the trend. While working with Vanbrugh on Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, the aspiring architect was also soaking up the lessons of the past. But without the financial means of many of his contemporaries, Hawksmoor gained his knowledge of the old forms from books, building a huge library of architectural drawings.
Pyramids and Temple of Solomon

Ironically he travelled broader and deeper than many of those who ventured abroad. He studied Graeco-Roman architecture, Palladio and the rest, but was disdainful of contemporaries who couldn’t move beyond the ‘rules’ of the ancient orders. The eclectic student brought in Egyptian forms, notes from the Pyramids and the Temple of Solomon. Decorations on his churches made reference to Freemasonry – fuelling the mythology that has fascinated the likes of novelist Peter Ackroyd.

Christopher Wren meanwhile, had seen the Great Fire as not so much a problem as an opportunity. The higgledy-piggledy streets of the mediaeval London had been burned, they could now be swept away for ever and a bold new plan of straight roads, clean lines and smoothly white stone buildings arise in their place. Though he was to be frustrated in this – the rebuilding of London was much more conservative than he had hoped – business was still good for the money-minded Wren.
Great Fire, Churches & Noncomformists

He had already completed the rebuilding of the 52 mediaeval churches of the City lost in the Great Fire when an Act of Parliament was passed in 1711, commissioning the building of 50 new churches in what were then the suburbs. Parliament was worried by the unruly organic growth of London. The East End in particular, with its transient population of immigrants and dissidents, worried Government and Church. East of the City was a home for religious non-conformists and freethinkers, and a possible bedding ground for revolution: what London needed was missionary work by the established Church of England.

In the event, only 12 of the new churches were built before the money ran out. Three were in the East End: Wapping’s St George in the East, Limehouse’s St Anne’s, and Christ Church – Hawksmoor’s masterpiece. With rounded arches, rather than the pointed Gothic style familiar from the mediaeval (and later Victorian) places of worship, it’s a departure for the London church. Huge, hewn from white stone, with imposing rounded columns standing free of the body of the church, this is a building that positively glows – all the more so since being freed of the grime and ill-conceived Victorian alterations that cloaked its beauty.
Friends of Christ Church

In 1956 the church was declared unsafe and was closed, gradually rotting during the sixties and seventies. But the same activists who helped save the houses of Spitalfields from threatened destruction in the 1970s started a movement to save the building. The Friends of Christ Church was formed in 1976. It was 20 years before a Lottery grant of £2.4m was secured to save the exterior, with further funds following in 2002 to save the inside of the church.

‘We hope the church now looks as Hawksmoor designed it,’ said Red Mason, the architect who worked on the project for some 30 years.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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