The Rebuilding of St George-in-the-East

from The Story of St George-in-the-East, The Rev A.M. Solomon (1965)

[see also his 1986 retrospect here, and a 1959 press report about the project here]

On the eve of the Second World War a bird's-eye view of the surrounding parishes from the top of the tower of St. George's would have revealed narrow, dirty streets; unventilated courtyards; houses huddled together in unplanned chaos, most without proper sanitary conditions, many in bad repair; factories; warehouses; workshops scattered indiscriminately; very few open spaces. Children's playgrounds were the streets. Towards Aldgate lived people of many races, colours and religions. Down by the river were the docks where there was much wealth and, until the war, so much casual labour. To the east stood houses, blocks of flats, cinemas, markets, tiny roofs and chimneys fading into the distance. To this part of London, as to many others, came the blitz. The crypt of St. George's became a shelter.

Under wartime conditions six parishes in Stepney had been grouped together. Before Easter 1941 the services at St. George's were being taken by the clergy of Christ Church, Watney Street. On April 16th of that year Christ Church and its Vicarage were destroyed by a landmine. In May St. George's was gutted by incendiaries. The only buildings left were St. George's Rectory and the Mission House. So the staff of Christ Church moved in. The parishes of Christ Church, St. George-in-the-East and St. John's, Golding Street, had all to be served by one staff and from St. George's Rectory. An altar was immediately set up in the largest room. After many months the congregation outgrew the room. For eighteen months the Church moved into the Mission Hall and set up and took down its altar over the week-end. All Christmas services during 1942 and the Easter services of 1943 were held there. On the Sunday before Christmas 1943 the Bishop of Stepney opened and blessed the prefabricated Church of "St. George-in-the-Ruins", a small, new Church which brought relief to the hard pressed congregation, for it meant that they had a Vestry, morning Chapel for daily services and a High Altar all in one building again.

For seventeen years St. George-in-the-Ruins performed the function of a parish church while the re-marking of parochial boundaries established the present grouping of the three parishes under one - "St. George-in-the-East with Christ Church and St. John".

In August 1960 the ingenious plan of Arthur Bailey began to take shape. To have restored the interior, with its vast spaces, in the shape of a Greek cross, would have been impractical because war damage payments would not have allowed the reinstatement of the 18th Century galleries. The London County Council plans for development in the area involved the demolition of the Mission and Parish Hall. Accordingly it was decided to remove the coffins in the fifty-nine vaults to Brookwood Cemetery, take down the prefabricated Chapel and break down the vaults, leaving the tower and the original walls of the gutted Church. Within this shell was planned the construction of an adequate parish hall under a smaller Church with a clear west window of full length, separated from the tower by a courtyard. In the four corners of the building the extra space, provided by the arms of the Greek-cross pattern, envisaged comfortable flats for the staff of the Church, one five-roomed, one three-roomed and two two-roomed. In January 1960 the congregation had moved into the upper room on the first floor of the Mission. A Chapel, which was to bring blessings of all descriptions to many who gathered round the altar, became our spiritual home for nearly four years.

[Fr Solomon's niece Ros adds this note about the upper room chapel: My fiancé Ron and I worshipped at St George's even though living in the London suburbs. We helped to run the youth club, and I ran the Brownies, until we moved out of London in 1964. When we were due to be married in February 1960, the Upper Room had just been opened as a church, and my uncle had it licensed for weddings so that we could be married there. Many other weddings also took place there.  After the new rebuilt church was dedicated, my uncle held a service of rededication for all who had been married in the Upper Room – I think about half of the couples were present, and it was a joyous occasion.  We even had a “reception” in the crypt, complete with a cake!]

Meanwhile "the tea-house of the August moon" was first erected by the builders; then one morning a large mechanical scoop backed up a ramp, under the tower and into the excavation site; a monorail truck chugged busily in and out every three minutes and 2,500 cubic yards of brick and concrete rubble disappeared down Cannon Street Road by April 1961. The District Surveyor came and pronounced the laying of new mains and drains satisfactory, together with the foundations of the sixteen new columns on bases of concrete plinths four foot square. By November 1961 the lantern was completely repaired and the flag mast erected. In June 1962 there was a bit of excitement. Whilst repairing the stonework, some personal marks of the stonemasons engaged in the original construction came to light. "The best example of these 'banker' marks is on the keystone of the external arch at belfry level on the west face of the tower. On the north-west turret on the topmost ring of stones directly below the wooden dome six different kinds of marks on the sixteen stones are the family marks of the masons.

As far as it is possible to ascertain there were three generations of one family employed on this part of the construction. When a man started as a stonemason it was usual for him to adopt some form of identification mark for his own use. His son, on entering the craft would then adapt this mark in some simple way to maintain his own individual identity, yet at the same time, show that he was a member of the same family and in due course his son would modify the family mark yet again". So wrote Mr. Alan May, the Clerk of Works in the "Highway" (July 1962). The most interesting mark was made by "William x Edgeley" who was not up in Roman numerals and had three tries before he got the date right. We also discovered that Thomas Owen was ye First Bell Ringer and Grave Digger of this Parish.

Having got the roof of the new Church on, the Surveyor condemned the east gable which was originally thought to be only superficially in need of repair. With ultra caution vast stones were lowered on to the new floor; the arch was stripped and rebuilt from the piers upwards. This was the first major upset of the time schedule. By February 1963 the gable and the copper roof to the nave was complete, despite the bitter cold which had suspended much of the work. By May the decoration of the Parish Hall was nearing completion and by July the four turret domes looked resplendent in lead with their copper finials, two of which are renovated originals. The new eastern face of the tower was emerging from scaffolding and we began to appreciate the beauty of Arthur Bailey's restoration. By the time the mosaics were repaired and washed with a solution of spirits of salts and the apse ceiling was assembled in its five panels, the new atmosphere of the resurrected Church of St. George-in-the-East was beginning to instil awe and reverence among visitors and the congregation.

Very soon the staff quarters were occupied and the Parish Hall became the scene of the Christmas Bazaar on December 14th. On December 22nd, the Sunday before Christmas and twenty years (to the day) after the Bishop of Stepney had blessed St. George-in-the-Ruins, the Church in the Upper Room moved into its new home on the stage of the Parish Hall, now wonderfully equipped, adaptable and convenient. Christmas 1963 was a joyful and stimulating season with the spirit of Thanksgiving amply expressed in Word and Sacrament and Christian fellowship.

And so to April 26th - the date of the Re-dedication.

God's House is now completely restored. The utmost thought and care have been devotedly lavished on its construction. Within its walls family life, social service, the cultivation of talent and the practice of prayer - in fact Worship in all its forms will be expressed. It is ready for the new Stepney growing out of the ruins to value and care for it. It also has a wider appeal beyond the parochial boundary.

Already the Hall is in great demand. It has the natural assets of theatre and concert hall; here theatre can be performed formally, in the round and by using the gallery as stage, with an eastern atmosphere or in the mood of the mystery plays against a setting of fascinating arches and inner shapes of the vaulted ceiling beyond.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the conductorship of Jascha Horenstein, used the well of the Hall for rehearsal early in March and booked five dates.

The Education Authorities are planning to use the hall for drama and music on festival occasions for young and old. The London Federation of Boys Clubs has come to regard the hall and stage as their home for theatre and arts and crafts. West End theatre producers find excellent facilities for rehearsal here too. Arts and Crafts examinations are assessed and Exhibitions staged. Amateur sporting occasions are held. The local young and old are learning to play musical instruments within the walls of St. George's.

It is developing as an Arts Centre. Monthly recitals of music are held during the winter season. Religious drama naturally finds a place.

The visitor to Hawksmoor's historic building is greeted by a vista upon entering the drive. The eye travels up the drive, across the rotunda, through the portico, across the courtyard, through the west window to the altar standing well forward and resplendent against the apse, restored as of old, with the muted tones of the mosaic panels and the crowning glory of the ceiling. [drawing by J.D. Harvey, left]

The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former
and in this place will I give peace, saith the Lord of Hosts. 
Haggai 2.9

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