An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile                                
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile

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          St Mary Woolnoth                                          
          St Mary Woolnoth                                    
Opinions vary greatly as to the merits of this church
, observed Margaret Tabor in her splendid little 1924 volume London City Churches, a review of all those churches in the City built up to the end of the 18th Century. Some critics point to it as an illustration of the lack of genius of Wren's pupils... others find "much refinement" in the north front, and admire the classical details... The clanging quotation marks that drop around the words 'much refinement' probably tell us all we need to know about Ms Tabor's opinion. The pupil of Wren who was lacking in genius on this occasion was Nicholas Hawksmoor of course, who is today recognised as quite the most innovative English urban church architect of the 18th Century. That Ms Tabor was not without allies is reflected in the fact that on several occasions this building has been threatened. In 1863 an application was made for its demolition, so that the land could be used for the construction of Bank underground station. The parishioners fought off the attempt (in the event, the station was built in the crypt, and the neo-classical screen now hosting a Starbucks to the south of the church was built as the station entrance). In 1919, the Diocese of London's Commission into City Churches recommended St Mary Woolnoth as one of nineteen churches for demolition, the proceeds going to the construction of new churches in the suburbs.

St Mary Woolnoth's superb location at the meeting point of Lothbury and King William Street is of course the main reason for these periodic avaricious attempted land grabs, but it must be said that over the years there are many people who haven't really 'got' St Mary Woolnoth. The purity of the Classical form is undoubted - how the Victorians must have hated it! - but that box of an interior, unrelenting in its mathematical perfection, is easier to admire than to love. When the galleries were in situ and before the high box pews were replaced it must have been a claustrophobic experience sitting here on a Sunday, despite the light from above. Sometimes I take people in here and it blows them away, it takes their breath away. It doesn't do that to me. Perhaps I, too, am one of the people who don't really get St Mary Woolnoth.

Quite what TS Eliot thought of it I don't know, but his own memories of working in the City which weave their way into his masterpiece, The Waste Land, recalled the church very precisely:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

One of the rectors here at the end of the 18th Century was the hymn writer John Newton. Newton had been a slave trader in an earlier part of his life, but repented and became a vocal opponent of the trade. He is buried here, and his epitaph, although fully in the language of early 19th Century pious memory, is still rather moving: John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the Faith he had laboured long to destroy.

Simon Knott, December 2015

location: King William Street 4/047
status: working parish church
access: open Monday to Friday, services Sunday

St Mary Woolnoth to where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours St Mary Woolnoth view from the porch St Mary Woolnoth St Mary Woolnoth St Mary Woolnoth St Mary Woolnoth Blessed Virgin and Child died of fever at Innsbruck churchwarden, banker, goldsmith, oarsman, gardener, antiquary St Mary Woolnoth once an infidel and libertine St Mary Woolnoth St Edmund St Nicholas cross


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An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile