“The most solemn and awfull appearance”

This is the latest in an occasional series of photo essays on the events that happened at places I have photographed. I am always struck by the sense of time that has passed and the momentous events that have occurred at the place I have chosen to photograph. This series explores some of those moments from some of my favourite places. This one looks at a number of different places across London that have fascinated me since I came here thirty years ago.

Some of the photographs from this project will appear in my 2022 calendar which will shortly be on sale. Click here for more information and check back to see when the calendar is available.


A bad tempered and bitterly fought general election which resulted in a trouncing for the losing party and the winning party in hoc to some of its more extreme elements.

Sounds familiar?

This was actually the election of 1710 when the Tories stormed to power over the Whigs (the precursors of today’s Liberal Democrat party) with a 150 seat majority. In an age when England was largely a theocracy they won on the back of a fear that the Church of England, the established church, was losing its power. The Whigs had introduced policies which gave freedom of worship to dissenting Protestants such as Methodists and Baptists. This was seen as too much for the extreme elements of the Tory Party who rallied under a three word slogan, “Church in Danger”.

Following their success and after many years in the wilderness the Tories were quick to act. In 1711 they passed the Act of Occasional Conformity which made it harder for dissenters to qualify for public office, and in 1714 the Schism Act made Dissenting Academies illegal. But they wanted to do more to assert the authority of the state and in a theocracy what better way than building a lot of religious buildings?

St Anne’s Church, Limehouse, was one of the churches built in the rapidly expanding eastern suburbs of London
as a part of the Fifty New Churches Act

The established Church of England, through its network of parishes and churches, played its part in bolstering the authority of the state and maintaining social order. Trouble was there weren’t enough churches to go around especially in London which had experienced rapid population growth over the last two hundred years. This was keenly felt to the east of the city where once rural districts were quickly turning into extraordinarily large and densely populated parishes, the most notable being Stepney.

It was in areas such as this that the  priest  of one overgrown parish, writing early in the reign of George I, put it:

“… the Vilest People, Highwaymen, Housebreakers, felons of all degrees. Impudent Women and Persons disaffected to His Majesty’s Government, take Harbour and fly to their haunts therein as Vermin to their Kennels, after they have taken their Prey: and this, as the Case stands at present, with too much security.”

The Fifty New Churches Act

To counter the joint threats of the non-conformists and the growing population of the East End, and to provide a fitting symbol of the power of the state, the Fifty New Churches Act was passed. Its purpose was to build

“…fifty new churches of Stone and other proper Materials with towers or Steeples to each of them … in or near the Cities of London and Westminster, or the suburbs thereof.”

Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect and one of the commissioners appointed to oversee the implementation of the Act (and, notwithstanding his fervour for this piece of legislation, a Whig) wrote:

“The fifty new Churches the Queen has gloriously promoted the building of in London and Westminster should not only serve for ye accommodation of ye inhabitants …, but at ye same time remain monuments to posterity of her piety and grandure, & by consequence become ornaments to ye Town & a credit to ye Nation.”

 Vanbrugh felt that in order to assert their authority the new churches had to be of “the most Solemn and Awfull Appearance both within and without.” The sheer grandeur of the project can be seen in the cost of some of the churches, of which only one was to cost less than £10,000 (a rebuild) and at least two of which were to cost four times that amount each. St Johns, Westminster was one of the more elaborate; it and St. Pauls, Deptford, both designed by Thomas Archer, were built in a highly baroque style, a very theatrical form of architecture which  had originated in Rome in the seventeenth century. It made extensive use of ornate detailing internally and externally.

The architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, and a student of Christopher Wren’s, is perhaps the most famous name associated with the Fifty Churches. He made use of baroque elements but his churches were of a more austere nature, coming closest to Vanbrugh’s “Solemn and Awfull Appearance.” He had been appointed surveyor to the Commissioners of the Act in 1711 and held the post until his death in 1736.

The most uncompromising of his churches is perhaps Christ Church, Spitalfields, an aggressive, monumental church. Its portico has massive pillars with a central arch breaking through the horizontal on its way to the steeple, serving to emphasise its stature.

Hawksmoor was also the architect of the only church to be built in the City: St Mary Wolnoth, a small yet monumental church looking like a stocky pugilist muscling its way through the buildings that surround it. Within, it belies its small exterior with a disproportionately high roof supported in each corner by three massive columns.

St Mary, Wolnoth, small but monumental; the only church built under the Fifty New Churches Act in the City of London

Baroque architecture was perfectly suited to the aspirations of the High Church Tories. It had arisen in a city where state and church were inextricably linked and presented in solid form the evidence of that connection. In England, however, it was to last only a brief time as an interlude between Inigo Jones’ cool classicism of the mid-seventeenth century and neo-Palladianism (in many ways a revival of Jones) in the later eighteenth century. It was during this interlude that the last fling of High Church Toryism occurred before its subsidence in the face of Whig ascendancy.

By 1714 the Tory dominance was over; in that year they fell from power and the following year a further Act was passed setting up a new Commission. Whereas the previous one had included such architects as Wren, Vanbrugh and Archer, the new Commission contained none. Indeed thee was a feeling of embarrassment at having to carry through the Act.

This may have been to do with the expense of the project. In 1717 the Commission protested at having to rebuild old churches, pleading that building should be done in “Rubble, Brick [and] Brick coin’d with stone,” instead of just Stone and finally decided to build no more churches “till we find ourselves in a condition to discharge the Contracts that are made or shall be made for finishing the Churches now in building.”

With the Whigs back in power and a more favourable view of dissenters, the baroque style of High Toryism fell out of favour.  The Scottish architect, Colen Campbell, in his work Vitruvius Britannicus, published in 1715, was scathing of the baroque style calling it “affected and licentious” and endeavouring “to debauch Mankind”. He praised the earlier Italian architects such as Palladio alongside Inigo Jones for their cool classical style of architecture.

In 1715, following a putsch at the Royal Works, the office which undertook the building and repair of the monarch’s property, Campbell became the chief clerk. Out went Wren to be replaced by an amateur architect, William Benson (another Whig). His brother, “lately come from a merchant in Ireland” replaced Hawksmoor as the Clerk of Works.

Within a short time there had been a backlash against those who had been involved with the earlier churches and their design began to change. This can particularly be seen in the case of St Giles-in-the-Fields. Hawskmoor was amongst those who put forward a design but the tender went to Henry Flitcroft, “Burlington Harry”, a one-time joiner on the estate of Lord Burlington, a champion of the neo-Palladian movement. James Ralph commended Flitcroft’s church as being “the most simple and elegant of the modern structures: it is rais’d at very little expence, has very few ornaments, and little beside the propriety of its parts, and the harmony of the whole to excite attention, and challenge applause.” Ralph, “Mr Rafe the Critick” as Hawksmoor called him, thought much of the other churches built under the Act “mere Gothique heaps of stone, without form or order.”

Flitcroft ultimately presented a bill of £8,436 19s and 6d (£8,436/19/6d). Cost had become a very important factor and in 1719 work came to a halt in order to pay off outstanding debts. Five years later the Commission was obliged to admit:

“… that ye Expence of building with stones. Purchasing Scites for Churches, Church yards and Ministers’ Houses, is so very great and does so far exceed the Calculations formerly made, that ye Committee conceive it will be utterly impracticable to build one half of the Churches first proposed.”

As a cost-cutting exercise the Commission in 1727 asked Hawksmoor and his then colleague, John James to build two new churches and rectories on a £10,000 budget for each. The results, St John, Horsleydown and St Luke Old Street, are more straightforward (bar their idiosyncratic steeples – Hawksmoor’s influence).

The spire of St Luke’s, Old Street, Hawksmoor’s contribution to the one of the last churches built under the terms of the Fifty New Churches Act

So the venture petered out. Cost cutting, political changes and a change in architectural tastes brought it to an end. Of the Fifty New Churches only ten were built (and two of those rebuilds).  Efforts to assert the authority of the Church and the State through the building of grandiose churches had failed. It would become the last major church building exercise until the Victorian era when a similar panic about the threat to the Church of England’s authority broke out. It was part of the long retreat of England as a theocracy.

However it has produced some of the most dramatic buildings in London. I first became aware of them when I was doing my history degree and ever since I have been drawn back to them, especially to the strangely unnerving designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Published by Stephen Taylor

Freelance e-learning developer and instructional designer, photographer and cyclist

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