The Church Within a Church

Another day, another St Alfege Anniversary. I guess there were so many other anniversaries going on in 2011 when it was the anniversary of an incendiary bomb lodging itself in the rafters of the church, setting fire to the roof, which collapsed into the nave, causing the mess in the picture above that it’s understandable they’ve chosen to acknowledge the restoration date instead.

Somewhere in that lot is the organ – which had just been restored – and which still had the original pipes that Thomas Tallis would have known when he was organist. It must have been a fair old shock for the poor Greenwich folk who were underneath the rubble in the photo, though thankfully also under another layer – sheltering in the crypt while the air raid was happening.

The church stayed a burned out shell until the war ended when the War Damage Commission was allocated £8,000 to restore it. If you think that’s low, £5,000 of that money was ring-fenced for the organ…

The work, led by Albert Edward Richardson, a Georgian architecture nut who was to go on to become president of the RA and founder of the Georgian Group. He was an ideal choice at a time when to be into 18th Century Architecture was rare – many historic buildings were merely being torn down and rebuilt in modern style. St Alfege escaped that fate and was restored, as far as possible, to Hawksmoor’s design and using, wherever Richardson could, the original materials, reinstated and blended with the new – again, not something common in the mid 20th Century.

The present congration are probably grateful for the little concession to modernity that Richardson did allow – underfloor heating. The only thing that just couldn’t be replicated in its original intricacy was the pulpit – but then it was by Grinling Gibbons who was a genius and you can’t replicate genius.

All the time that the church was being restored, one aisle under the North Gallery was partitioned off to become a ‘church within a church’. It was used for services, weddings, baptisms, funerals – everything – until the Bishop of Southwark rededicated the church of St Alfege on 18th April 1953. The church was originally dedicated on the 29th September and the current parishioners are using the period in between the two dates to create a collection of memories and memorabilia of the time.

They’re looking for people with memories, anecdotes, photos – anything to do with the Blitz and its aftermath. From anyone who might remember sheltering in the crypt while the bombs whistled overhead, to people who might have been christened, got married or worshipped in the church within a church, whose relatives or friends might have worked on the restoration or even gone to the rededication ceremony.

If you’ve got any info, Jenny Bracey, the church administrator, would love to hear from you. Email her at
jenny.bracey@st-alfege.org.uk, telephone at 020 8853 0687 or write to St Alfege Church, Greenwich Church Street, London SE10 9BJ.

While we’re on the subject, I notice that Stephen of Blitzwalkers is running another of his hugely popular walks on Sunday 19th May. The usual rules apply – meet at All Saints Church at 11 a.m., and finish at St Alfege’s Church two and a half hours later. Pre-booking at www.blitzwalkers.co.uk or you can simply bowl up on the day. The cost is £9 per head.


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