Little remains of the original 16th century parish church that once stood in Hackney and served the local population’s religious needs for centuries. But, luckily, its historic church tower has been preserved even though the church itself was demolished in 1798.
If you find yourself in the Hackney area on a day when it is open to the public, it gives you the perfect chance to take a look around a Grade I listed church tower with some exceptional 16th century features and a fantastic panoramic view over London. This is the oldest building in Hackney; the historical significance of this landmark tower can be seen in its depiction in the borough’s coat of arms.
The history of St Augustine’s Tower
The original parish church in Hackney was built in the 13th century when the parish became a sinecure rectory with permission to have a vicar and a rector. At this point Hackney was a small village on the outskirts of London. The church was originally dedicated to St Augustine, although in the 17th century it was re-dedicated to St John, becoming known as St John-at-Hackney. The tower is, however, still called the St Augustine’s Tower.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the church was developed and extended to meet the needs of the growing local population. The church could count some significant figures in its congregation including Henry VIII’S right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, and his protégée, Sir Ralph Sadleir. Sadleir lived in Hackney and was responsible for building another of the area’s best known and most historic buildings, Sutton House.
The church reached its peak during the 18th century when it was able to hold a congregation of around 1,000 people; however, this capacity was still not big enough for local needs and a decision was made to rebuild the main church completely. The original buildings were therefore pulled down in 1798. The original plan was to also demolish the tower that still stands today, however the new church was not capable of holding bells at this point. So, the tower was left in place with its bells to serve the new church until it could hold its own bells.
The tower remained under threat of demolition, especially after the new church solved its problems with bells. It was used for various purposes during this time. At one point, it became a local public mortuary and was also used as a tool storage area for the gardeners working on the new church’s gardens. It remained in a state of flux until 1929.
At this point, the tower was purchased by the local council who decided it should not be pulled down but should be preserved for its historical significance. Over the years, some minor renovations and repairs were carried out; however, the main renovation work did not really start in earnest until the 1980s.
It took until the 2000s for full renovations to be completed. This ultimately restored the original clock and made the inside of the building safe to access. There is now a permanent exhibition in the tower and visitors can look round it and climb to its roof at certain times.
The clock at St Augustine’s Tower
The tower is not the only think to look at when you visit — the clock at St Augustine’s is interesting in itself. It is thought to have been put in place in the 16th or 17th centuries and is a fine example of a church clock of the period. It needed to be wound by hand for over 400 years and played a pivotal role in the lives of local residents for many centuries. When it was put in place, it was the only way for the public to tell the time in Hackney village. There are four floors in St Augustine’s Tower and three of them house part of the clock and its workings.
Visiting St Augustine’s Tower
The public can access the tower once a month on the last Sunday of the month. It is also sometimes open on other special days, such as London Open House days. It opens from 2pm to 4.30pm. Going up the tower does involve climbing a fair few steps in its narrow spiral staircase, so you do need to be comfortable climbing in a confined space if you want to go to the roof.
If you prefer, you can stay on the ground floor where there is an interactive kiosk where you can view a virtual reality panorama view as it is seen from the top of the tower. The interior of the tower has been fully restored and is well worth a visit in its own right. The view from the top of the tower gives you a great vista over Hackney and the East End of London.