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Gillian Tindall At St Brides

October 2, 2023
by Gillian Tindall


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St Brides


Contributing Writer, Gillian Tindall, visits St Brides Church in Fleet St

This year is the three hundredth anniversary of Sir Christopher Wren’s death in 1723 at the age – very advanced for those days – of ninety. This anniversary is being celebrated in many of the City of London churches that he was responsible for redesigning, after eighty-seven of them had been ravaged by the Great Fire of 1666. But he is given special prominence at St Brides which is situated without the old City walls.

Even after suffering another firey destruction in the Blitz of World War II, St Brides still stands today just down the hill from the site of the old Lud Gate, on the west side of the Fleet valley where Fleet St leads towards Charing Cross and Westminster, and to everywhere else that is now Central London.

When the Great Fire took hold on the other side of the City, in Pudding Lane not far from the Tower, on 2nd September 1666, the wind was blowing from the east. So, four days later, when the devastated Londoners returned to survey the blackened wreckage of their homes and businesses, churches and storehouses, they found that much of the Aldgate and Bishopsgate area to the north-east of the walled City had been spared, but – in defiance of all hopes and prayers – the wind-driven blaze had jumped the stream in the Fleet Valley and devoured St Brides.

It just spared St Andrew, Holborn, a little to the north, and was about to consume the buildings of the Temple when fortunately it was quelled. Perhaps the wind dropped or possibly the energies and organisation of King Charles II, who had taken matters over from the desperate City Mayor, had something to do with it.

So Wren’s triumphant rebuilding of St Brides in the 1670s is being celebrated this autumn with a recital and a dramatic performance. But this is not in the actual St Brides, brick for brick, that was built by Wren, but rather, in the careful simulacrum of it that was a post-World-War II rebuilding. The design followed Wren’s faithfully, though leaving out the gallery seating and bits of late-Victorian décor. So what you see today is very much what Wren’s contemporaries, in their periwigs and cumbersome great-coats, would have see in the exciting modernity of the early 1700s. Except that the church is now nicely heated: no thick coats needed.

What the Blitz of 1940 also revealed were not merely extensive graveyards, spreading to the south-east right across where Farringdon Rd now runs, but – beneath everything else – the ruins of Roman mosaics. Evidently this site was a holy place well before an obscure `St Bridget’ lived and died – indeed before the first emissaries of the Christian faith landed on our shores. Relics and fragments of these distant times are now displayed beneath the church in the old crypt. This was sealed up, along with its bodies and coffins, when it came to be understood in the Victorian era that putting rotting remains beneath a church floor is hardly an hygienic method of disposal.

After the War, these and all the other newly-found bones were taken off to the Museum of London, but some of them were later returned to the church for storage in neatly labelled cardboard boxes. A previous Rector once opened a box to show me the tiny fragmented skull bones of Wynken de Worde, the man credited with the invention of print in the late fifteeth century. Though Fleet St is no longer the heart of newspaper production, the association of the church with print flourishes to this day. St Brides is where editors and journalists, including those who lose their lives in foreign wars, are celebrated and commemorated.

Samuel Pepys was baptised here, in the old pre-Great Fire St Brides while the poet John Dryden was a regular attender in the post-Great Fire one. But in recent times more obscure yet equally interesting members of the congregation have featured on wall-plaques on the west porch. Who has heard of Denis Papin? Very few, I guess, although he was a remarkable man, extraordinarily ahead of his time. A Huguenot from the Loire, he came to London in the 1670s and managed to interest several members of the newly-founded Royal Society in his ideas about steam. It could, he argued, be utilised to power devices, and he managed to invent a kind of pressure cooker.

Later, back in France and then on the far side of the Rhine, he created the first model of a piston steam-engine, a whole century before steam-power became the driver of the Industrial Revolution.

But when he returned in 1707 his old acquaintances in London had forgotten him or were dead, and several years later he was destitute. His lonely death in August 1713 went unremarked, and it was not until three hundred years later that a researcher in the Metropolitan Archive came upon the record of his burial in St Brides’ lower ground. Now he is commemorated in stone.

A nearby memorial similarly bestows dignity on a forgotten individual of a different kind. The current Rector of St Brides, Canon Alison Joyce, became interested in one of the victims of the over-publicised Whitechapel murders – one who evidently did not conform to the stereotypical assumption that the women were all sex workers. Mary Ann Nichols, known as Polly, was not only born in St Brides parish, she was also married there in 1864 to a printer. She could read and write, and she had five children. But the marriage broke up and there is evidence that she chose to live instead with the man she would have preferred to marry in her teens but was not allowed to. When this relationship ended too, she seems to have taken to drink and the addresses recorded for her were workhouses and the lowest sort of lodging houses.

A plaque in St Brides reads ‘Remember her life, not its end.’ Given the uncertainties, pains and regrets that accompany too many people’s last days, that might serve as a kindly epitaph for many of us.

In St Brides Churchyard

Gillian Tindall’s The House by the Thames is available from Pimlico

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall 

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

One Response leave one →
  1. Ron Chriswell permalink
    October 9, 2023

    “A plaque in St Brides reads ‘Remember her life, not its end.’ Given the uncertainties, pains and regrets that accompany too many people’s last days, that might serve as a kindly epitaph for many of us.”
    What a sobering few sentences. I can attest to this shadowed request. Indeed we should remember kindly that the worth of every soul is not based solely on the end, or sum of a person’s life- rather, it would be better to remember that a life is based on twenty-four hours worth of moments across each day of that person’s life. Much time and surely full of much good. We certainly would expect this for ourselves.

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