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Christ Church Crypt Restored

November 15, 2015
by the gentle author

A new entrance to the crypt

A year ago, I photographed the crypt of Christ Church Spitalfields when all the walls had been cleared out and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s structure was revealed for the first time since the eighteenth century. Last week, I returned now the restoration has been completed, in the company of Biba Dow of Dow Jones Architects who has overseen the project.

Church architects did not design crypts with any other purpose than to support the nave, but the opportunistic clergy in the eighteenth century saw the commercial possibility of charging families for the storage of the remains of their loved ones as means to pay for the running costs of the church. Thus, by the eighteen-twenties, the crypt of Christ Church was full of bodies which packed the space until the nineteen-eighties when they were excavated and removed to the Natural History Museum. Subsequently, the homeless shelter begun by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust in 1965 acquired its own building in Shoreditch High St where it continues to operate today.

These changes permitted the opening of the crypt as a public space for the local community, offering a refectory, parish rooms and an intimate chapel, all within a flexible interior suitable for gatherings, both large and small. In fulfilling this brief, Dow Jones Architects have been scrupulous to undertake no intervention that cannot be reversed and to ensure the distinction between their sympathetic additions and the original structure is always apparent.

A York stone floor has been installed throughout, extending the streetscape into the crypt and complementing the Portland stone of the church. All new joinery, panelling and furniture is of oak and the metalwork of bronze, restricting the textures introduced alongside the patina of the crypt. This limited range of materials draws your eye back to the subtle irregularities of Hawksmoor’s vaulted roof and its architectural precedents – the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul and the Fish Market in Venice.

The refectory in the crypt is open to all from this Thursday 19th November, offering a new refuge to escape the clamour of Spitalfields within a space that has provided harbour to humanity for three centuries already.

Plaques declaring the boundaries of church’s land and commemorating the fire house

Crypt during restoration work

A stone ramp leads down to the refectory

Crypt during restoration work

Eighteenth century shroud discovered during the excavations in 1984-1986

An intimate chapel in the crypt

Crypt during restoration work

Archaeological excavations in the crypt, 1984-86

The crypt restored

The crypt was used as a bomb shelter in World War Two

Memorial stone to Edward Peck, one of the commissioners of the church

The crypt restored

Crypt during restoration work

The dormitory of the homeless shelter in the crypt

The new refectory in the crypt

The refectory of the homeless shelter

Crypt during restoration work

New staircase leading to the nave

Recent art installation by Nicholas Feldmeyer

Crypt during restoration work

Looking back towards the entrance today

An East End family shelters from the London Blitz in the crypt of Christ Church

Shroud & Excavation Image © Natural History Museum

Archive Images courtesy Christ Church Spitalfields

You may also like to read about

A Brief History of London Crypts

The Secrets of Christ Church Spitalfields

Midwinter Light at Christ Church Spitalfields

A View of Christ Church Spitalfields

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Churches

Irene Stride Remembers Spitalfields

Dr Margaret Clegg, Keeper of Human Remains

Hosten Garraway, Verger

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Georgina Briody permalink
    November 15, 2015

    My great, great, great, great grandmother, Sarah Hurlin, was excavated from this site. I am so glad the crypt is open now, I will be visiting soon!

  2. November 15, 2015

    Very beautiful

  3. November 15, 2015

    The restorations have been thoroughly and tastefully done, they blend well without taking anything away from the original. Great job! Thanks for sharing the photos, Valerie

  4. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    November 15, 2015

    what a wonderful asset it will now be to the community and I look forward to making a visit

  5. November 15, 2015

    Good news for an architectural project — and an interesting story!

    Love & Peace

  6. November 15, 2015

    Great news: can’t wait to go and see it!

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 15, 2015

    Congratulations to Dow Jones Architects for a job well done. Excellent.

  8. November 15, 2015

    Wonderful update. Visited Christ Church a few months ago from the States and the guide pointed out the fossils embedded in the Dorset Stone floor of the main sanctuary. Had a pleasant time searching out fossilized fish and seashells. Will certainly return!

    Also … marvelous news article of the man who slept in the crypt coffin!

    “Then off to work to put up with such wisecracks from his friends as ‘Hullo, Mike. Back from the dead again?'”

  9. Glynna Bowood permalink
    November 16, 2015

    Regarding the news clipping “He lives in a coffin”: I wonder how many people will want to try this as an alternative to the traditional bed?!!

  10. May 14, 2018

    I too am descended from Sarah Hurlin. Her life is documented quite well.

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