Christ Church Spitalfields

Christ Church, Spitalfields is an Anglican church built between 1714 and 1729 to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Situated on Commercial Street, in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, on the eastern border and facing the City of London, it was one of the first (and arguably one of the finest) of the so-called "Commissioners' Churches" built for the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, which had been established by an Act of Parliament in 1711.

The purpose of the Commission was to acquire sites and build fifty new churches to serve London’s new settlements. This parish was carved out of the huge medieval Stepney parish for an area then dominated by Huguenots (French Protestants and other 'dissenters' who owed no allegiance to the Church of England and thus to the King) as a show of Anglican authority. Some Huguenots used it for baptisms, marriages and burials but not for everyday worship, preferring their own chapels (their chapels were severely plain compared with the bombastic English Baroque style of Christ Church) though increasingly they assimilated into English life and Anglican worship—which was in the eighteenth century relatively plain.

The Commissioners for the new churches included Christopher Wren, Thomas Archer and John Vanbrugh appointed two surveyors, one of whom was Nicholas Hawksmoor. Only twelve of the planned fifty churches were built, of which six were designed by Hawksmoor.

Architecture

The architectural composition of Christ Church demonstrates Hawksmoor’s usual abruptness: the very plain rectangular box of the nave is surmounted at its west end by a broad tower of three stages topped by a steeple more Gothic than classical.The magnificent porch with its semi circular pediment and Tuscan columns is attached bluntly to the west end: it may indeed be a late addition to the design intended to add further support to the tower. Like those of Hawksmoor’s other London churches and many of Wren’s, the central space is of the nave is organised around two axes, the shorter originally emphasised by two entrances of which only that to the south remains. It has a richly decorated flat ceiling and is lit by a clerestory. The aisles are roofed with elliptical barrel-vaults carried on a raised Composite order (cf. Wren’s St James's, Piccadilly), and the same order is used for the screens across the east and west ends. The Venetian window at the east may show the growing influence of the revival of Palladian Architecture, or it may be a rhyme with the arched pediment of the entrance portico, repeated in the wide main stage of the tower. The east window is a double window, one inside, one outside, the effect now obscured by the Victorian stained glass window between the two.

Alterations

The church was savagely altered in 1850 by Ewan Christian (better known as architect of London’s National Portrait Gallery), who removed the side galleries, blocked in the windows at the corners of the central space, and cobined upper and lower aisle windows to make tall, thin windows. After years of neglect, the church was restored to its pre-1850 condition, working from the original building documents where possible, aprocess that stretched over more than 25 years. The restoration revealed the most complex and sumptuous of Hawksmoor’s interiors in London. Key players in the restoration were Andrew "Red" Mason (Job architect and building historian from 1976-2004), Revd. Eddie Stride (Rector), Eric Elstob (Chair of The Friends of Christ Church), Howard Kenward, Derek Stride, and Hosten Garroway (Wardens), The Hon Simon Sainsbury, benefactor, and Heritage Lottery Fund. The architects from 1972-2000 were Whitfield Partners, and from 2000 Purcell Miller Tritton.

Organ

The organ in the church was inaugurated in 1735, the work of Richard Bridge, a most celebrated builder of the time. With over two thousand pipes it was, when built, the largest organ in England, a record it held for over a hundred years. In the nineteenth century work was done at various times and further changes were made in the 1920s; remarkably, much of the original Richard Bridge organ survives. The organ became derelict and has not been heard in public since about 1960. The magnificent organ case, largely of walnut, and the completeness of the Georgian survivals make this a historic instrument of national importance. The involvement of local expert Michael Gillingham was very largely responsible for the decision to have it restored to working condition. The organ parts were dismantled and removed for safe keeping and to protect them from damage during the restoration of the building. A scheme of conservative restoration is being prepared by organ builder William Drake and fund-raising for it is already under way for it will be the crowning glory of the restored church.

Restoration

By 1960 Christ Church was nearly derelict and services were held in the Church Hall (an ex Huguenot Chapel) as the roof of Christ Church itself was declared unsafe. The Hawksmoor Committee staved off the threat of wholesale demolition of the empty building—proposed by the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddleston—and ensured that the roof was rebuilt with funds from the sale of the bombed out shell of St John's, Smith Square, now a concert hall. A rehabilitation centre for homeless alcoholic men was housed in part of the crypt from the 1960s until 2000 when it relocated to purpose built accommodation above ground. In 1976 the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields was formed to restore the church and to bring this Grade I Listed Building back into use: parish worship returned in 1987.

As part of the restoration process, the burial vaults beneath the church had to be cleared. Instead of hiring a commercial undertaker for this job, the Friebnds of Christ Church fundraised for the employment of an archaeological team, who excavated nearly 1000 interments between 1984 and 1986. Of these, about 390 were identifiable from coffin name plates. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists took this opportunity to study Victorian mortuary practices and anthropology, including health and causes of death of the local population. The project was written up as a two-volume landmark study.

The portico at the west end was repaired and cleaned in 1986, when Ewan Christian's re-arrangement of the aisle windows was also replaced by a recreation of the originals, scrupulously researched. The 202 ft tower and spire were consolidated and cleaned in 1997. The south façade was cleaned and repaired in 1999 revealing the striking whiteness and beauty of the Portland stone and the delicate detailing, both so quickly obscured by weather and city pollution. At the same time Hawksmoor’s magnificent double flight of steps on the south side, which was removed in the nineteenth century, was rebuilt. In addition, the gate piers of the Rectory yard were repaired and the large iron gates restored. Regency style railings to the churchyard, removed in World War II, were replaced. The north and east façades were repaired and cleaned in 1999–2000. The restoration of the interior, begun in 2000 and completed in 2004. This has restored the fabric of the church, removed the nineteenth- and twentieth-century alterations, reinstating the original arrangement of galleries following careful building archaeology to establish their original pattern; and has recaptured the proportions, light and clarity of Hawksmoor’s original design.

Building Activity

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