St Mary Woolnoth

Nicholas Hawksmoor's only City of London church, immortalised by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land

St Mary Woolnoth

The church of St Mary Woolnoth stands at the civic and commercial heart of the Square Mile, between Lombard Street and King William Street, surrounded by symbols of power - the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange and the Lord Mayor's official residence in the City, the Mansion House.

It was built between 1716 and 1727 by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), who began his illustrious architectural career as a clerk in the office of Sir Christopher Wren, and is the only church by him in the City of London.

A medieval church on the site was partially destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, which left only the steeple and part of the walls still standing. Wren rebuilt the north side facing Lombard Street and replaced the roof, but it was merely a patch-up job. The building was so structurally unsound that the parishioners were afraid to worship in it, so they lobbied the Commissioners under the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711 for a new church.

Although the Act, financed by the coal tax, was designed to encourage the building of places of worship in areas where none yet existed, their petition was successful, resulting in one of the City's most striking and original churches.

St Mary Woolnoth, Western Entrance

St Mary Woolnoth's unusual exterior is angular and imposing, a solid mass of sombre-looking stone that has been described as fortress-like.

The lower part of the western façade, enclosed by railings, seems particularly forbidding because of its dark-coloured, heavily rusticated masonry, 'rustication' being an architectural term used to describe projecting stones with sunken joints or grooves. The rustication of St Mary Woolnoth's projecting frontage is 'banded', meaning that it has horizontal grooves only, which run right across the front of the church and extend to curve round the Tuscan columns at the corners.

Above the round-headed doorway rises a tower, built of lighter-coloured stone, and wider than it is deep. Six Corinthian columns support an entablature topped by two square, balustraded turrets.

St Mary Woolnoth, Northern Elevation

The church's northern elevation, facing Lombard Street, which, for centuries, has been one of the main banking and financial hubs of London, also has some interesting architectural features.

Three identical, round-headed, rusticated niches (which seem, from a distance, to be windows, but in fact aren't; the absence of windows insulated the church from the clamour outside) feature Corinthian columns beneath entablatures that curve inwards. Heavy sills are supported on large brackets.

Up above, a balustrade runs the width of the clerestory (i.e. the upper part of the church, containing windows that allow light to flood into the building).

A final feature of the northern façade worth noting is its discreetly projecting clock, immortalised by T.S. Eliot in his 1922 poem The Waste Land, in which he seems to evoke the oppressive character of the church's architecture and to use it as a metaphor for the spiritual oppression suffered by the wage slaves who scurry past it every day on their way to work:

St Mary Woolnoth, Clock

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet,
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

London Hotels Quick Links

The interior of St Mary Woolnoth mimics a Roman atrium, a square within a square.
At each corner of the inner cube, three Corinthian columns support the aforementioned, four-sided clerestory with its semicircular windows.

On the south side of the church, facing King William Street, there are four additional windows to supplement the light coming in through the lantern.

St Mary Woolnoth, Interior

To complete the effect, the ceiling between the clerestory windows is of a deep blue, punctuated with golden stars, perhaps intended to suggest a Mediterranean sky.

In terms of furnishings, the most noteworthy features are the oaken altar-piece carrying the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), and the black altar canopy, or baldacchino, reminiscent of that by Bernini at St Peter's in Rome, supported on twisted, barley-sugar columns and embellished with seven golden cherubic faces.

Noticeable by their absence are the galleries, which were declared unsafe and removed in the late nineteenth century.

It's actually something of a miracle that St Mary Woolnoth is still standing. A bid was made to demolish the church during the Victorian era when the City & South London Railway (C&SLR) was given permission to build Bank tube station beneath the church. There was a public outcry, however, and the building was saved. Instead, C&SLR burrowed underneath, underpinning the church with huge girders. The lifts and staircase shafts for Bank station were constructed immediately underneath and, for a time, the crypt was used as a booking hall.

St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, City of London, EC3

Return from St Mary Woolnoth to London Churches

Return to the Timeless London Attractions home page