At St George’s German Lutheran Church
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