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At St George’s German Lutheran Church

December 12, 2013
by the gentle author

The Altar and Pulpit at St George’s German Lutheran Church, Alie St

In Aldgate, caught between the thunder of the traffic down Leman St and the roar of the construction on Goodman’s Fields sits a modest church with an unremarkable exterior. Yet this quiet building contains an important story, the forgotten history of the German people in the East End.

Dating from 1762, St George’s German Lutheran Church is Britain’s oldest surviving German church and once you step through the door, you find yourself in a peaceful space with a distinctive aesthetic and character that is unlike any other in London.

The austere lines of the interior emphasise the elegant, rather squat proportion of the architecture and the strong geometry of the box pews and galleries is ameliorated by unexpected curves and fine details. In fact, architect Joel Johnson was a carpenter by trade which may account for the domestic scale and the visual dominance of the intricately conceived internal wooden structure. Later iron windows of 1812, with their original glass in primary tones of red and blue, bring a surprising sense of modernity to the church and, even on a December afternoon, succeed in dispelling the gathering gloom.

This was once the heart of London’s sugar-baking industry and, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, Germans brought their particular expertise to this volatile and dangerous trade, which required heating vast pans of sugar with an alarming tendency to combust or even explode. Such was the heat and sticky atmosphere that sugar-bakers worked naked, thus avoiding getting their clothes stuck to their bodies and, no doubt, experiencing the epilatory qualities of sugar.

Reflecting tensions in common with other immigrant communities through the centuries, there was discord over the issue of whether English or the language of the homeland should be spoken in church and, by implication, whether integration or separatism was preferable – this controversy led to a riot in the church on December 3rd 1767.

As the German community grew, the church became full to overcrowding – with the congregation swollen by six hundred German emigrants abandoned on their way to South Carolina in 1764. Many parishioners were forced to stand at the back and thieves capitalised upon the chaotic conditions in which, in 1789, the audience was described in the church records as eating “apples, oranges and nuts as in a theatre,” while the building itself became, “a place of Assignation for Persons of all descriptions, a receptacle for Pickpockets, and obtained the name St George’s Playhouse.”

Today the church feels like an empty theatre, maintained in good order as if the audience had just left. Even as late as 1855, the Vestry record reported that “the Elders and Wardens of the Church consist almost exclusively of the Boilers, Engineers and superior workers in the Sugar Refineries,” yet by the eighteen-eighties the number of refineries in the vicinity had dwindled from thirty to three and the surrounding streets had descended into poverty. Even up to 1914, at one hundred and thirty souls, St Georges had the largest German congregation in Britain. But the outbreak of the First World War led to the internment of the male parishioners and the expulsion of the females – many of whom spoke only English and thought of themselves as British.

In the thirties, the bell tower was demolished upon the instructions of the District Surveyor, thus robbing the facade of its most distinctive feature. Pastor Julius Reiger, an associate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leading opponent of the Nazis, turned the church into a relief centre offering shelter for German and Jewish refugees during World War II, and the congregation continued until 1996 when there only twenty left.

St George’s is now under the care of the Historic Chapels Trust and opens regularly for concerts and lectures, standing in perpetuity as a remembrance of more than two centuries of the East End’s lost German community.

The classically-patterned linoleum is a rare survival from 1855

The arms of George III, King of England & Elector of Hanover

The principal founder of the church Diederick Beckman was a wealthy sugar refiner.

The Infant School was built in 1859 as gift from the son of Goethe’s publisher, W. H. Göschen

Names of benefactors carved into bricks above the vestry entrance.

St Georges German Lutheran Church, c. 192o

The bell turret with weathervane before demolition in 1934

The original eighteenth century weathervane of St George & the Dragon that was retrieved from ebay

St George’s German Lutheran Church, 55 Alie Street, E1 8EB

9 Responses leave one →
  1. December 12, 2013

    Ooh 250 year old lino! Amazing.

    My forebears were German immigrants to the East End, so very likely used this church. It’s going on my ‘interesting places to visit’ list. Thanks GA

  2. SBW permalink
    December 12, 2013

    How interesting, I will make sure I visit this place. Thank you. sbw

  3. jeannette permalink
    December 12, 2013

    umbra sumus, even the naked sugar bakers.

  4. December 12, 2013

    A beautiful reminder of the German community. Never seen such a special atmosphere with blue and red windows before.
    ACHIM

  5. December 12, 2013

    My 3x great grandfather was Friedrich Happe a sugar boiler from Kassel in Germany. He lived in Denmark Street in the area then known as German Town due to the large number of Germans who lived there.

    Once again, a very interesting article with beautiful images. Thank you, Gentle Author.

  6. Malcolm permalink
    December 12, 2013

    We went there last week for the West Gallery Christmas Concert. It was delightful listening to carols that stir the soul rather than send you to sleep! Highly recommended if you’re in the area next year.

  7. sigrun shahin permalink
    December 24, 2013

    The write up and the photos are really nice. It was a joy to look at them.

  8. December 31, 2013

    I conduct London Gallery Quire, which gives the above-mentioned concert of West Gallery carols. This annual event is our favourite, because we get such a warm welcome and a large audience. And we rather like Gluehwein and Stollen.

  9. Robert James Seeley, DMA permalink
    February 11, 2014

    What a touching tour you provide of the church where one of the immigrant parishioners, Adam Schaaf, was baptised in 1849. His surviving brothers were also baptized there. All four later went to Chicago, where Adam established Adam Schaaf Pianos–we own two–and his wealthy family. I just returned from our National Archives in Fort Worth, where I accessed many of their hand-scriptedfamily records from this church and the London civil registers.

    You have taken me on a priceless (literally!) and precious journey. My deep thanks. I can imagine the gentle wooden (flute?) organ pipes. rjs

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