Essential Architecture-  London

St. Mary Woolnoth


Nicholas Hawksmoor




1716 to 1724


English Baroque




St. Mary Woolnoth is an Anglican church in the City of London, located on the corner of Lombard Street and King William Street near the Bank of England.

The church's site has been used for worship for at least 2,000 years; traces of Roman and pagan religious buildings have been discovered under the foundations of the present church, along with the remains of an Anglo-Saxon wooden structure. Its name is first recorded in 1191 as Wilnotmaricherche. It is believed that the name "Woolnoth" refers to a benefactor, possibly one Wulnoth de Walebrok who is known to have lived in the area earlier in the 12th century. Its full (and unusual) dedication is to St. Mary Woolnoth of the Nativity.

The present building is at least the third church on the site. The Norman church survived until 1445, when it was rebuilt, with a spire added in 1485. It was badly damaged in 1666 in the Great Fire of London but was repaired by Sir Christopher Wren. Two new bells (the treble and the tenor) were cast in 1670, and in 1672 the middle bell was cast.

The patched-up structure proved unsafe, however, and had to be demolished in 1711. It was rebuilt by the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, financed by the coal tax of 1711.

The new church was completed in 1716, commissioned from Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had responded with one of his most distinctive and original designs. He benefitted greatly from having an unusually open area in which to work. The old church had been hemmed in by shops and houses, like many other City churches, but these were demolished at the same time as the church. Hawksmoor was thus able to fully exploit the unobstructed front of the site.

The resultant church was something of an architectural statement on Hawksmoor's part. Its unusually imposing façade, in English Baroque style, is dominated by two flat-topped turrets supported by columns of the Corinthian order, which are used throughout the church. The west side of the façade, facing Lombard Street, has distinctive recesses bearing an inset forward-curving pediment resting on skewed columns.

The interior of the church is surprisingly spacious, despite its relatively small size. The layout is typical Hawksmoor, forming a "cube within a cube" - a square enclosed by three rows of four columns which is itself enclosed by a wider square. It is dominated by a baroque baldaquin, modelled on that of Bernini in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The church underwent major changes in the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th century; it was proposed for demolition on several occasions but was saved each time. Its galleries were removed by William Butterfield in 1876, who thought they were unsafe, and a number of other significant (and not entirely successful) changes were made at the same time.

Between 1897 and 1900 the City & South London Railway (C&SLR) built Bank tube station beneath the church. The C&SLR were given permission to demolish it, but public outcry forced them to reconsider: the company undertook to use only the subsoil instead. The crypt was sold to the railway and the bones were removed for reburial at Ilford. The walls and internal columns of the church were then supported on steel girders while the lift shafts and staircase shaft for Bank station were built directly beneath the church floor. At this time, the bells were also rehung with new fittings. No cracks formed in the plasterwork, and no settlement of the structure occurred; the company later claimed that the edifice of the church was considerably stronger than before.

In 1952 St. Mary Woolnoth became a Guild church.

Famous people associated with the church
Thomas Kyd, Elizabethan dramatist, was baptized here; his father Francis was also a churchwarden
John Newton, evangelical, anti-slavery campaigner and hymnist, was incumbent here from 1780 to 1807
William Wilberforce, anti-slavery campaigner, worshipped here
Edward Lloyd, founder of Lloyd's of London, is memorialised here
T. S. Eliot refers to this church in his poem The Waste Land:
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
Church rebuilt on old foundations and consecrated by an Irish Bishop.

Record of payment to clocksmith for keeping the chimes and mending baldrick of the 4th bell.

Record of 5 bells ("Item in the steple five great bells and a litill bell wt a clock and a chyme and ropes to the same"). Also mention of a chime of sacring bells on a wheel.

Record of the purchase of 2 sacring bells.

Records mention a saunce bell.

Records mention a payment "to a bell founder in hounediche" for trussing the bells.

Records mention the payment to a bellfounder for "the mendinge of the Clapper of the Thirde bell and for hanginge of the bell right in the stocke".

Records refer to paymentr for two stirropes for the tenor.

Records give "Item for a Joice to hould steddy the fourth bell and for taking of the same bell out and putting the iron wedges".

The Great Fire destroyed everything that could be burned, but the north wall and part of the east wall were rebuilt. The remainder was patched up as the parish was eager to gave the church ready for Divine Service.

Treble and tenor cast. Parish united with St Margaret Haw.

Middle bell cast.

Record of "2 bells and the Saints".

The building was found to be very unsafe, and as it was feared that it might fall, it was pulled down and rebuilt.

New church completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Easter Day
Church reopened.

Record of "3 bells".

24th May
Church reopened. At this time the bells were rehung with new fittings.

Church damaged in air raids, but not seriously.

Bells overhauled by Mears & Stainbank.