Ingenious Restoration of St George-in-the-East

This article appeared in The Times of 2 September 1959. The unnamed architectural correspondent at the time was James Maude Richards FRIBA (1907-1992) [right], who was the editor of the Architectural Review from 1937-71, and was knighted for his work as a writer on architecture. He was a leading spokesman and theorist of modernism in architecture, but also one of the founders of the Georgian Group, so was an enthusiast both for Hawksmoor and for what Arthur Bailey was seeking to do within the shell of the church. He worked on the influential Shell guides, and his brief Introduction to Modern Architecture later appeared as a Penguin book.

New Structure within Burnt-out Shell


St. George's-in-the-East, Stepney, one of the grandest of all eighteenth-century churches and Hawksmoor's masterpiece, has been a burnt-out shell since it was struck by a bomb in May, 1941. Its exterior walls, its high square tower, in which Hawksmoor's forceful handling of simple geometrical elements is brought out to the full, and its four staircase turrets were very substantially built and remain largely intact, and this has made possible an unusually ingenious scheme of restoration devised by Mr. Arthur Bailey, which has now received the necessary approvals.

Building work will begin very shortly. The scheme involves the provision within the walls of the gutted church, not only of a new and smaller church, but of a quantity of social and residential accommodation amounting almost to a small village, grouped round an open court, leaving the Hawksmoor exterior unchanged.

The church was designed (as one of a group initiated by Queen Anne's Commission) in 1715, and the parish of St. George's has undergone many changes since its boundaries were defined at that time. Instead of being a residential area it is now industrial in character, with the addition of recent high-density local authority housing, lived in by people of many nationalities and denominations. The parish needs to seat only about 450 people, as against the1,400 there was room for in Hawksmoor's church.

To have restored the interior, with its vast spaces in the shape of a Greek cross, would therefore have been unrealistic, especially since war damage payments would not have allowed reinstatement of the eighteenth-century galleries. The small modern congregation would have found itself in a bare barn-like interior altogether lacking in atmosphere. Hence the decision to construct a smaller church within the walls of the old.

The London County Council moreover has plans for redeveloping the surrounding area (at present in a distressingly seedy condition) which will involve the demolition of the existing parish hall as well as some living quarters used by church workers. These, too, will be replaced by new accommodation within the walls of the old church, together with a new, future rectory.

When Mr. Bailey's plans are carried out the main west door, approached by way of a double flight of external stairs, will lead beneath the tower into an open court at the same level as the original church floor. The new church will be reached by crossing this court, and it will have a large west window looking into the court, designed to maintain the scale of the new interior in relation to the exiting tower and walling. There will be a vista through the entrance tower and new west window to the altar of the new church, which will be contained in Hawksmoor's apsidal east end.

The only substantial external change is the absence of any roof over the courtyard. But as it happens, the low-pitched roof, concealed by pediments at either end, was hardly visible, and except from the air the change will not be apparent to the eye. The original windows remain (though some of the upper ones will now be blocked), and where new windows are needed they will look on to small light wells contrived within the main structure. The courtyard is designed for us, on occasion, for open-air services.

The place of the galleries and vestries is taken by a five-room flat (the future rectory) and three two-room flats for church workers, and at a lower level, within the existing walls of the crypt, are a large and a small parish hall, with their own kitchen, lavatories, and dressing-rooms. These new parish halls, so closely grouped with the church and the church residences, will furnish an invaluable social centre in a district whose social problems have lately been the subject of much concern.

A very satisfactory aspect of this ingenious adaptation is the way the four staircase turrets, important elements in the external architectural composition, provide independent private entrances to the new residential accommodation. Separate access to the parish halls is obtainable through existing opening on the north and south fronts. The rectory can be entered from the courtyard as well as by its staircase turret.

Each element in the new group of buildings within the original perimeter walls can thus be used independently or together as required, and there is a direct connexion between the church and the halls so that the latter can be used for an overflow congregation. The effect of the adaptation will be to reduce the cubic capacity of the church to one-third of that of the old one, the seating capacity to two-fifths and the floor area from 7,000 sq. ft. to 4,250 sq. ft.

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