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St Anne's Church (Commercial Road)
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Limehouse was a hamlet in the parish of St Dunstan, Stepney, when it was first judged worthy of having its own church in the early 18th century. Within a hundred years, the view from the tower of St Anne's would encompass a scene of intense maritime activity, including the great shipbuilding yards of the Thames, where scores of East Indiamen, ships of the Royal Navy and merchant vessels were built and refitted. Today, the tall masts are long since gone, and the same view from St Anne's encompasses Canary Wharf, whose monumental tower dwarfs anything from an earlier age.

St Anne's Church (Commercial Road)

One of the four columns that divide the interior.

The church was built to Nicholas Hawksmoor's designs in 1714-24, under the Fifty New Churches Act. It was the only one of the churches built under that Act - 'the Queen Anne Act' - that was named in allusion to the reigning monarch. Her popular standing in the Church derived very largely from her foundation of Queen Anne's Bounty, which was a re-direction of ancient ecclesiastical revenues to add to parochial endowments. It was merged into the work of the Church Commissioners in 1948. The first moves to build St Anne's were made in late 1711; the new church came into use only in 1730. Progress in building was slow. The foundations were laid by November 1714, but the church was not completed until 1724. The total cost of the building was over £32,000. The church remained unused for some six years, on account of insufficient funds to support a priest (for the Commissioners had too little money to provide an immediate endowment). When the first rector, Robert Leybourne, was eventually installed in September 1729, he held the parish together with that of St Dunstan until 1759. The church came into use in 1730 and the registers survive from that date.

St Anne's Church (Commercial Road)

The west steeple is Hawksmoor's version of a 15th-century lantern tower and was for many years a famous landmark for mariners on the Thames.

The tower is Hawksmoor's version of a 15th-century example with a lantern. Projecting buttresses to north and south make it seem wider from the west. On that side there is the original main doorway within a semicircular projection. The vestibules to left and right have attics. In the upper part of the tower there are two stages set diagonally against each other: a typical Baroque arrangement. The north and south elevations are relatively plain, with two tiers of windows, usual for an 18th-century church, to reflect the galleries within. At the eastern angles there are square turrets. A drawing in the British Library suggests that these turrets were meant to be surmounted by pyramids. It is possible that the unusual pyramidal tomb in the churchyard might have had something to do with that plan. The exterior's gleaming Portland stone was restored and cleaned in 1985-90 by grant of the London Docklands Development Corporation.

St Anne's Church (Commercial Road)

Despite a fire in 1850 and Victorian restorations, St Anne's has retained its galleries. After years of decline, the church has lately seen considerable repair and revival.

The interior is centred on Hawksmoor's stock-in-trade of a square within a square. The tall nave is divided by four columns into an inner square, two 'transepts' and east and west arms. All the arms of the cross are of equal height. To the east there is a projecting rectangular sanctuary; to the west there is one additional bay. Thus the centralizing Greek cross is pulled somewhat into the longitudinal plan of mediaeval convention. There are north, south and west galleries.

St Anne's Church (Commercial Road)

Galleries provided much-needed additional seating in Georgian churches, and staircases were normally placed in the corners of a church to reach them.

On Good Friday 1850, a fire damaged the interior and destroyed the fittings. Restoration was carried out by Philip Hardwick and John Morris. The work followed the original style and made no attempt to Gothicize the church.

St Anne's Church (Commercial Road)

A view at gallery level towards the organ at the west end.

The new font was Hardwick's; the oak pulpit was carved by William Gibbs Rogers - one of the best Victorian carvers in London - to the designs of the young Arthur Blomfield, who was Hardwick's pupil. In 1891 Blomfield was to be called in again to undertake further works, chiefly the introduction of choir-stalls. The huge east window is filled with the Crucifixion in coloured enamels on white glass, by Charles Clutterbuck. It suits the setting very well but the enamel paint was badly fired. Clutterbuck was successful when he adopted a pictorial manner rather than a more mediaeval approach. The replacement organ was by Gray and Davidson. One memorial, to William Curling (died 1853), who is descibed as 'an eminent shipbuilder of this parish', is a reminder of the days when the Thames was a great centre of shipbuilding. Just five years after Curling's death, the biggest ship of the Victorian world, the Great Eastern, was launched a little downstream of Limehouse.

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