St George-in-the-East Centre: the 1991 Appeal

Ambitious plans to develop the forecourt and crypt as a home for the Guildhall Ensemble and other community groups - leaving the 1960s interior intact - were developed under the leadership of the Rector Gillean Craig, and a £4m appeal was launched on 26 September 1991 by the Bishop of Stepney and Lord Palumbo. Both of them appear to have had their mind on other things.

It was Bishop Jim Thompson's last day in Stepney before his move to become the Bishop  of Bath and Wells. He said I shall miss Stepney. I've had a lot of flak here but I've been in the East End for 25 years. I hope that in Somerset they'll see I'm not really the townie they might think. But he commended the project wholeheartedly, saying it was not a luxury but a necessity.

Lord Palumbo, Chairman of the Arts Council [seen right inspecting a scale model of the project] said It's a very beautiful building. I'm sure the appeal will be a success. Personally, I'm still trundling along with my project at the Poultry. It seems to be taking forever.

The Rector said this used to be the most notorious parish in England. We had riots here in the last century, with 60 policemen in the congregation to keep everyone quiet. What with Edwin Drood's opium den at the back door and Cable Street round the corner, there's never been a dull moment.

Left is the brochure (cover and inside pages), and right pictures from the Church Times of 27 September 1991 and an article by Jonathan Glancey in The Independent of 9 October 1991.The following assessment of the project by Colin Amery in the Financial Times of 30 September 1991 is of particular interest in view of his comments 18 years later, reported here.

New lease of life for a damaged masterpiece

Colin Amery welcomes an appeal to help preserve the dual role of a Hawksmoor church

Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) is an architect whose work has the power to move. From the time when Sir Christopher Wren recognised his 'early skill and genius' and took him into his employment as his clerk aged only 18, Hawksmoor's name had been associated with a rare architectural brilliance. London is a fortunate city in having so many of Hawksmoor's greatest works. His trio of amazing churches - Christ Church Spitalfields, St. Anne Limehouse and St. George-in-the-East - although some of the finest products of 18th century art, are still somehow lost and neglected in the wastelands of London's East End. In almost any other European city they would be recognised and cherished as masterpieces - the equal of anything in Rome.

Last week an appeal was launched to help one of these churches, St. George-in-the-East, to help make it a viable centre for its parish and to transform its crypt and courtyard into a working home for the Guildhall Ensemble. The Ensemble is the postgraduate arm of the Performance and Skills Department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and for the last two years it has been based in the crypt of St. George's, where it carries out an unusual development programme bringing music and performance training to all sections of the community.

The dual use of St. George's comes about because the church was badly bombed in the second world war and the Hawksmoor interior was not restored. Instead, inside the massive and marvellous walls, a small modern church was erected to the designs of the architect Arthur Bailey, and flats were squeezed into parts of the fabric.

Today, St. George's stands opposite the refurbished Tobacco Dock. It is still a magnificent sight, soaring like a great stone galleon above the strange mixture of welfare housing and commercial opportunism that now characterises London's Docklands. It looks intact from the street and it is a horrible shock to discover that Anglican pragmatism of the 1960s could not rise to contemplate a complete restoration of one of the undoubted masterpieces of the English Baroque.

The latest plans, announced last week, do not propose any further restoration. Instead the scheme, carefully prepared by architects Stanton and Williams, leaves the 1960s church more or less as it is and proposed a new glazed atrium on the site of the present internal courtyard which will allow light to penetrate the crypt.

It is a rational and intelligent way of utilising a damaged building to its fullest potential. Public rooms and galleries will be added at four levels and the 1960s church will feel less like a temporary addition sitting at the feet of a powerful ruin. The Guildhall Ensemble will also gain a good range of rehearsal and performance facilities.

Does Hawksmoor benefit too? The new proposals respect his geometry more than the older ones did. The staggering sight of Hawksmoor's tower forcing its way through the split pediment will still be there on the west front. It will, in fact, be enhanced by the restoration of Hawksmoor's own design for the steps.

The appeal is a sensible one to support because it keeps a great ruin in active use and the musical facilities clearly have a great value. The failure to restore the church as an architectural monument of European significance goes back to the immediate post-war years. It remains a tragedy that the will to maintain and guard the work of one of the great English architectural geniuses has consistently been so weak. Architects and art bureaucrats endlessly sing the praises of Hawksmoor, but that is not enough. Poor old Christ Church, Spitalfields has not been much helped by the endless music that has been performed there - its restoration should have received all the wealth of the City. The tragedy is that these masterpieces are in the East End of London - an area that has still not really benefitted from the unplanned development of Docklands nor from the profits of the ludicrous giantism of Canary Wharf.

COMMENT: Colin Amery supported this scheme even though it left unaltered Arthur Bailey's 1960s interior of which he disapproved, arguing that it respected Hawksmoor's geometry better than the earlier work - presumably by re-enclosing the courtyard - and was a means of keeping the church in full use. The return to the pre-1800 configuration of the external steps which he mentions is in fact once again under consideration, but now as a possible means of arranging disabled access.

He was, and remains, scathing about Arthur Bailey's interior, blaming the failure to recreate a Hawksmoor interior on a combination of the lack of funds because of the church's location in the East End and 'Anglican pragmatism', and he continues to argue that the 1960s solution should be seen as a temporary expedient pending a full-scale 'restoration'. Is he right? It is true that funding was tight, and remains so in the East End; but how sustainable would a 'fully-restored' church have been? He fails to mention that within a year Tobacco Dock opposite had become a £40m white elephant. 'Pragmatism' in fact deliberately and imaginatively created a space fit for the ongoing needs of the parish. Since 1991, huge sums have been spent on Christ Church Spitalfields, and St George Bloomsbury, both with much finer interiors, and St Anne Limehouse has also been restored; is there not a case the case for leaving St George-in-the-East, whose interior was lost, to bear the scars of history while remaining an active parish church?

Also in 1991, two computer technicians, Alan Bugg and Nigerian-born Adeola Lelemi, both brought up as Anglicans, mounted an exhibition of photographs and poetry which included this image of the Visitation, shot in the passage on the north of the church, Alan Bugg, a photographer - as reported in the Church Times for 4 June (click image for the article).

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