St James Clerkenwell

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• The parish of St James, Clerkenwell, has had a long and sometimes lively history. The springs which give Clerkenwell its name are mentioned during the reign of Henry II.

• The parish clerks of London used to perform their mystery plays based on Biblical themes, in the neighbourhood, sometimes in the presence of royalty.

• In approximately 1100 a Norman baron named Jordan Briset founded a Benedictine nunnery dedicated to St Mary, which became wealthy and influential. It had a place of pilgrimage at Muswell Hill, and the parish kept an outlying tract of territory there until the nineteenth century.

• At the dissolution of the nunnery under Henry VIII, the church, which by then seems to have acquired a second dedication to St James, was taken into use by its parishioners who had already been using a part of it for some considerable time. The site of the nunnery was granted to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk in 1540 but the freehold of the church passed through various hands until it was conveyed in 1656 to trustees on behalf of the parishioners, who at the same time obtained the right to appoint the vicar. Unlike other parishes, they retained it after the Restoration of 1660. Elections of vicars were held, with all the excitement and paraphernalia of parliamentary elections, right down to the early years of this century and a distinctly Low Church tradition was thereby established.

• In 1623 the steeple fell down twice but was eventually successfully rebuilt.

• By 1788 the old church, which was a medley of seventeenth and eighteenth century sections in various styles grafted onto the remains of the mediaeval nunnery church, presented an appearance of a picturesque but dilapidated muddle. In that year an act of parliament was passed for the rebuilding of the church, the money to be provided by the sale of annuities. The architect was a local man, James Carr, and he produced a building which is pre-eminently a preaching-house but with carefully planned and harmonious detail clearly influenced by Wren and Gibbs. The new church was dedicated in 1792. The upper galleries were added in 1822 for the children of the Sunday-School, founded in 1807; the back parts of the upper galleries were for the use of the poor. The tower and spire were restored in 1849 by W. P. Griffith and Sir Arthur Blomfield restored the church and rearranged the ground floor in 1882.

• The organ was built in 1792 by George Pike England to replace the one by Richard Bridge, which he took in part exchange. The new organ had three manuals, toe pedals and a Spanish mahogany case. This, together with much of England's pipe work, still survives. The rococo detail is noteworthy, especially the carved drapery over the pipes. The organ was rebuilt by Noel Mander of Mander Organs in 1978, returning to the original style after some drastic alterations made in 1928. It now has 2 manuals and pedals and 22 speaking stops.

• There is a fine peal of eight bells in the tower, dating from 1791, though all the bells were recast in 1928.

• During the 20th century, the parish of St John, which had been carved out of St James's in 1721, was reunited with it, as was the parish of St Peter. The latter had been established in 1869 for the Smithfield Martyrs Memorial Church of that name; the present church contains a memorial to the Martyrs as a commemoration of St Peter's, which suffered heavy war damage in 1941 and was finally demolished in 1955.

• The parish church of St John was a remnant of the priory of St John, which is now the headquarters of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, and the church became the chapel of the Order.

• The porch also houses the benefaction boards, recording the numerous charities still being distributed among the elderly folk of Clerkenwell and going back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when the parish was a fashionable place in which to live.

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