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St Mary Abchurch, London - Walks with a Vicar [with video]

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St Mary Abchurch, London – Walks with a Vicar [with video]

On Friday 9 November 2018, I had a day in London with Claire., and we did four City churches. We started with St Mary Abchurch (Abchurch Lane, EC4N 7BA) which was a very good place to start. The Friends of City Churches have their offices here, and we could get a map. There are 48 churches, and Claire has started ticking them off. (The website is pretty good telling us which churches are open and when). This is the Friends website, and they are on facebook. They also produce a City Events leaflet every month, listing services, talks, organ recitals, etc. I didn’t know that Simon (of Simon’s Suffolk Churches and Simon’s Norfolk Churches) has also done some of the London ones – website.

A church has stood on this site since the C12. The name might come from a benefactor called Abba (Scandinavian presumably), or be the church up the hill. ‘Robert the priest of Habechirce’ is mentioned in the C12, and their first Rector was ‘Luke the Supervisor’ in 1323. The medieval building was described as ‘a fair church’. It burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666 – all that was left was three pieces of altar plate and the church registers.

St Mary Church London
St Mary Abchurch in London – Diamond Geezer

In 1674 they erected a temporary church in the ruins – it takes a while for anything to happen in the Church of England – and work begun on the present building in 1681. As you would expect, it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The ruins of the old church were cleared away, and the dome of the new one is an architectural tour de force – it is over 40 feet across, has no external thrusts, and stands on four plain brick walls without the need of any buttresses. It cost £4,922 2s 4d.

Video below via Visit Places

The dome painting was added in 1708 when the church was ‘repaired and beautified’. It was the work of William Snow, citizen and painter stainer, and a parishioner. (Sometimes it is said that the painter was Sir James Thornhill, who painted the dome of St Paul’s – the guide assures me this is wrong). It cost £170. It was very badly damaged in the blitz, but has been skilfully repaired. It depicts the worship of heaven – the Divine Name in Hebrew characters in the centre, surrounded by rays of glory with worshipping figures of angels of cherubs. The seated figures represent the Christian virtues.

The dome was painted by local artist William Snow, in 1709
The dome was painted by local artist William Snow, in 1709 – Duncan

Even lovelier is what has been described as “a treasury of C17 art”. The reredos with its limewood carving by Grinling Gibbons is the only authenticated work of his in any city church (excluding St Paul’s). His receipts are in the parish records, now in the Guildhall library. Most of the best craftsmen of the day, gathered together by Wren, worked on this church. The pulpit was made by William Grey, and the door cases, font covers and rails, Royal Arms and Lion and Unicorn were carved by William Emmett. The original high pews remain on the three sides of the church; beneath those on the south side there used to be kennels, supposedly to enable worshippers to bring their dogs!

On the front two pews are wrought iron sword-rests to support the civic sword when the Lord Mayor attends a service in state. They carry the arms of two Lord Mayors who were also parishioners, Samuel Birch (1814) and George Scholey (1812). The font was made by William Kempster, whose brother Christopher was the master mason responsible for all the stonework of the church and for the carved cherubs over the windows outside. I like the donation pot too.

The organ dates to 1822, it was built by J.C. Bishop and later enlarged. It was badly damaged during the war and was replaced by this instrument by N.P. Mander Ltd. The carved oak front of the case dates from 1717 and comes from the church of All Hallow, Bread Street, which was demolished in 1877. There is a lot about the organist Cecil Keith Foyle Wright on this website, including his obituary. “There is no doubt that if his life had been spared he would have made an honourable place and a successful career for himself as an organist.”

There are some other splendid memorials, but I’ll just include one. Sir Patience Ward was Lord Mayor in 1680. When my time comes, I want a weeping cherub.

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St Mary Abchurch, London - Walks with a Vicar [with video]

It’s an intriguing church from outside too – is the square over the fire hydrant a WW2 addition? Bank station is being redeveloped – details here – and the story of the church is told on the hoarding. I’m know that Bank serves 52 million people a year, so £600 million spent is not a lot – but it would be nice if some of that investment came North (it is three times what they spent on Derby this summer).

The majority of this article was originally posted by retired Rev Peter Barham on his website Northern Vicar.

Written By

Now retired, Rev Peter Barham is the Northern Vicar, a lover of exploring the UK and it's cultural heritage, we share his exploration diaries.

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