The Danish (and Norwegian) Church, Wellclose Square


Although now usually referred to as 'the Danish Church', Norwegians who had settled in the area were also involved in its foundation, worship and finance: the two kingdoms of Denmark and Norway were in a 'personal union' from 1536-1814. The timber trade received an impetus from the rebuilding of the City after 1666: it was said Norwegians warmed themselves comfortably by the Fire of London. Church regulations were drawn up in 1691, and the 1694 letters patent, granting a licence to build a church in Marine [i.e.Wellclose] Square were issued to two Norwegian merchants, Martin Lionfeld and Theora Wegersloff; Lionfeld was appointed superintendent of the project and treasurer of the funds. A 999-year lease, at £5 per year, was obtained from Sir Michael Heneage [hence Heneage Street] and others. 

The Danish ambassador laid the first stone in 1694. Until the church was completed the congregation met in Old Gravel Lane, Wapping. It was consecrated in 1696. King Christian V of Denmark [Christian Street, off Cable Street, is named after him] contributed £2000, plus an annual sum for its upkeep - supplemented by annual collections in Denmark and Norway for the minister and the relief of the poor, and levies on Danish shipments. Over the entrance was the inscription Templem Dano Norwegicum intercessione et munificento serenissimi Danorum Regis Christiani Quinti erectum - MDCXCVI.

The original architect was Thomas Woodcock, but he was replaced by Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700 - portrait left by the Swedish miniaturist Christian Richer, and Kip's 1696 engraving based on Cibber's drawing of the church right). He was an Italian-trained Danish sculptor who had settled in England and found favour with William III. His most famous, and iconic, carved sculptures are the two life-size statutes which stood over the gateway of the Bethlem Hospital [popularly known as Bedlam] from 1676-1815, Melancholy and Raving Madness, juxtaposing the two extremes of mental ill-health in those days: one free of restraint, but expressionless and unengaged, the other in furious agony, and hospital chains. They moved with the hospital to Southwark (now the site of the Imperial War Museum) and in 1930 to the hospital's present site in Beckenham, once amidapple orchards but its spacious grounds now surrounded by suburbia. In 2015 its administrative block was converted into a £4m gallery and museum (replacing a cramped shed), and the sculptures now flank the stairway. Cibber also designed the bas-reliefs on the plinth of The Monument. Cibber gave his services free; he was, said one commentator, a gentlemanlike man and a man of good sense but died poor.

Millicent Rose, in The East End of London (Cresset Press 1951), p21, says

He was one of the most accomplished, most European artists working in Stuart England; sculptures by his hand are part of the the fabulous riches of Chatsworth, and Wren welcomed him as collaborator, employing him to make the skyline figures for Trinity College Library, Cambridge, and also to take part in the decoration of St. Paul's and Hampton Court. The influence of Wren is obvious in the Danes' Church; the grouping of round and round-headed windows, the decorative swags of carved stone, the little campanile, all recall elements from the City churches. The most obvious affinity is with St Benet's, Paul's Wharf, a comparison which also emphasizes the difference between the two churches. St Benet's, with its small roofs, lacks the cosmopolitan unity of its eastern contemporary; it was not Wren's custom, in a building of this size, to hide the roof behind a parapet. Cibber's little church has a personality of its own, and though its creator had been in England nearly half a century, he speaks his English with a slightly foreign intonation.

As well as designing the church [interior, left: engraving by Kip, 1697], Cibber created external and internal sculptures. Outside, on the west front, were bronze [some sources say lead] figures of Faith, Hope and Charity [Charity pictured right], generally agreed to be the work of his studio, which in 1908 were moved to the Carlsberg Ny Glyptothek, an art museum in Copenhagen. Inside, there was an elaborately carved pulpit; at its side was an iron and gilt box containing four hour glasses. The reredos had four baroque figures carved in wood: Moses, John the Baptist, St Peter and St Paul. However, Margaret Whinney, in Sculpture in Britain 1530-1830 ch.7 (2nd ed, Yale UP 1992) argues that only the first two could be his work; the other two are more in the style of Antwerp. [See below for their subsequent movements - and also for a picture of a carved boss now located in St Paul's School]. Over the altar was a painting of the angel strengthening Christ in Gethsemane. There were two west-end galleries.

One commentator remarked that the church was a commodious and elegant structure, and though the architect appears to have understood ornaments, he has not been too lavish in the use of them. Others were less complimentary: one said it was an object of curiosity and ridicule ... a parcel of wainscot Christianity ... stinking of pitch and tar ... and seafaring apparel. See further H. Faber Caius Gabriel Cibber, 1630–1700... with a short account of the old Danish church in London (Oxford 1926), and, for a recent assessment of the theological significance of the buildings of this period, essays edited by Andrew Spicer as Lutheran Churches in Early Modern Europe (Ashgate 2012).

A fine organ was installed in 1678 by 'Father' Smith (Bernard Schmidt, c1603-1708), one of forty or fifty instruments he built, and is said to have been played by Haydn, Blow, Purcell and Handel; its console was retained after the demolition of the church, but has since disappeared. [At the Danish Church's present home in Regent's Park is an organ of 1778 by Samuel Green which Mendelssohn once played.]

Cibber's second wife Jane Colley (b.1646), whom married in 1670, was probably the first to be buried in the vault beneath the church when she died in 1697 - the list of 1869, when coffins were moved into a bricked-up area
(as explained below), includes body embalmed supposed to be the wife of the Architect (C. Gabriel Cibber of Flenoborg). He died three years later, and was buried either in the vault or the churchyard. The earliest named coffin on the 1869 list is from 1708, and there were no more until 1753; but In a private note of 1883 the Revd Dan Greatorex, first Vicar of St Paul's, stated that husband and wife were both buried in the vault.  There was apparently a marble monument to Jane, but it was lost.Their son was the extrovert dandy Colley Cibber (1671-1757), an actor-dramatist who became Poet Laureate, and whose Apology of 1740 is a mine of information about the theatre of this period. He was probably buried at Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street, and is memorialised in Westminster Abbey.

Other monuments were to Christian Wegersloff, merchant, and his three wives Letitia (and her sister Mary Collins), Anne and Mary (1767); Anna Penelope, relict of William Jackson and wife of Herman Pohlman, merchant (1734), and Herman Pohlman (1754); Ambrosia, daughter of George Michelsen, widow of Pastor Borneman and wife of John Collett (1740); John Collett, merchant (1759) - a descendant of John Colet, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, who re-founded St Paul's School in 1512; Claudius Heide, merchant (1774);  Georg(e) Wolff, Danish and Norwegian consul (died 1828 aged 92) and his wife Elizabeth (1770) and relative Ernst Fridrick, an elder of the church who published a book about the church in Copenhagen in 1802 - see more about this family here; and Peter Alsing, the last churchwarden. There were statues of Frederic King of Denmark, and of Charles II and William III.

In 1768 the young King of Denmark paid an extended visit to London, travelling incognito under the name of the Prince of Travandahl, and watched closely by the press. He attended worship at the church one Sunday, attended by 'several of the nobility', and sat in the royal pew, enclosed by sash windows.

According to James Southerden Burn, The History of the French, Walloon, Dutch and Other Foreign Protestant Refugees &c (1846) [p241], all the church records were burned at the end of the 18th century after 'difficulties', leaving only one register, covering the period 1802-16. This recorded many communicants on prisoner of war ships, including the Irresistible and Bahama at Chatham (1809-10), the Brave at Plymouth (1811), the Buckingham, Nassau, Fryen and others. Burn also gives a list of ministers who served the church:

Iver Brink (1690-1702) [or Branck: his portrait hung in the vestry]

Jorgen Ursin
Philip Julius Borneman FRS
Soren Poulsen  (1725-48, died in office)
? Michelsen  (17??-70, died in office)
Hans Christian Roede (1771-74)
Hans Hammond (1775-??)
Andreas Charles Kierulff (????-1816)

At some stage, the church appears to have been struck by lightning. Gustavus Brander FRS FAS (1720-87) [right - painting by Nathaniel Dance], a Swedish naturalist and dilettante, reported to the Royal Society on its effects (Phil. Trans. XLIV. 298). Brander was a curator of the British Museum and a Director of the Bank of England; inheriting his uncle's fortune, he spent his latter years collecting (including the elaborate coronation chair of the German emperors) and landscaping his Hampshire garden. He gave a significant collection of Hampshire fossils (with notes by Dr Solander) to the British Museum. He also published notes on The Form of Cury [sic], a Roll of Ancient English Cookery.

On the establishment of the Kingdom of Norway and Sweden in 1815, the Norwegian government transferred its annual subsidy of £100 to the Swedish Church in Prince's Square, to which some Norwegian members transferred. (Swedes had initially worshipped with the Danes until they were invited to pray for Danish success in the ongoing war between the two countries, and decided to found their own church.) But interments in the vault continued, the last being Georg(e) Wolff's son Jens in 1845 - see below.

When the church was demolished in 1869, Cibber's four carved figures (mentioned above) were transferred to the St Peter's Danish Seamen's Mission Church in Ming Street [formerly King Street] E14. This had been established in 1867 as the 'Danish Seamen's Church in Foreign Harbours' and was reconstructed in 1906. It was restored and brightly redecorated in 1948 after war damage by Caröe & Partners, a distinguished architectural firm of Danish origin - family members continue in practice. The figures were said to look odd in this typically Scandinavian setting; but this church in turn ceased to function in 1985 and was demolished (though the Mission's office remains at 322 Rope Street in Rotherhithe). The figures are now to be found at the Danish Church in Regent's Park, together with memorial tablets from Wellclose Square, now in the porch. This church, St Katharine's [pictured below], was built in 1827 as the chapel for the Royal Foundation of St Katharine when it was forced to move from its historic site in what is now St Katharine's Docks - more details here - and was taken over and restored by the Danes in 1952. Thus by a roundabout route the Danish congregation retains a link with the history of this area, and the seamen's chaplains work from this church base.

The Danish-Norwegian Consulate was at 20 & 21 Wellclose Square on the west side from at least 1787, from the time when Georg Wolff lived there and held the post [left in the 1930s]. When the building was demolished in 1968 the 1796 Coade stone reliefs depicting the arts and sciences were moved to the Norwegian Embassy in Belgrave Place, Belgravia (the Danish Embassy is in Sloane Street); Shapla School now stands on its site. Right are pages from the June and November editions of the Anglo-Danish Society's News and Reviews about a much-enjoyed 2012 visit to the area, which we hope will lead to continued contact, and the marking of the historic Danish presence in some tangible way.


porvooThe congregation is now part of the Danske Sømands og Udlands Kirker (DSUK) - The Danish Church Abroad / Danish Seamen's Church - founded in 2004 through the merger of The Danish Church Abroad and The Danish Seamen's Church in Foreign Harbours. The DSUK is affiliated to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, which on 3 October 2010 became a full member of the Porvoo Agreement (to which they were committed from the outset, but had constitutional difficulties about how they could sign up), so - like the Swedes, Finns and other Baltic and Nordic churches in London - are in communion with the Church of England. See further Den Danske Kirke i London 1692-1992 (with English resumé by Inga Henriksen Taylor).

Here [left to right] are pictures of the Danish Church in Regent's Park mentioned above - and see also this video; of St Olav's, the Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe (by the entrance to the Rotherhithe tunnel), which forms part of Sjømannskirken, the Norwegian Church Abroad; and also, for the sake of completeness, of the nearby Finnish Church in Albion Street (also part of the Porvoo 'family'). Although there was never a Finnish Church north of the river, the Rector of St George-in-the-East has Finnish connections, and we often host visits from friends and officers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.


As the Danish community in the area declined - tending to move first to Mile End Old Town and then to Essex - and the church was abandoned, it passed into the hands of a non-denominational seafarers' mission and became a base for the Bethel Flag Union and the temperance cause. It was taken on an annual lease in 1824 by George Charles ('Bo'sun') Smith, a Baptist [right]. There is a page about him and his many organisations for seafarers and their families here, with extracts from his writings, and more detail in Roald Kverndal's Seamen's Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth (1986). His vision for the area he dubbed 'Satan's Sailortown Seat' was

The Headquarters would be the great rendezvous of the lost and guilty, where the officers of the Captain of Salvation may, under his orders, invite, persuade and impress those poor wretched wanderers who pass by, and graciously compel them to enter the receiving ship of his church universal, from whence they may be drafted to the several cruisers in the glorious service of his Celestial Majesty and in which, according to telegraphic orders, they may war a good warfare against the Lord's enemies and theirs.

When Bo'sun Smith fell out with his committee, they moved to a disused sugar wa
rehouse in the Ratcliff Highway in 1845 without him.

In 1827 this use of the church provoked 'E.I.C.' to write to the Gentleman's Magazine in these terms:

In the area of Wellclose-square, is a Church which was built for the King of Denmark, by Caius Gabriel Gibber, the well-known sculptor of the maniacs formerly in Moor-fields. Its obscure situation renders it but little noticed at this day, or I feel certain it would not have fallen into the disgrace which it at present has.

Your readers will, I am sure, be equally surprised with myself, at hearing that this edifice is converted into a meeting-house for a society of enthusiasts calling themselves the Bethel Union, and they will be the more grieved when they read the description of the edifice. The exterior shows merely a plain brick building, with a small steeple at the west end. The west front is adorned with statues of the Christian virtues. Charity, with its accompanying infants, is placed upon the cornice of the doorway.

Faith and Hope occupying niches at the sides of it. There are two Latin inscriptions on this part, setting forth the erection and dedication of the building. The interior, however, is very pleasing; its decorations and ornaments are in the best taste of the seventeenth century, and are executed in a style of elegance and profusion not surpassed by any building of the kind in the metropolis. It resembles the primitive Churches in having a circular tribune at the east end, behind the altar screen, leaving a vacancy above it, which has a far better appearance than where it is placed against a wall. It is a fine composition of the Corinthian order, and beautifully carved ; in the centre is a large painting, representing the agony in the Garden. On each side of this, upon pedestals, are full-length statues the size of life, of our Saviour and Moses, and on the cornice St. Peter and St. Paul, of smaller proportions. The table is supported by elegant open work in brass, and is covered with crimson velvet. At the west end are two galleries richly carved. In the upper is the case of an organ, the instrument having been removed. The pulpit, which is situated against the north wall, is polygonal, each face being embellished with a carving in relief from the history of our Lord. Opposite to it is a large pew, glazed and finished with a canopied roof, once appropriated to Royalty. The ceiling is richly worked in stucco, the centre rising into an elegant dome. A stone font stands in a pew near the altar. The royal arms of Denmark, and the cypher of the founder (Christian), is seen in several parts of the edifice. Upon the whole, a degree of richness and splendour are visible throughout the building, met with in few modern Churches.

When I advert to the present appropriation of the edifice, I feel certain your readers will participate with me in the feelings of indignation which arose when I witnessed its degradation. The altar-table serves as a depository for hats, and the statues of our Saviour and Moses are rendered ridiculous by having blue flags stuck into their hands, inscribed with the word 'Bethel', like those carried by benefit societies, and at other processions of a similar stamp. A model of a ship is suspended from the western galleries, and on the outside of the Church a mast with shrouds and tacking is stuck upon the roof. It would be needless to add more upon the conduct of a party which could offer so great an indignity to the statue of our Saviour as that I have just noticed, nor will it be necessary for any feelings of execration against such conduct; the bare recital of the facts themselves are sufficient. After the service, as it is called, had ended, and the congregation had deposited their offerings in the shape of pence and halfpence, in certain tin boxes, which though less musical, as effectually proclaimed the pharasaical mode of alms-giving, as a trumpet would have done, some men with riddles and clarionets struck up a tune, in which they were vocally accompanied by several others, with voices so devoid of grace and harmony, that I was only restrained from a laugh by the consideration that the building had once been sacred, and the feelings of indignation which arose from witnessing its present state.

Is the Danish Ambassador cognisant of the appropriation of the building? I can scarce believe that the King of Denmark would ever have suffered a Chapel built by one of his predecessors on the throne to be thus degraded. If Royalty, however, should display an unworthy apathy on the occasion, those great bodies, the Commissioners for building new Churches, and the Society for the same purpose, are neither dead nor asleep, and I cannot suppose that either would have suffered the building to have fallen into its present use, when it might have been converted into a Chapel of the Establishment, so much wanted in the neighbourhood, if they had been aware of the change before it took place. It is not, however, too late to redeem the structure. Let me then, Mr. Urban, call upon the two bodies I have named, and earnestly entreat the members of them, if they feel any regard for the honour of the Established Church, if they are actuated by those feelings which ought to guide them in the performance of their high duties, to lose no time in purchasing the structure, and restoring to it a sound form of worship, and to its altar and font their respective sacraments. Let the scriptural liturgy and the episcopally ordained Clergyman supersede the low-lived stories and the coarse vulgarity of the boatswain's mate. If this appeal, however, is received with apathy, and treated with contempt, join with me, in calling upon the liberality of your friends to raise a private subscription for this laudable purpose. I earnestly beg your insertion or this, and let me hope, for the honour of the Church, that it will not be disregarded.

In 1859 a scheme was made in Chancery, approved by the Master of the Rolls, for  the administration of the Danish Chapel charity; Anders Westerholz and Johannes Gondsund, City merchants, were appointed trustees. The former continued to deal with the church authorities for at least 25 years. In 1874, on paper embossed 'Consulate General of Denmark', he acknowledged a gift from the parish of £75 towards the new Danish church.

For the final, and very different, stage in this building's history, see St Saviour & St Cross Chapel. (In 1859 Bo'sun Smith, then aged 77, was ejected from the chapel for protesting against Popery in a protestant church.) When the Rector Bryan King tried to have a district assigned to this church for the Mission, the minister of St Paul Dock Street, Dan Greatorex (who was a firm Protestant), objected, and stirred up other local clergy, including Thomas Richardson at St Matthew Pell Street, to protest about the spread of 'Puseyism' in Stepney. The Bishop settled the dispute by having a district assigned to St Paul's in 1864. (It had not previously had parish boundaries because it was the 'Church for Seamen of the Port of London'). Since the Mission fell into this district, Greatorex closed it, and bought the building for £2,000, intending to convert it into a school - the 999-year leases were assigned to the Vicar and chapel-wardens 'upon trust for schools' in 1868/9, with covenants about coffins and remains, and permission to remove tablets, pictures and carved figures. So all the Mission's activities transferred to Wapping.

In the event, when Greatorex' architect brother Reuben surveyed the building, he found the walls to be out of true, the south wall by 7½" and the north wall by 9". Rhode Hawkins' second opinion concurred, so it was demolished in 1869, and the school built on the same site - compare the maps [right] of 1799 and 1894.

The fine fittings were sold by auction: the font fetched £5 5s, the Royal Arms and altar-piece £35, and the pulpit with its tester and carved figures £24. The organ console was moved to St Paul's church - it later disappeared.
A new school, designed by Reuben, was built on the site in 1870 and opened by the Prince of Wales. Its story is recorded in St Paul's School 1870-1995 (produced by The Sunday Times), on this page and on the school website.

The school was built directly over the vaults of the old church, which were explored during the building work on the site [photographs below by courtesy of Mark Willingale], and show that the school's foundations simply cut across the existing vaults. Harald Faber, in Danske og Norske i London og Deres Kirke (published in Danish in 1915) includes this register, compiled by Dan Greatorex in 1869, of the bodies that had been interred in the vault (including some after the transfer to Bo'sun Smith, the last being Jens Wolff in 1845, with whom Smith, as he explains here, had been in conflict for some years over financial arrangements.) The Medical Officer of Health for Whitechapel's 1869 report includes these words (pages 8 & 9), which seems to suggest that all the coffins were moved into an area which was then bricked up:

The Danish church, which was situated in a large open space, in Wellclose Square, and which was built in the year 1694, is now entirely demolished, and the site is about to be used for the erection of schools, in connexion with St. Paul's Church, Bock Street. These schools are intended for the accommodation of 600 children, and they will be under the superintendance of the Rev. Daniel Greatorex, the Incumbent of St Paul's Church.

Underneath the church there are several vaults, in which there had been deposited 37 coffins, of which 35 were of lead and 2 of wood. The walls of these vaults are four bricks, or 3 feet in thickness, and the roof is arched in brick-work of 4 rings in thickness.

On inspection, I was unable to detect any offensive smell in these vaults, and I found the lead coffins to be in a sound condition. The two wooden coffins had perished, but the bodies were perfectly dry. All the coffins are now covered with earth, of 2 feet in thickness, and above this thick layer of earth there is deposited charcoal, to the extent of 1 ft. 4 inches in depth,and the vaults are bricked up, so that it is impossible that any danger to health can arise from emanations from the dead bodies in the vaults.

A link with the past: fixed to the eaves of a classroom at St Paul's School is this small carved boss of a group of cherubs (now painted over), which it is believed came from Cibber's church.

For more on Wellclose Square, see here; and for a 1934 account of some of its inhabitants, see here. For an article by an English correspondent of the Danish national press, who covers church affairs, and lived in this parish until recently, click here (if you read Danish!)

See here for a recent brief visit by three children from St Paul's School to Oslo, to see the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree being felled.

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