A short history of Shoreditch Church
Dedicated to St Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners and those who are mentally ill, there has been a church here for many centuries. The first Christians in England were probably soldiers in the roman army. The church stands on the site where all the roman roads joined. You can travel from here to Chester, Bath, Lincoln, York, Chichester and Colchester along their old routes. The Wallbrook river rises outside the front door which made it a perfect site for the army camp. It is just possible, although hopeful, that Christians were here while Claudius was still emperor and Luke was writing his gospel.
We know little of those early days but there is some description of an Anglo-Saxon church which was demolished when the Normans built a replacement. This had its first vicar in 1185.
It was this church which became the actors’ church. The first English theatre was close by in New Inn Yard where several of Shakespeare’s plays had their initial performance. Many of the Elizabethan theatrical fraternity are buried in the medieval church under our crypt. This includes three Burbages, James who built the first English theatre,; his son Cuthbert who built the Globe theatre and his other son Richard who was the first to play Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard 3rd, Othello and especially Romeo. So the first Romeo is buried in the crypt where Shakespeare placed the final scene of his tragic play.
It was enlarged over many years until it had three aisles and became a substantial building. This however was a problem, for the river outside regularly overflowed and eventually damaged the foundations.
When the church finally collapsed in the eighteenth century, the present building was erected over and across its floor. It was designed by George Dance the Elder. Although as a student he had worked on the cathedral, and subsequently repaired and reordered several churches, this was the only church he designed and built from an original design. His main work was with public buildings, for example he built the Mansion House for the Lord Mayor. However, this new church caused a scandal when first opened. It was very unlike the chunky and ornate Hawksmoor style so popular in the late Baroque period. The slender columns and subtle colonnades, and bright windows were an innovation that was hard to accept as a church. Luckily tastes have changed and now it is seen as a national treasure. It is, with its Clerk’s House, the oldest building in Shoreditch.
In 1870, the Victorians damaged it, stripping out the galleries and bricking up the ground floor windows. They did not realise that they compromised the structural integrity of the building. Twentieth century war damage hastened its problems. It was apparent by 1990 that the building was becoming unsafe, so eventually it was closed for nearly two years to be rebuilt nearer to its original form.
Shoreditch Church has always been committed to its community. (When the Spanish Armada was coming up the channel, the church was giving out bread and coal to poor people.) So when it was recently rebuilt, a large amount of money was spent on its community needs and no funds were left to buy paint. Hence it still looks a bit sad and tatty.
The current community is highly diverse. The wealth of the City meets the deprivation of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The estates to the east have traditionally been dumping areas for the disaffected and poor immigrants. However, the large Bengali community is being assimilated into the newly rich creating yet another wonderfully fruitful village.
However, there is another community of semi-derelict people who live on the streets. To help this community, the church has built ‘Acorn House’ the 18 bed residential unit for those who need a roof and security while they recover from various addictions. This is operated for us by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust.
More recently the Hanbury Project began its work to help give practical skills to those in recovery. Among other projects, they have relandscaped the church gardens with stunning plants creating a valuable asset for our community.
We also have four addicts groups that use the church hall in the week and a daily drop-in centre. We now help nearly five hundred people a month.
The wonderful acoustics have made it a favourite venue for music; about twelve hundred musicians have played here in the last four years. This ranges from the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra to grade one piano students via Jack White and Dead Weather.
Of course, its primary purpose is to retain its ancient and holy presence in Shoreditch. More than two hundred people a week come to pray and worship.
For the future, we are exploring the possibility of reopening the twelfth century church crypt in such a way that you will be able to walk the floor that Shakespeare walked and maybe see the last resting place of those early English actors.