St Georges Church
One of London’s more characterful corners and a work of blinding originality, raw emotion and interesting symbolism. Hugh Pearman, The Sunday Times
St George’s Bloomsbury is one of the twelve new churches designed and paid for under the 1711 Act of Parliament for building Fifty New Churches, and the sixth and final London church designed by the leading architect of the English Baroque, Nicholas Hawksmoor. The 1711 Act of Parliament was passed by the new Tory government in response to the increasing number of non-conformist chapels and places of worship in London, all of which were intended to serve its rapidly growing population. The Commissioners of the Act, led by Sir Christopher Wren, quickly set about identifying those areas of London most in need of new places of worship directly controlled by the Church of England. The land on which the church is built (the ‘Ploughyard’) was bought for £1,000 from Lady Russell, widow of the Whig rebel Lord John Russell who had been executed in 1683. This is not an insubstantial sum, which begs the question why it was spent on a narrow, rectangular plot of land on a North-South axis that was hemmed in by buildings on all sides; a purchase which seemed to fly in the face of the Commissioners’ 1711 stipulation that “no site ought to be pitched upon for the erecting [of] a new church where the same will not admit the church to be placed East and West.” Perhaps the orientation of the site was deemed a surmountable obstacle, especially since the site met the needs of the commissioners in that it was situated “amongst the… better sort… [and on] the larger and more open streets, not in obscure lanes, nor where coaches will be much obstructed in the passage.”The land purchase was the work of one of the two surveyors appointed by the Commissioners of the 1711 Act: Nicholas Hawksmoor. Unlike others appointed by the Commissioners, Hawksmoor continued to work as a surveyor of the 1711 Act churches until his death in 1736. Of the twelve churches completed, he would ultimately be responsible for designing six, of which St George’s Bloomsbury was the last. His final designs for St George’s, however, were only commissioned and then adopted after earlier designs by James Gibbs and Sir John Vanburgh (who proposed building a church with the altar in the north) were rejected by the Commissioners. St George’s was consecrated on the 28th January 1730 by Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London. At this time, Bloomsbury was part of the parish of St Giles in the Fields. Not only was St Giles unable to meet the needs of the increasing parish population, but it was also surrounded by one of London’s most notorious slums; the Rookery. Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751), with the spire of St George’s clearly visible towards the top of the picture, gives us an idea of the squalor and despair that characterised the area. Regular visits to St Giles in the Fields would hardly have been an attractive proposition to the nobility, gentry and well to-do taking up residence in the fashionable streets and squares of Bloomsbury, built and managed by the Duke of Bedford. Despite the grandeur of Hawksmoor’s design, the parish Vestrymen felt that his completed church did not provide sufficient accommodation for the parish and, as a result, the church was re-orientated along a north-south axis in 1781. During the 19th century, St George’s was particularly active in the Church of England’s ‘civilizing mission’, providing practical help such as schools, a library and a soup kitchen for the local community. The early 20th century saw St George’s play an active role in both spiritual and secular affairs. In 1913, St George’s the church was the setting for the memorial service for Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse in the Derby. In 1937, St George’s held a special service of remembrance for those killed during the Abyssinian War which was attended by Haile Selassie. From 1956 – 1968, St George’s Bloomsbury served as the University of London’s church, with the Rector as Senior Chaplain. After this association with the University of London had ended, the church struggled to establish a clear role for itself within the local community and fell into disrepair. Attempts during the 1990s to restore the building attracted the attention of the World Monuments Fund, whose subsequent adoption of the restoration of St George’s as a major project was the crucial first step towards the successfully-restored church we see today.