St Augustine's Tower Hackney

St Augustine's Tower stands in St Johns' Church Gardens, in Hackney Central, in the London Borough of Hackney, just off the southern end of the Narrow Way (formerly Church Street). It is all that remains of the early 16th century parish church of Hackney of St Augustine, which replaced the 13th century medieval church founded by the Knights Templar. The tower consists of four stages beneath a restored parapet with diagonal buttressing. A fine working 16th century turret clock has been on the third floor of the tower since at least 1608. The Tower and contents are Grade I listed.

St Augustine's Church

The parish church of Hackney became a sinecure rectory in 1275. This meant there was both a vicar and a rector for the parish, both positions were in the gift of the Bishop of London, and the parish served the entire area of the current London Borough until the parish was divided in the 18th century. Many of the position holders were absentee pluralists (they had other jobs, and Hackney just formed a part of their income). From the 14th century to the 17th century the church was dedicated to St Augustine. But from about 1660, the church was dedicated to St John of Jerusalem, St John the Baptist, and known as St John at Hackney, representing the links of the parish with the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

The church tower was constructed as part of the early 16th century rebuilding of the church itself, commemorated by the arms of Sir John Heron (d. 1521) carved between each arch of the nave and also placed, with those of the rector Christopher Urswick (d. 1522), in the chancel. Thereafter the church consisted of a chancel, aisled and clerestoreyed nave, and south-west tower. The so-called Rowe chapel, properly a mausoleum, was built on the south side of the chancel in 1614 and a vestry was added on the north side. In 1741, the church measured 105 feet (32.0 m) along its north wall and 64 feet (19.5 m) across; the tower bore a vane surmounted by a crown which reached to 118 feet (36.0 m). The walls, with fenestration of c.1500, showed a variety of materials, as they did at the time of the church's demolition, when the exterior presented 'an incomprehensible jumble of dissonant repairs, without a trace of the original building, except the windows of part of it'. Blackburn died suddenly in November 1790; James Spiller, a friend of John Soane, was chosen from six architect candidates to replace him as designer of the new church.

In Tudor times, many members of the court used the church, including Ralph Sadleir (Bryck Place), Thomas Sutton (The Tan House), Thomas Cromwell and the Earl of Northumberland (Brooke House). Samuel Pepys visited the church in 1667, after resting at the local Mermaid Inn, he remarked on the fine organ but confessed in his diary that which we went chiefly to see was the young ladies of the schools, whereof this is great store, very pretty. Hackney being renowned for its girls schools, at the time.

The constant increase in Hackney's population meant that galleries were added to the church, and by 1789 it could hold a congregation of 1,000. This was still inadequate to the needs of the parish, and on the advice of architect William Blackburn, the vestry petitioned Parliament in 1790, for the church's complete rebuilding at an adjacent site to the North. Blackburn died suddenly in November 1790; James Spiller, a friend of John Soane, was chosen from six architect candidates to replace him as designer of the new church.

The body of the old church was pulled down in 1798, with many of the monuments preserved in the new Church of St John-at-Hackney. The stone was sold as building material. The extent of the original church is marked by four cornerstones to the East of the tower. The tower remained to house the eight bells of Hackney, these were finally relocated in the new church in 1854, after the new church tower was underpinned to take the weight.

In modern times

The tower was subsequently used as a public mortuary, and a tool shed for the gardens of St John. The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney became responsible for the maintenance of the tower and gardens in 1912. In more recent times, the tower was made safe in 1983; and has been used for occasional art exhibits. It is normally open as part of London Open House each year. Since 1990, the tower has been in the care of the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust. A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has made possible repairs and improvements and a permanent exhibition on the history of the tower, and its church, has now opened to the public on Sundays. It is now possible to climb the narrow winding stairway to the roof.

St John's Church Gardens, around the tower and later church were awarded both a Green Flag award, and Green Flag Heritage status, in 2008.

Building Activity

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