Books

The history of London through its parish churches

Michael Hodges’s colourful guide is a welcome reminder of the sheer scale and number of churches that survived the Blitz

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

Parish Churches of Greater London: A Guide Michael Hodges

The Heritage of London Trust, pp.446, £25, ISBN: 9780946694082

John Betjeman, the patron saint of English parish churches, once warned against praising British buildings too much. Be careful before you call Weymouth the Naples of Dorset, he said. How many Italians call Naples the Weymouth of Campania?

Saint John was spot on, of course. When it comes to the pure ideals of church architecture, London isn’t a patch on Rome or Florence. The Holy Redeemer Church in Exmouth Market, Islington, may be inspired by Santo Spirito in Florence, but it doesn’t match, let alone surpass, its beauties. Still, as Michael Hodges’s scatty book shows, my God, there’s an awful lot of beauty, and intrigue wrapped up in London’s 1,200 Anglican and Catholic churches.

Even this hefty volume can only squeeze in 420 of them. All the same, after a lifetime of London church-crawling, there are hundreds I’ve never seen. My next target is St Andrew’s, Kingsbury, home to the Greatest Hits of the Gothic Revival: altar by Pugin; litany desk by Burges; lectern by Butterfield; chancel screen, reredos, font and pulpit by Street. My cup runneth over.

Hodges throws in a lot of juicy anecdotal information. I didn’t know that T.S. Eliot worshipped at my local church, St Silas’s, Kentish Town, a miniature Albi cathedral. Or that Graham Greene got married at St Mary’s, the charming little Catholic church in the Tuscan style in Hampstead.


Collecting a lot of London churches together produces some pleasing patterns. Churches on the edge of London were less likely to be remodelled — or bombed by the Luftwaffe. So you find more Norman work in the suburbs. How I long to visit St Mary Magdalen, East Ham, with its Norman blind arcade and chancel, dominated by a clumsy-classical monument to a 17th-century Earl of Westmoreland.

The book is a reminder, too, of the sheer scale and number of Victorian Gothic churches, in London and across the country. For decades, they’ve been scorned — and, yes, just like Weymouth and Naples, they aren’t quite as heart-stopping as their ancient inspirations.

Still, they are a wonder of faith and, very often, beauty. Just before Christmas, I took refuge from Biblical volumes of rain in William Butterfield’s All Saints,
Margaret Street. I was dumbstruck by the Pre-Raphaelite scenes in the north aisle, painted on tiles by Alexander Gibbs in 1876.

At the end of last year, the General Synod of the Church of England released an honest, depressing report about how under-used English parish churches are. At least the survival of London church buildings looks assured. Alpha — the evangelical movement inspired by Holy Trinity, Brompton — has successfully
colonised several churches, including Butterfield’s Gothic colossus, St Augustine’s, Queen’s Gate.

Thanks to soaring property prices, any church — however dodgy the roof — is worth saving. St Matthew’s, a delicate Doric church in Brixton, is now shared with Babalou, a live music venue, and the Brix, a community centre. Better for God to do a deal with Mammon than be vanquished by him.

This is a chaotic ragbag of a book. The index is done by church name, not by location. So there are 65 St Mary’s churches listed together — not much use if you can’t remember the name of the church you’re looking for. It’s aimed squarely at church buffs —terms like ‘Decorated’ or ‘Perpendicular’ aren’t defined. And ruin bibbers, randy for antique — in Philip Larkin’s words —will turn first to Pevsner, who, as Hodges admits, is a major source for his book.

Michael Hodges is a fairly odd fish, too. A former banker at Morgan Grenfell and HSBC, he is keen to remind us, in the book’s mini-biography, that he is Chancellor of the Order of Malta, and is married to ‘the Hon. Victoria Addington’. But then he comes over all modest and apologises for a ‘somewhat jejune’ book. He apologises, too, for his photographs. Before embarking on this book, he admits, he hadn’t taken a picture since the late 1960s, when he owned a Brownie 127.

Still, the book is useful reminder of Betjeman’s truism: ‘Our churches are our history shown, in wood and glass and iron and stone.’

Available from: Heritage of London Trust, 34 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0DH

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • iMutti

    Wow!

  • UnionPacificRX

    One thousand two hundred Anglican and Catholic churches in London. That does not even count the other houses of worship such as Synagogues, Buddhist Viharas, Sikh Gurudwaras, Hindu Temples, Muslim Mosques, Shinto Shrines, etc. That would make London a city that ranks among the world cities where places of worship are an integral aspect of it.

  • Mark

    Britain blitzed Germany first in 1940.

    • Hamburger

      Please explain.

      • Mark

        The RAF began bombing German cities on 11 May 1940, four months before Hitler retaliated by ordering the London Blitz.

        • Hamburger

          I find only two references. The bombing if Freiberg which appears to be a German mistake: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Freiburg_on_10_May_1940 and the bombing of Mönchengladbach: http://www.geschichtsforum.de/f68/luftkrieg-m-nchengladbach-11-12-mai-1940-a-19708/. This appears to be a British mistake.
          The destruction of Warsaw in 1939 and of Rotterdam on May 14 1940 were the first strategic bombing attacks on civilian populations in WW2.

          • Mark

            The British began civilian bombing on 11 May 1940.

          • Hamburger

            If you believe that, you will believe anything!

          • Mark

            The aerial photographs prove the Rotterdam Blitz was tiny.
            The British had began blitzing Germany three days before the attack on Rotterdam.

          • Hamburger

            900 dead and 30.000 homeless is not tiny.

          • Mark

            The UK only declared war on Germany in 1914 and 1939 to preserve its empire.

          • Hamburger

            If you say so. Good night.

          • Mark

            Why else do you think we broke our pact with Poland?

    • Goinlike Billio

      The Germans bombed Rotterdam on 13th may 1940. In response the British abandoned their policy of only bombing military targets on 15th May 1940 with a bombing raid on industrial plant in the Ruhr.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotterdam_Blitz

      • Mark

        The attack on Rotterdam was on 14 May.
        The RAF began bombing German cities on 11 May 1940.

        • Goinlike Billio

          I can find no reference to this attack. You are talking about a civilian target…? . Obviously there would have been little hesitation in bombing a military target.
          The British would certainly have been keen to use bombers as at that stage of the war there was no other way of getting back at the enemy. However I think they would have needed some excuse to do so as the significance of bombing civilian targets for the first time would certainly not have been lost on them and Rotterdam provided it.
          You say that Hitler bombed Rotterdam on the 14th May. but of course that is hardly relevant as it would have been planned some time before so it was not provoked by the British bombing.

          • Mark

            The RAF bombed Monchengladbach on 11 May 1940.
            There were plenty of other ways of attacking the enemy, like at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic. Rotterdam was just an excuse, we invented civilian bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

          • Goinlike Billio

            Yes i see now what you were referring to – the stray bombs which fell on Monchengladbach. Apparently four people were killed one of whom was British ! I feel this hardly justifies the carpet bombing of Rotterdam. Perhaps that is just me.

          • Mark

            The Germans only bombed military targets in Holland, the attack on Rotterdam was massively exaggerated by the British press. The real reason for the change in strategy was Churchill replacing Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Rotterdam provided the excuse – the Cabinet records show the decision to begin bombing German cities was taken on 10 and 11 May.

          • Goinlike Billio

            See the photo …?
            I’d chuck it if I were you

          • Mark

            Exactly, the aerial photographs show how light the attack on Rotterdam was.
            I’m glad we lost the war so badly. The British had to be made aware that they were not going to continue occupying half the world by force.

  • Lawrence James.

    Small beer this review and watered with irrelevant personal comments. A book for church buffs does not need to define ‘Decorated’ and ‘Perpendicular’. This is a useful and lucid guide, and the photographs are excellent.

  • Mark

    I’m glad the UK destroyed itself and lost its empire by starting World War II.

    • Goinlike Billio

      I regret that upticking your own remark does not help to corroborate it.

      • Mark

        Are you pretending the UK did not lose its empire and become an American satellite as a direct result of World War II? Read about the Suez Crisis.

        • Goinlike Billio

          The controversial part of your remark is obviously that Britain started World War 2.

          • Mark

            Of course we did. We only declared war on Germany, even though Germany and the Soviet Union both invaded Poland at the same time.
            The UK started World War II to preserve its empire.

          • Goinlike Billio

            it ‘s hard to see the logic of going to war to defend an empire whose parts were at least 3000 miles away when a rather more immediate threat is to the home country which is a good deal nearer.
            I understand from another post that you are referring to the stray bombs which fell on Munchengladbach on 11th May. Apparently four people were killed one of whom was British ! I feel this hardly justifies the carpet bombing of Rotterdam.

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