St Alfege’s Church Tower…

…in a parallel universe. An alternative world where, during the building of an alternative Nicholas Hawksmoor church in an alternative Greenwich, the cash didn’t run out when they got to the roof.

It goes like this. The magnificent St Alfeges – the church of the Tudor Court, of Thomas Tallis, of Samuel Pepys, gradually fell to pieces when Royalty abandoned Greenwich and though it was occasionally patched up, it finally got so bad that on one particular dark and stormy night in 1710 the nave fell in.

Greenwich by now was quite poor and the parishioners petitioned for some of the Coal Tax, which they’d been paying for the past 40 years to pay for the rebuilding of St Pauls Cathedral after the Great Fire, to be given to them for a new church. They got their way – but the act passed in 1711 for fifty new London churches underestimated the cost of a large government building project (sound familiar?)

Certainly there wasn’t enough in the coffers for St Alfeges to have Nicholas Hawksmoor’s designs built exactly as he wanted them. The governors took the plans for the main, classical-style building but, after shaking the parish piggy bank as hard as they could, sent the tower/steeple plans back.

Hawksmoor stuffed the tower plans back in his pocket, shrugged and went on to the next project. In a spot of masterly architectural recycling, when he got the commission for St George’s In The East, he dusted off the plans for St Alfege’s, added and subtracted a few bits and bobs and passed them off as brand new. So it could be said that the splendid Shadwell church has Greenwich’s cast-off tower. Or, more depressingly, that The East End could afford a steeple when we could only press snotty noses against the glass of Hawksmoor’s shop window.

Whichever, we did finally get a tower – in 1730, designed by John James. I have heard sniffy comments made about this one being too ‘fancy’ for Hawksmoor’s austere building, but me, I think it looks just fine. And it’s got a clock, so yah-boo-sucks. We all know what it looks like, so instead of a straight photo, here’s Theatre of Wine’s glorious version created for last year’s Advent Windows:


St George’s has a chequered history, especially in the 1850s when a rector introduced ‘Romish practices’ and demonstrations ensued – men with barking dogs marched into church wearing hats and smoking pipes and chucked rubbish at the altar to the sound of catcalls and horn-blowing and much Unpleasantness ensued.

Both churches came off badly in WWII. I’ll come to St Alfege’s another day, but poor old St George’s was so damaged that only the outside (a curious, slightly Italianate but nevertheless very London building) is left – inside, a post-war version squats unobtrusively behind its white stone walls.

It was a nice day yesterday so I took a little trip to see it. It’s on the south end of Cannon Street Road, about five minute’s walk from Shadwell DLR and it’s got a little park around it. If you do the same, it’s worth wandering around the area to see the remaining buildings around Cable St (and the fabulous Wilton’s Music Hall.)


One Comment to “St Alfege’s Church Tower…”

  1. [...] design was too pricey for the good burghers of Greenwich and he eventually palmed it off on St Georges in the East. Personally I actually prefer John James’s version, built 25 years later when they’d [...]