History of St Bride's: Building the New Church

Pages 29-33

Survey of London Monograph 15, St Bride's Church, Fleet Street. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1944.

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The Great fire of London of 1666 put an end to the medieval fabric of the Church and effaced all the evidences of the craftsmanship that had been its pride. In the year before the fire the parish had been sorely tried by the Great Plague which reached it in mid-June. The normal mortality had been about nine deaths per week, but these increased to four times that number at the end of July, to over 150 at the end of August and 238 in the week in mid-September when the pestilence was at its height. From that time the figures fell quickly and the danger had passed by November, but it left the parish desolate and many houses tenantless. The vicar, Richard Peirson, stayed at his post, although both his Churchwardens died, and carried through the heartbreaking task of giving what relief was possible and burying the dead. His signature appears at the foot of each page of the Burial Register throughout the disastrous summer. His successor, Paul Boston, was inducted only a fortnight before the old Church perished in the flames. Apart from those few days he never possessed a Church.

The calamity of the Great Fire and the ruin it left behind it are not so difficult for the present generation to realise since the German raids on London have reproduced a like devastation. But in some ways the earlier visitation was more complete and instantaneous in its effect. For two days and nights after the hour before dawn on Sunday, 2 September 1666, the inhabitants watched the fire approach with growing alarm. By Tuesday morning, the third day, it had reached Blackfriars, and on that day the parish of St Bride was overwhelmed. 'Ye parishe was burnt downe', wrote the clerk in the Burial Register, 'but sixteene houses in ye brode place by Newe Street.' The plague had wrought havoc among the parishioners, now the parish itself except for sixteen houses had been destroyed. The Church had become a blackened skeleton, its belfry empty and its stones shattered. It was too far gone for even temporary use to be made of the ruins for services as was done at St Paul's Cathedral and elsewhere. The Churchwardens paid various sums for the recovery of the bell metal from the debris. On 20 October, six weeks after the fire, the parish clerk enters the burial of 'Christopher Ryche in ye Church Porch because ye body of the Church was not cleared'. Three days later burials commenced again within the ruined walls. The tower was temporarily repaired to prevent collapse, the porch was sufficiently intact to serve as a meeting place for the Vestry, and a temporary building or 'tabernacle' was hastily erected for services. It was four years however before plans were ready for the rebuilding of the Church.

The story of the reconstruction of London after the Fire is one of great enterprise and resource and deserves more admiration than is commonly accorded it. After so stunning a blow, delivered without warning, it is remarkable that the recovery was as rapid as it was and that the buildings reached so high a standard. The difficulties were enormous, but the practical sense and good-humoured co-operation of the Londoners solved the complex problems without contention, and opportunity came at a time when the revival of the arts was already prepared with a better understanding of the principles of classical architecture.

It is true that in some ways the citizens were very conservative. Each parish desired to see its own Church rise again, and in spite of Wren's opinion that thirty-nine Churches would be sufficient to replace those destroyed the Act of 1670 directed the rebuilding of fifty-one. St Bride's was one of the first ten to be designed and was one of the earliest to be ready for public worship, although it was some time later that the building was entirely finished.

In August 1671 the Vestry undertook to raise the sum of £500 to place on deposit at Guildhall under the regulation laid upon those City parishes that had resolved on rebuilding. The parishioners constituted a select Committee of themselves and raised the money within the month of August! We first hear of Sir Christopher Wren's association with the work at a dinner at the Globe Tavern, Fleet Street, at which the Churchwardens entertained him and Robert Hobbe, the City Surveyor, at a cost of £2. 17s. 0d. These, it is stated, had the surveying, ordering and building of the Church.

The first task was to clear the site. For taking down the ruined walls, sorting the materials and carrying away the rubbish a payment of £100 was made to Joshua Marshall, later increased to £150. The builders of the City Churches were men of no little distinction. Joshua Marshall would in modern times be deemed the Contractor, but he was also a skilled craftsman. He laid the foundations and supplied and built in the whole of the stone and the carving. His bills came to £8964, four-fifths of the entire cost of the Church, with the exception of the steeple which was built later. He was King's Mason, an office which his father, Edward Marshall, held before him, and he was responsible for many of the principal works in the rebuilding of London. Father and son lived just outside St Bride's parish, in Fetter Lane, where their houses perished in the Great Fire. Joshua Marshall built Temple Bar for Wren and also the tall column commemorating the Fire which we know as the Monument. A charming work of his is the sculptured pedestal of Le Sueur's equestrian statue of Charles I at Charing Cross. (fn. 1)

Like the masonry, the carpentry and joinery, plumber's and smith's work, painting and glazing are all accounted for, under the names of the master craftsmen in the Accounts preserved in the Bodleian Library. (fn. 1a) From these we can follow the successive stages in the progress of the work over five years. The foundations cost £90, and from their completion to mid-January 1672, upwards of 5000 cubic feet of worked stone had been put into the building, which had risen to a height of 11 feet above the water table on three sides. There are a few entries for working and setting old ashlar among the new stone. By September 1672 the walls had been carried up to the cornice, the great East window was nearly completed and the tower contained its lowermost eighteen steps.

Joshua Marshall's next measurement was made when the internal arches had been closed with their key-stones and the tower had reached 49 steps. The mason's work was fully accomplished by September 1674, except for the tower. This was not carried to its full height until February 1678, and was then covered with a temporary wooden top to await the steeple. In this connection it is interesting to find a drawing of Wren's, in the Collection at All Souls, Oxford, showing a cupola finish for the tower (Plate 9).

Craftsmen working upon the interior were busy for more than a year after John Longland, the carpenter, had put on the roof. This was covered with lead, the metal alone at 17s. 6d. per cwt. costing £846. Longland was responsible for the ceiling. The moulded plaster work, including the ornament and flowers of the ceiling, was carried out by John Grove for £193. Hannah Brace undertook the plain glazing of the windows which cost only £72. George Drew and Stephen Leaver, smiths, William Cleere, joiner, John Cole and Charles Atherton, plumbers, and Robert Streeter and Edward Bird, painters, made their considerable contributions to the work. Streeter was serjeant painter to Charles II and painted the ceiling of the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford.

The Church, with the tower, but apart from the steeple, was erected at a total cost of £11,430. 5s. 11d. It ranks after St Lawrence Jewry and Christ Church, Newgate, as third in cost among all Wren's City Churches. 'Good materials and good work' were the architect's own words in justifying the accounts.

The rebuilding was considered to be sufficiently advanced by the end of 1675 for the Church to be available for divine service. The opening service on Sunday, 19 December, was attended with civic ceremonial, and the Lord Mayor and many of the Aldermen and members of the Common Council were present. Dr Dove, the vicar, whose gift of cloquence had here a rare opportunity, preached the sermon. There is little doubt that Pepys was there, but the cessation of his diary, five years before, has deprived us of a contemporary account that would have had special interest.

The Church, however, was far from being fully equipped. Three weeks before the opening day, Dr Dove had made urgent representations to the Committee that a great Bible and two service books should be sent in and the requisite vestments provided, all being wanting. It was also pointed out that there was no font. The last deficiency was filled by the sending in of the marble font, which bore the date 1615 (recte 1675) (fn. 2a) and the name and arms of Henry Hothersall.

The galleries were incomplete. It had been decided to proceed first with the north gallery and Sir Christopher Wren had approved drawings for it in October, but the work was held up, and when the New Year came in the wainscotting and materials for pews and benches were still being discussed! Sir Jeremiah Whichcote was asked politely to hurry along with the velvet pulpit cushion and cloth which he had promised. The painting of the Ten Commandments in black on a gold ground and the setting up of a table for benefactors remained to be done. A single bell was hung temporarily in the middle aisle next the unfinished tower!

Joshua Marshall, the builder of St Bride's, died just over two years after the Church was opened for services and was buried at St Dunstan's, Fleet Street, in April 1678. He therefore did not live to take part in the crowning work of raising the steeple. It was some time before the City's funds, largely drawn from the Coal Dues, had accumulated sufficient reserves to allow of this important completion of the design. As early as 1682–3 the Church Officers paid visits to Sir Christopher Wren about the steeple, and an order for building was sought from the Lord Mayor. Again they waited on him in 1696, but it was not until 6 October 1701 that the first stone of the superstructure was laid on the tower, the workmen being specially entertained by the parish to mark the occasion. Two years later, in October 1703, the tower and its famous spire were complete. A description of this remarkable steeple of St Bride's, which displays Wren's accustomed ingenuity in construction, will be given in the chapter dealing with the architecture of the Church. It is convenient, however, to deal here with its later history and especially with the damage it sustained by lightning on the afternoon of 18 June 1754. The great height of the spire, 226 feet (fn. 3a) from the ground, and the copper ball and vane, (10 feet more), attached to a 20–foot iron rod embedded in the terminal obelisk, formed a vulnerable point in a fierce electrical storm, and the resultant rupture, in spite of the skilful design and workmanship of the stonework, was so dramatic that it created a public sensation. Two scientific papers written by Mr W. Watson and Mr Edward Delaval were prepared for the Royal Society and were printed by them in 1764. (fn. 2) These papers are illustrated and give careful details of the course of the electric current and the damage it did. The sequel was a fierce controversy on the best method of protecting buildings from lightning, the discussion being initiated by a Committee appointed by the Royal Society who reported in favour of Benjamin Franklin's sharppointed conductors. A rival school of thought took advantage of the public hostility to America to abuse Franklin's model, and George III himself descended into the arena of debate, and told Sir John Pringle that he was not fit to be President of the Royal Society when he had urged that he could not 'reverse the laws and operations of Nature'. (fn. 3)

The lightning cracked the crowning obelisk of the spire, broke away part of its stonework and caused a violent explosion in the uppermost of the four octagonal stories, and one of less strength in the story below. Stones were hurled from the steeple and the masonry found to be so damaged as to be unfit for use aggregated some 25 tons. The work of repair was entrusted to William Staines, later knighted and Lord Mayor of London, and he found it necessary to take down and rebuild all but the lowest story—some 85 feet in all. The work cost the parish £3000. It has been asserted that in the rebuilding Staines reduced the height by 8 feet, leaving the full height of tower and steeple at 226 feet from the ground. Birch (fn. 4) questions whether the shortening actually took place, and there is certainly no contemporary evidence, although it may well be that the reconstruction entailed some reduction in height. (fn. 4a)

Lightning struck St Bride's steeple a second time in 1803, but happily the damage was slight. In 1805, over £500 was spent in repair, and the upper tier of stone vases below the obelisk was removed. The steeple withstood another lightning stroke in 1887. The report by George Dance in 1750 as to its stability has received eloquent confirmation nearly 200 years later in the manner in which it has stood in spite of the terrific assault of the recent air-raids.


  • 1a. See Appendix III.
  • 2a. See under Font, p. 47.
  • 3a. Or 234 feet if its present height, as has been stated, is shorter by 8 feet.
  • 4a. In The Mirror, 19 February 1825, it is stated that the upper part of the steeple was preserved entire on the premises of a mason in Old Street, and in The Observer of 23 June 1918 it is further said that this stonework, 85 feet in height, was acquired by Mr E. Fuller Maitland who removed it to his residence, Kingsgate Castle, Isle of Thanet, and thence to his estate at Park Place, where it was re-erected in 1837 as a memorial of Queen Victoria's accession. It is by no means certain, however, that 85 feet of the spire was entirely removed and replaced, although the memorial may well have incorporated the damaged stones.
  • 1. Dict. Nat. Biog.
  • 2. Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions, 1764.
  • 3. C. R. Weld, History of the Royal Society, 1848, ii, 101.
  • 4. G. H. Birch, London Churches etc. (1896), p. 76.