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At St Augustine’s Tower

September 23, 2013
by the gentle author

St Augustine’s Tower

I wonder how many people even notice this old tower, secreted behind the betting office in the centre of Hackney? Without  a second glance, it might easily get dismissed as a left-over from a Victorian church that got demolished. Yet few realise St Augustine’s Tower has been here longer than anything else, since 1292 to be precise.

“It is an uncompromising medieval building, the only one we have in Hackney,” Laurie Elks, the custodian of the tower, admitted to me as we ascended its one hundred and thirty-five steps, “and, above all, it is a physical experience.” Climbing the narrowing staircase between rough stone walls, we reached the top of the tower and scattered the indignant crows who, after more than seven centuries, understandably consider it their right to perch uninterrupted upon the weather vane. They have seen all the changes from their vantage point, how the drover’s road became a red route, how London advanced and swallowed up the village as the railway steamed through.

Yet inside the tower, change has been less dramatic and Laurie is proud of the lovingly-preserved cobwebs that festoon the nooks and crevices of his cherished pile, offering a haven for shadows and dust, and garnished with some impressive ancient graffiti. The skulls and hourglasses graven upon stone panels beside the entrance set the tone for this curious melancholic relic, sequestered among old trees just turning colour now as autumn crocuses sprout among the graves. You enter through a makeshift wooden screen, cobbled together at the end of the eighteenth century out of bits and pieces of seventeenth century timber. On the right stands an outsize table tomb with magnificent lettering incised into dark granite recording the death of Capt Robert Deane, on the fourth day of February 1699, and his daughters Mary & Katherine and his son Robert, who all went before him.

“There was no-one to wind the clock,” revealed Laurie with a plaintive grimace, as we stood on the second floor confronting the rare late-sixteenth-century timepiece that was once the only measure of time in Hackney, “so I persuaded my sixteen-year-old daughter, Sam, that she would like to do it and she did – until she grew unreliable – when I realised that I had wanted to wind the clock myself all along. I would come at two in the morning every Saturday and go to the all-night Tesco and buy a can of beans or something. Then I would let myself in and, sometimes, I didn’t put on the light because I know the building so well – and that was when I fell in love with it.” Reluctantly, Laurie has relinquished his nocturnal visits since auto-winding was introduced to preserve the clock’s historic mechanism.

It was the Knights Templar who gave the tower its name when they owned land here, until the order was suppressed in 1308 and their estates passed to the Knights of St John in Clerkenwell who renamed the church that was attached to the tower as St John-at-Hackney. Later, Christopher Urstwick, a confidant of Henry VII before he became king, retired to Hackney as rector of the church and used his wealth to rebuild it. Yet, to the right of the entrance to the tower, rough early medieval stonework is still visible beneath the evenly-laid layers of sixteenth century Kentish ragstone – bounty of the courtier’s wealth – that surmount it.

When the village of Hackney became subsumed into the metropolis, with rows of new houses thrown up by speculators, a new church was built down the road in 1797, but it was done on the cheap and the tower was not strong enough to carry the weight of the bells. Meanwhile, the demolition contractor employed to take down the old church was defeated by the sturdy old tower and it was retained to hold the bells until enough money was raised to strengthen the new one. Years later, once this had been effected, the fashion for Neo-Classical had been supplanted by Gothic and it suited the taste of the day to preserve the old tower as an appealing landmark to remind everyone of centuries gone by.

Thus, no-one can say they live in Hackney until they have made the pilgrimage to St Augustine’s Tower – where Laurie is waiting to greet you – and climbed the narrow stairs to the roof, because this is the epicentre and the receptacle of time, the still place in the midst of the mayhem at the top of Mare St.

The view from the top of the tower towards the City of London.

A bumper crop of conkers in Hackney this year, as seen from the parapet.

Laurie Elks, Custodian of the Tower

St Augustine’s Tower is open next Sunday, 29th September, and on the last Sunday of every month (except December) from 2pm-4:30pm

20 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    September 23, 2013

    thank you mr. elks, for winding the clock all those years. and thank you GA for taking a trip and a climb and a gander for me to travel along with.

  2. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    September 23, 2013

    This write up of the Old Tower deserves to be the base of a booklet about Hackney’s oldest building. Thanks

    Melvyn Brooks Karkur Israel

  3. September 23, 2013

    Lovely to see the tower again! My primary school was round the corner from here, and we used to cross through the old church yard on the way home. Valerie

  4. September 23, 2013

    Fascinating! I’ve got to get there next time I’m in London. If I’m not mistaken, this is a remnant of the church where the 17th Earl of Oxford was buried.

  5. John Pearce permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Thank you for visiting Hackney – it IS an East London Borough

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Didn’t realise you couold get in!
    Been past it countless times … I note one of my favourite pubs ( The Cock in Mare Street) is visible in the photo looking towards central London

  7. September 23, 2013

    Love it – what a fascinating place. Great post, really atmospheric.

  8. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Delightful photos and story. Three cheers for Laurie!! from Down Under.

  9. Melissa permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Lovely article and I especially enjoyed the view to the city, over Hackney to the Shard. Of course the betting office in front of St Augustine’s tower was the old Town Hall. Since then to my knowledge it has been Midland Bank (now defunct) and is now one of Mare St’s many bookies. If this isn’t emblematic of the direction of capitalism I don’t know what is!

  10. David Milne. permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Excellent article.
    A favourite place of mine, a signpost to our past.

  11. September 23, 2013

    I’ve been past this on the bus – and never realised the history. What a tale

  12. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    September 23, 2013

    How fascinating that this has survived for so long,what an interesting article!

  13. Peter permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Welcome back and thank you for another fascinating post.
    Delwar did us proud last week (you’ve taught him well !) perhaps he might come back sometime,unless of course you’re able to persuade him to do his own blog.
    Anyway,many thanks again for this.Best regards.

  14. Ray of Hackney permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Great article. Growing up in Hackney I walked past this tower countless times. I never realized it was so old and had never seen the inside. Now I am motivated to visit it and go in. Thank you for your hard work.

  15. Francesmmp permalink
    September 23, 2013

    Lovely!

  16. Rupert Neil Bumfrey (@rupertbu) permalink
    September 23, 2013

    wondrous :-)

  17. Emily permalink
    September 24, 2013

    And now there is a permanent exhibition on at the tower detailing the history of Hackney. You can see this for free on Tower open days. There will also be a tour of the ancient churchyard on Sunday 29th at 2pm. Pop along if you’re local!

  18. Jenny permalink
    September 24, 2013

    Lovely article, took me right back to the walks through the graveyard from school with my mum to mare st stopping at the tower before we’d see my dad on the fish stall on the corner of amhurst road. So good to see it open and being looked after.

  19. John permalink
    September 24, 2013

    It’s survival is amazing!

  20. September 26, 2013

    Beautiful !

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