O ne of the capital’s most wonderful buildings  The Guardian
St George’s Bloomsbury is one of the twelve new churches designed and paid for under the 1711 Act of Parliament for building Fifty New Churches, and the sixth and final London church designed by the leading architect of the English Baroque, Nicholas Hawksmoor. The 1711 Act of Parliament was passed by the new Tory government in response to the increasing number of non-conformist chapels and places of worship in London, all of which were intended to serve its rapidly growing population. The Commissioners of the Act, led by Sir Christopher Wren, quickly set about identifying those areas of London most in need of new places of worship directly controlled by the Church of England. The land on which the church is built (the ‘Ploughyard’) was bought for £1,000 from Lady Russell, widow of the Whig rebel Lord John Russell who had been executed in 1683. This is not an insubstantial sum, which begs the question why it was spent on a narrow, rectangular plot of land on a North-South axis that was hemmed in by buildings on all sides; a purchase which seemed to fly in the face of the Commissioners’ 1711 stipulation that “no site ought to be pitched upon for the erecting [of] a new church where the same will not admit the church to be placed East and West.” Perhaps the orientation of the site was deemed a surmountable obstacle, especially since the site met the needs of the commissioners in that it was situated “amongst the… better sort… [and on] the larger and more open streets, not in obscure lanes, nor where coaches will be much obstructed in the passage. The land purchase was the work of one of the two surveyors appointed by the Commissioners of the 1711 Act: Nicholas Hawksmoor. Unlike others appointed by the Commissioners, Hawksmoor continued to work as a surveyor of the 1711 Act churches until his death in 1736. Of the twelve churches completed, he would ultimately be responsible for designing six, of which St George’s Bloomsbury was the last. His final designs for St George’s, however, were only commissioned and then adopted after earlier designs by James Gibbs and Sir John Vanburgh (who proposed building a church with the altar in the north) were rejected by the Commissioners. St George’s was consecrated on the 28th January 1730 by Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London. At this time, Bloomsbury was part of the parish of St Giles in the Fields. Not only was St Giles unable to meet the needs of the increasing parish population, but it was also surrounded by one of London’s most notorious slums; the Rookery. Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751), with the spire of St George’s clearly visible towards the top of the picture, gives us an idea of the squalor and despair that characterised the area. Regular visits to St Giles in the Fields would hardly have been an attractive proposition to the nobility, gentry and well to-do taking up residence in the fashionable streets and squares of Bloomsbury, built and managed by the Duke of Bedford. Despite the grandeur of Hawksmoor’s design, the parish Vestrymen felt that his completed church did not provide sufficient accommodation for the parish and, as a result, the church was re-orientated along a north-south axis in 1781. During the 19th century, St George’s was particularly active in the Church of England’s ‘civilizing mission’, providing practical help such as schools, a library and a soup kitchen for the local community. The early 20th century saw St George’s play an active role in both spiritual and secular affairs. In 1913, St George’s the church was the setting for the memorial service for Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse in the Derby. In 1937, St George’s held a special service of remembrance for those killed during the Abyssinian War which was attended by Haile Selassie. From 1956 – 1968, St George’s Bloomsbury served as the University of London’s church, with the Rector as Senior Chaplain. After this association with the University of London had ended, the church struggled to establish a clear role for itself within the local community and fell into disrepair. Attempts during the 1990s to restore the building attracted the attention of the World Monuments Fund, whose subsequent adoption of the restoration of St George’s as a major project was the crucial first step towards the successfully- restored church we see today. Should you wish to find out more about St George’s Bloomsbury and Hawksmoor’s London Churches, we would recommend the following works: De la Ruffiniere du Prey, P, 2000. Hawksmoor’s London Churches. Architecture and Theology. London: University of Chicago Press. Downes, K, 1970. Hawksmoor. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. Meller, H, 1975. St George’s Bloomsbury. London: St George’s Bloomsbury. Tames, R, 1993. Bloomsbury Past. A Visual History. London: Historical Publications. Colin Amery, Kerry Downes and Gavin Stamp, 2008 St George’s Bloomsbury London: World Monuments Fund
One of London’s more characterful corners and a work of blinding originality, raw emotion and interesting symbolism. Hugh Pearman, The Sunday Times When Henry the Eighth left the Pope in the lurch The Protestants made him the head of the Church; But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people, Instead of the Church, made him head of the steeple Anon
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Interior: alterations to Hawksmoor’s original design

St George’s Bloomsbury was designed by Hawksmoor as an auditory’ church, following guidelines written by Christopher Wren. The space was designed specifically for the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer; it was of paramount importance that the service be heard (even if it wasn’t clearly seen) by all members of the congregation. Following the Commissioners’ stipulation, the altar was to be sited in the traditional position in the east. Hawksmoor’s original designs for the site show a church built in the shape of an oval, however these were rejected by the Commissioners. Others, including James Gibbs (also responsible for designing St Martin in the Fields) and Sir John Vanbrugh submitted unsuccessful designs before Hawksmoor was persuaded to revisit the project with the results you see today. As soon as the church opened in 1730, however, the parish Vestrymen were up in arms at what they perceived as a lack of accommodation: 447 seats compared with the 2,000 who could be accommodated inside Wren’s St James Piccadilly. Disputes and a lack of certainty over whether the vestry had the authority to make decisions on temporal as well as ecclesiastical issues to do with the church meant that nothing was done until 1781, when the addition of 337 new seats required a complete re- orientation of the church interior with the altar and reredos being moved to the north. This was just the beginning of the alterations that would be made to Hawksmoor’s original design during the late-18th and 19th centuries; further work included the erection of galleries on the west and east walls, making St George’s perhaps the only church in London which has had galleries on all four sides during its history. In 1870, under the eye of G.E. Street, the east and west galleries were taken down leaving the church in the state it would remain until 2003.


The nave of St George’s Bloomsbury is a cube, lit by raised clerestory windows. The plasterwork flower the centre of the ceiling is the work of Isaac Mansfield who, like many of the craftsmen working for Hawksmoor at St George’s, regularly worked for the Office of Works. At the centre of all but one of the proscenium arches is a keystone embellished by a tongue of flame; this represents the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. There are seven such keystones in total; as a group, these probably represent the gifts of the Holy Spirit received at Confirmation. The keystone above the east apse is different however; it is inscribed with the Tetragrammaton (the name of God in Hebrew). This can also be found inscribed towards the top of the reredos. In the 1730s, the nave would have been filled with box pews, positioned so that the congregation would face inwards (north/south), as in choir stalls or in the collegiate manner. These were mostly replaced in the 19th century with pews; some of these have been placed in the north gallery. As part of the recent restoration, the Victorian pews were replaced with new bespoke oak benches designed specifically for the space by Luke Hughes & Co. of Drury Lane. These benches were built in a way that enables us to use the space as flexibly as possible.


World Monuments Fund Britain helped to fund the £9 million restoration of St George’s Bloomsbury.  The finishing touch was the installation, in November 2009, of this 17th century Dutch chandelier, kindly loaned from the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it formerly graced the Grand Entrance for much of the 20th Century.  Weighing 740kg and over two metres wide at its core, with thirty-six scrolling branches, it once hung in the  Catholic church of Kaatsheuval, The Netherlands, and is a rare and very fine example of the flamboyant style of north-west European chandeliers that were made between 1680- 1730.  We would like to thank the Victoria and Albert Museum for loaning the chandelier to St George’s Bloomsbury and for all their support during the installation.

Galleries and organ

Perhaps the most important aspect of the recent restoration has been the return of the church to its original East-West orientation. Crucial to Hawksmoor’s original design was the provision of two galleries; one on the south and one on the north. Not only did these galleries serve as visual blinkers for visitors arriving via the west tower entrance, (thus countering the north-south orientation of the site by discouraging visitors from facing anywhere but east), but they also satisfied the Vestry’s need for two separate, yet equally visible, seating positions for its most important parishioners; the Dukes of Bedford and Montague. A new North Gallery has been reinstalled, as the original was removed during the 1780s re-orientation of the church; whilst the South Gallery has been conserved and restored to its original condition, as the middle section of this gallery had been moved forwards in 1952 taccommodate an organ, itself removed during the restoration. St George’s Bloomsbury did not have an organ until 1788. In 1792, the church organ was moved to the south gallery before being moved to the north-west in 1871 on Street’s instructions. In 1900, the organ was enlarged and divided into two sections placed on either side of the altar (in the north). This organ was eventually dismantled in advance of a new organ’s arrival in 1952 - however this instrument proved unsuitable for the space and was subsequently also removed.

East Apse and furnishings

As part of the restoration of St George’s, the reredos and altar have been restored to their original position in the east apse. The reredos is made from ‘Cuban’ mahogany (from the West Indies, but not necessarily from Cuba itself) and inlaid with numerous other woods. It was made by Thomas Phillip, John How and John Mead. When the church was re- orientated in the 1780s, the reredos was moved to the north, and the east apse became a baptismal area containing the original 1730s font, carved by the mason Edward Strong. The apse remained a baptismal area during the Victorian period, hence the stained glass in this part of the church shows baptismal themes (much of St George’s original clear glass was replaced with stained glass made by Clayton & Bell as part of the late-nineteenth century restoration supervised by Street). Famous people baptised here include the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (1815), and Richard Benson (1824), founder of the ‘Cowley Fathers’ (an Anglican religious order). Above the reredos, the ceiling decoration by Isaac Mansfield depicts winged cherubs above mitres and crosiers, the pastoral staffs carried by the bishops shaped like a shepherd’s crook. In the centre, you can see a pelican situated above a baptismal shell. According to popular tradition, the pelican pierces its own breast and feeds its young with its own blood; so that together with the sheaves of corn also depicted, the pelican represents the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. The pulpit is original to Hawksmoor’s design and was made by Thomas Phillips. It was moved from its original position towards the centre of the north apse where, mounted on a bar of iron cased in wood, it apparently ‘swayed like an enormous tulip’ when a preacher climbed its steps.


The undercroft (or vaults) beneath the church were largely unused until 1803, when the Vestry decided to allow bodies to be buried there. This decision was made in an attempt to reduce the number of burials taking place in St George’s burial ground (now St George’s Gardens, close to Coram Fields), which the Vestry feared would soon be full. By 1844, many coffins deposited in the undercroft were so decayed that they had to be bricked up in a side vault, and after 1856, no further bodies were buried beneath the church. The funeral monuments inside the church all relate to individuals buried in the undercroft. The most ornate memorial, located by the west tower entrance, is that of Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company and friend of abolitionist William Wilberforce, with whom Grant created the free colony of Sierra Leone. During the restoration of St George’s, an initial survey of the undercroft suggested that it contained approximately 300 coffins. In fact, the final total was closer to 900. Each was reverently disinterred and their contents reburied in a marked plot in St Pancras and Islington cemetery.

South front and steeple

The south front, described by Pevsner as “the most grandiose of London’s 18th century church fronts,” is dominated by a large Corinthian portico. Near-contemporaries of Hawksmoor (particularly the antiquarian William Stukeley, Rector of nearby St George’s, Queen’s Square), believed that the inspiration behind the portico was the Roman Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek in the Lebanon. This view is supportedby the fact that, in 1703, Hawksmoor was commissioned to provide illustrations for a book about the Baalbek temples written by Henry Maundrell; did these drawings serve as a model for the south front of St George’s? Looking up at the tower, you can see recessed arches; a typical feature of Hawksmoor’s work, however, the steeple is completely unique. The statue of George I at its pinnacle was paid for by William Hucks; parishioner, MP for Abingdon and royal brewer, whose motives for doing so must remain a matter for debate. The statue sits proudly on top of a stepped pyramid whose design was based upon Pliny’s description of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Turkey. Architects of this period would often include full or partial reconstructions of classical structures in their designs; a similar stepped pyramid can be seen on top the west dome of Wren’s 1673 design for St Paul’s Cathedral; however, St George’s was the first time such a pyramid had been built as part of a final design. The lions and unicorns clambering around the base of the steeple are reconstructions, created by the sculptor TimCrawley and installed on the tower in 2006. The original lions and unicorns were commissioned by Hawksmoor without the permission of the Commissioners, who initially refused to pay for them. They were removed in the 1870s for reasons that remain unclear; with the steeple as a whole recorded in the parish minutes as being “a dangerous state”, were the costs of repairing/preserving them too high or had years of derision made them unwanted? They were certainly held in affection by some as they can be clearly seen in replica on top of the two 20th Century lamps located at the portico steps.

North front

The site of St George’s Bloomsbury has always been surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. Hawksmoor took full advantage of this fact and designed a north front completely different to the south. This design resembles an Italian palace along the lines of those illustrated in the many books of Italian architecture owned by Wren and subsequently by Hawksmoor. The use of large keystones is a typical feature of