A Report of the Society’s Visit to Christ Church Spitalfields on 25 January 2012
Thank God for neglect! Mauling by the Victorians and then neglect to the point of dereliction by the late 1950’s provided the opportunity to restore this beautiful Hawksmoor baroque church, not just to its former glory but to its original 1729 glory; a shining beacon in this run down and deprived area of East London. Yet in the late 1950’s it was deemed unsafe for the congregation to use and destined to be demolished – something that Hitler had failed to do (although the crypt replete with coffins was used as an air raid shelter!). A committee (The Hawksmoor Committee) was formed to raise public awareness and campaign for the church’s retention, which they achieved with great success in spite of the then Bishop of Stepney’s views (Trevor Huddleston). Although the church was saved, it remained derelict for many years. Then in 1976 the Friends of Christ Church was formed to raise money for its restoration at a cost in excess of £10 million, which took until 2004, although parish worship was able to return in 1987. Restoration is not quite complete: funds are still needed to restore the original 1735 Richard Bridge Organ, the pulpit and the lectern. The result is a church much as the original architect intended, considered his masterpiece at the time and the size of a small cathedral, extensively using the original timber and other materials. The only Victorian feature retained is the 1876 stained glass east window which was too good to remove.
From a genealogy point of view there is wealth of information available, starting with the Natural History Museum! The crypt contained 1000 iron coffins, piled high and even stood on end in every available space. Yet the coffins had been so perfectly sealed that the contents had been preserved; clothes and bodies. The value of this to historians, archeologists and even scientists was recognised, eventually resulting in the coffins being ‘loaned’ to the Natural History Museum in the 1980’s for research, where they are due to remain for another 10 years. Every coffin was clearly inscribed and an index is available from the museum. A further 68,000 burials have taken place in the churchyard, many in similar iron coffins. These have all been reinterred but the church hold records of the bodies that could be identified. In the past, the church has also been connected with both the East London Huguenots and Jewish communities, particularly the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews who placed a number of memorial tablets in the church.
A fabulous building well worth a visit if you can but with a great deal more information and photographs on their web sites. http://www.christchurchspitalfields.org/v2/home/home.shtmland http://www.ccspitalfields.org/ The internet is also a good source of information about Nicholas Hawksmoor who was a pupil and protege of Christopher Wren, responsible for many notable buildings in England including six London churches erected under the 1711 Act for Fifty New Churches.
© 2012, Society of Genealogists. All rights reserved.
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