The East End has not always had the best reputation, especially with people running the City of London who tended to think of its residents as being a bit beneath them. In the 1700s, moves were made to do something to bring people living on the outskirts of the City back in line.
Famous East End Churches – Christ Church at Spitalfields.
At the time, the worry was that there weren’t enough churches to serve the “Godless thousands” living on the edges of the city. In addition, the influx of foreign nationals into the area worried City worthies. If East Enders had no churches and were living alongside foreigners with different religious beliefs, there was a worry that they would stray from the righteous path of Anglicanism.
So, in 1711, MPs in Parliament came up with the Fifty New Churches Act. This was backed by Queen Anne and funded by taxes on coal coming into London’s ports. One of these churches was Christ Church in Spitalfields. The aim of the initiative was not simply to build enough churches to service local communities – each of the fifty churches that were built had to have a spire high enough to dwarf any non-conformist places of worship that might spring up in the area around them. You’ll see just what this means if you ever visit Spitalfields – this is a very impressive building, although one critic at the time called it “one of the most absurd piles in Europe”.
At this stage, Spitalfields was classified as a hamlet and had to be given parish status before a church could be built in the area. Work started on the church in 1714 and was completed in 1729. Its surveyor was Nicholas Hawksmoor, a protégé of Sir Christopher Wren. Christ Church is considered by many people to one of Hawksmoor’s finest architectural works, if not the best one.
Over the years, Christ Church was home to many characters and established links with famous people. The Methodist minister, John Wesley, preached in the church at one point in his life. One more curious story concerns one of the church’s curates, Samuel Henshall. He made all of our lives easier by inventing the modern corkscrew in the 18th century. Henshall obviously liked using his own invention, perhaps a little too much, as he died leaving a debt of £400 to his wine merchant!
Christ Church was also embroiled in a fairly big scandal in the 1820s. The church’s vestrymen ordered some work and new furnishings that racked up a very expensive bill, leaving the church with a significant debt. There was also some doubt over whether they had given contracts to fellow vestrymen and their contacts. This led to an investigation by a parliamentary Select Committee and to a change in regulations on how much power vestries had in churches from that point onwards.
Christ Church Spitalfields Restoration
After centuries of worship in its local community, Christ Church became extremely run-down. In the late 1950s, it was classed as derelict and unsuitable to hold services. There was a period when it looked like the church would be demolished, but a lobby group that included the famous poet, John Betjeman, managed to save the building and restoration work started.
This has been going on until relatively recently, although the church reopened for public worship in the 1980s. The original estimate to restore the church was set at £1 million – it actually ended up costing £10 million to get things exactly right. The restoration aimed to recreate the church in its original glory and has, to date, won seven awards.
The restoration project unearthed some interesting information about the local area and its inhabitants. During the 1980s, the restoration team moved into the crypt. Around 1,000 bodies were excavated and examined before the crypt was put back together again. The lessons learned during this excavation helped change the techniques that archaeologists now use to establish dates.
This is a large church for the area with a relatively small congregation. To remain viable, it has also developed a reputation as a classical music venue, arts gallery and concert hall. It is, for example, one of the main venues used during the Spitalfields music festivals each year. It has also hosted events to celebrate the work of famous local artists, Gilbert and George, and has even put on some music gigs by Mika and The Feeling.
Christ Church is one of the finest churches
Following its restoration, Christ Church is one of the finest churches in the East End, and probably in London. If you are in the Spitalfields area, it is well worth a visit. Entrance is free (although donations are appreciated), and the church is open from 10am to 4pm during the week and from 1pm to 4pm on Sundays. You can also arrange guided tours for groups of more than ten people, although this comes with a charge.