The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe. (2/4)

St. Anne’s, Limehouse. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

St. Anne’s, Limehouse, was built by Hawksmoor, 1712-30, one of his three churches in the East End which alone make a worthwhile pilgrimage: the other two are St. George in the East and Christ Church, Spitalfields. All were begun within a few years of each other. As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. These three churches were built as necessities, but there is nothing utilitarian about them. Their originality continues to surprise us. Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value them is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.

David Secombe:

Christ Church, Spitalfields, was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s six London churches have experienced a revival in general, and have become talismans for those who seek to pursue a hidden or mystical history of the city. Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor elaborates upon ideas proposed by Ian Sinclair that Hawksmoor’s churches map an Eye of Horus upon the capital, whilst Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. Psychogeography aside, the massiveness and intensity of Hawksmoor’s designs have a slightly forbidding quality– and his monumental East End churches must have appeared anomalous and strange to those living in the surrounding Georgian and Victorian slums. In the 21st century, however, Christ Church looks anomalous for a different reason: the deadly corporatised make-over of Spitalfields market has transformed the area into Covent Garden East, and Hawksmoor’s magnificent creation now looms over a retail theme park safe for hipsters and their friends.

… for The London Column. 



The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe (1/4)

Limehouse. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

My chief pleasures in Limehouse are confined to a small area, centering on the church of St. Anne. The undertaker’s opposite the church is a rare example of popular art. Even today, East End funerals are often florid affairs – it is only a few years since I saw a horse-drawn one – but such undertaker’s as [the one in the above photo] must be becoming rare, so it is worth study. It is hall-marked Victorian. The shop front is highly ornate and painted black, gold and purple. Two classical statues hold torches, and there achievements of arms in the window and also inside the parlour. The door announces ‘Superior funerals at lowest possible charges’. On one side of the window is a mirror on which is painted the most depressing subject possible – a female figure in white holding on (surely not like grim death?) to a stone cross and below her are the waves of a tempestuous sea. Inside the shop are strip lights – the only innovation to break up the harmony of this splendid period piece – a selection of coffin handles and other ironmongery and a photograph of Limehouse church. As I looked, a workman, with a mouthful of nails, was hammering at a coffin. An unpleasant Teutonic thought occurred to me that, at this very moment, the future occupant of the coffin might well be at home enjoying his jellied eels . . . Undertaker’s parlours of such Victorian quality must be enjoyed before it is too late. This one mentioned is, I believe, the best in London. People stare through the windows of undertakers – at what? Unless they are connoisseurs of Victoriana there seems to me little beyond the elaboration of terror and a frowsy dread that has no name.

David Secombe:

The shop Geoffrey Fletcher rhapsodised over fifty years ago remains in situ opposite St. Anne’s, but is now derelict. When I took this photo a couple of years ago, it was possible to see the remnants of the shopfront, but a matter of days later the entrance was boarded up and the last remnant of the Victorian throwback that Fletcher described with such relish disappeared from view. This week we are running a small selection of excerpts from Fletcher’s classic, alongside contemporary views of the sights he delineated so lovingly.  Fletcher’s book is a kind of requiem for an older, more private city – and although his fears about the fate of many individual buildings proved to be unfounded, Londoners are faced with a new wave of monolithic redevelopment. In our current era of corporate-sponsored ‘regeneration’, the final words of the book seem truer than ever: ‘Off-beat London is hopelessly out of date, and it simply does not pay. I hope, therefore, that this book will be a stimulus to explore the under-valued parts of London before it is too late, before it vanishes as if it had never been. The old London was essentially a domestic city, never a grandiose or bombastic one. Its architecture was therefore scaled to human proportions. Of the new London, the London of take-over bids and soul-destroying office blocks, the less said, the better’.

… for The London Column.