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Christ Church (Commercial Street)
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Christ Church (Commercial Street)

Spitalfields was in ancient times part of the huge parish of St Dunstan, Stepney, which stretched from the City to Bow and from Hackney to the Thames. It now has a vividly Asian colour, largely Bangladeshi. London's suburban development in this direction began early, and already in the Middle Ages the hamlets of Whitechapel and Bow were given churches of their own. In the 17th century the pace of development increased and the hamlets of Wapping, Shadwell and Poplar were separated ecclesiastically. The Fifty New Churches Act gave the ancient parish three more churches: at Limehouse (St Anne's), at Upper Wapping (St George's in the East) and at Spitalfields (Christ Church). All three were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and rank among the most important churches in London.

Christ Church (Commercial Street)

Giant columns divide Hawksmoor's interior, seen here in 1999 before restoration.

Within two months of the appointment of Commissioners under the Act of 1711, it was decided that Spitalfields should have two new churches. This was in the heady days when 50 churches really were envisaged, and no fewer than five were listed for Stepney. Opposition soon came from Sir George Wheler, proprietor of the Wheler Chapel, who feared that a new church in Norton Folgate (just north of Liverpool Street Station) would damage his interest. The other proposal for the district, for Christ Church, was unopposed but progressed slowly. A site was bought in 1713. On 9 April 1714 Hawksmoor submitted a design, which was duly approved. It was not the design for the whole building we see today, and its estimated cost was only a fraction of the £40,000 eventually needed.

Christ Church (Commercial Street)

The tall columns carry block entablatures. This photograph dates from 1999; after restoration.

Foundations were dug in mid-1714 and work proceeded until the church was consecrated in 1729. As in so many of the Commissioners' works, progress was initially good and was then curtailed, for by about 1719 debts threatened the entire series of churches. As late as 1727, an important decision was made: the Commissioners ordered that the spire was to be built according to a design sent in by Hawksmoor. This was a major part of the eventual building and was not approved until the very end of the works.

Christ Church (Commercial Street)

The entablature, carried across the chancel on two columns, forms an extraordinary chancel screen.

An Act passed in 1729 created a new parish of Spitalfields and provided the sum of £3,000 to endow the living, but leaving the parish the task of raising £125 a year through local rates. The church was consecrated by the Bishop of London on 5 July 1729. One of the Commissioners, Edward Peck, lived locally. He had laid the foundation stone in 1715 and was rewarded at the church's completion by being given a private pew and a burial vault. When he died in 1736, a monument was erected here, to the design of Thomas Dunn. It is not often that an 'ordinary' Commissioner, as opposed to such people as Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Robert Walpole, can be identified in a memorial.

Christ Church (Commercial Street)

Organ of 1735 by Richard Bridges, west gallery.

The exterior is dominated by the west tower and spire, which face down Brushfield Street. The tower is an extraordinary one among London's churches. At its base there is a huge portico, comprising four soaring Tuscan columns, whose spacing is wider in the centre than at the sides. Each lateral pair of columns supports a straight entablature. A central arch then rises above and connects the whole. The next stage up is square, with another central arch rising above its associated features. Finally, there comes a broach spire, rising to 68.6 metres (225 ft), which Sir John Summerson described as a paraphrase of St Mary's, Stamford. Until 1822 this spire had openings and crockets: it was a little more Gothic. There should be nothing too surprising about Hawksmoor's Gothic essay, for he designed the west towers of Westminster Abbey, which are among the most familiar Gothic landmarks of London. What is striking about Christ Church's tower is its apparent substantial width when seen from the west. This is achieved by deep buttressing.

Christ Church (Commercial Street)

The impression of height is increased by the absence of box-pews.

The interior seems more longitudinal than one sees in Hawksmoor's churches. His usual central square is not obvious. A central square does exist in Christ Church, but it is not so apparent here as elsewhere. Tall columns carry block entablatures, which are returned to the aisle walls. Each aisle bay has a transverse barrel-vault. The nave has a clerestory and a flat ceiling. The reinstated galleries are visually important. There were also box-pews, the absence of which make the tall bases of the columns look rather odd. You cannot judge a Georgian interior without envisaging the whole original ensemble. Towards the east end the entablature is carried across the church on two columns, acting the part of an extraordinary chancel screen. Above, there are the royal arms in stone. To the east, there are quadrant walls to frame the altar recess, which is dominated by a large Venetian window. It contains stained glass depicting the Annunciation and Christ's childhood (left); the Last Supper and the Ascension (centre); and Baptism, Transfiguration and Calvary (right). The west gallery houses an organ by Richard Bridges, 1735. Near the west door there are memorials that came from the Episcopal Jews' Chapel in Bethnal Green when it was demolished in 1895.

Christ Church had to be closed in 1958 when the roof was found to be unsafe. Ever since, restoration has been planned or carried out, to strengthen the fabric and to put back the Georgian ensemble. Worship resumed here in 1987.

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