Tag Archives: London churches

Site Unseen: St. Alphage, London Wall

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

Surrounded by modern office blocks, themselves replacing their post-war counterparts, are the remains of an ancient church.

[I]T CARRIES THE SAME NAME as the dual-carriageway (the only such road in the City) that runs alongside its remains. St. Alphage was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death. He had been captured by Vikings whose motivation was to hold the Primate hostage to demand a ransom for his release.

The cleric refused to accede to their demands and in a drunken frenzy, the Vikings pelted the Archbishop with cattle bones. A Christian convert, not wishing to see the leader of his faith meet his demise by a medium-rare steak, administered the fatal blow with his axe, thus ensuring the victim’s martyrdom.

The remains of the church which was once built into London Wall remained forgotten for years. During World War II bombing uncovered parts of the Roman wall behind the church. Post-war reconstruction hemmed what remained of the base of its tower, which dated from the 14th century, making it virtually inaccessible.

Recent redevelopment along London Wall has made the ground level access more pedestrian-friendly with an adjacent small garden.

Featured image: Inside St. Alphage’s Tower before the latest landscaping by Tiger (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Around 1300 William Elsing, a London merchant founded a hospital (known as St Mary Elsing Spital) by London Wall. Originally a secular establishment, but with an existing priory church (part of the Benedictine nunnery of St Mary-within-Cripplegate), the hospital was taken over by Austin Friars in 1340. Seized by Henry VIII in 1536 as part of the Dissolution, the hospital was closed, but the church was adopted as the new parish church of St Alphage Cripplegate to replace an existing parish church, one of several in the London area dedicated to the martyred 10th-century Archbishop of Canterbury (whose name is also variously written as Ælfheah, Alphe, Alphege, Elphege or Alfege).

The church was substantially rebuilt in the late 18th century and again after damage during the First World War, but in 1917 the parish was amalgamated with that of St Mary Aldermanbury and the church became redundant. Most of the building was demolished in 1923, and the rest (apart from these scant remains) were removed in 1962 to make way for traffic along London Wall. Modern redevelopment has opened up this dramatic view from the high-level walkway down into the fern-filled base of the crossing tower.

Pull and let go

His most famous sermon, took as its central theme ’Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, John Wesley the father of Methodism would spend his winters in London.

Known as a circuit preacher he would spend his summer time riding around the country on horseback preaching to communities the virtues of Methodism, returning when travel along the byways of rural England became impossible.

[H]is first Methodist chapel operated out of an old cannon factory – a strange choice for those that extol pacifism – just behind the existing site of Wesley’s Chapel in City Road, which gives a fascinating insight of Victorian piety.

In Wesley’s house adjacent to the Chapel there is a fascinating contraption. To strengthen his legs during his time in London Wesley had a chair made especially to replicate the sensation of being on a horse, to ensure the muscles in his legs, important for horse riding didn’t deteriorate.

In keeping with his philosophy of cleanness Wesley had a splendid gent’s toilet installed in the chapel manufactured by the pioneer of water closets, George Jennings.

Dating from 1899 this immaculately preserved shrine to cleanliness is still in use. Designed to the highest standards, Jennings is less well known as his memorably named counterpart, Thomas Crapper, a man who has since stolen the lavatorial limelight.

Gleaming hand basins dressed with red mottled marble, ceramic urinals (which thoughtfully include bull’s eye targets and marble modesty screens) and an array of well proportioned wooden cubicles not unlike a row of confessional boxes.

The instruction to ’Pull and Let Go’ on the cistern handles would have appealed to the congregation’s high principles as this simple action released the water to cleanse away the body’s impurities.

Further parallels are to be found. Waxed cedar wood seats (not unlike pews) lift to reveal the proud lettering: The Venerable.

Curiously these are the exact words carved on John Wesley’s tomb behind the church.