Shadwell, London

St. Paul's Church, Shadwell, London

The first church here was a Chapel built between 1656 and 1658 just outside the estate of the Dean of St. Paul’s on high ground which never flooded above the Shadwell Basin which frequently did. The font and some of the furnishings and plate have survived from this early Chapel.

In the 18th Century Shadwell began to grow in population as London started to spill over from the City along the river. By 1732 some 1800 houses were noted here and already many had degenerated into slums. Amongst the famous parishioners of this period were Captain Cook – whose house stood nearby – and Thomas Jefferson’s mother who worshipped here before heading off to America. Between 1770 and 1790 John Wesley preached here five times, the last occasion being his very last sermon.

Shadwell became the first point of arrival for London’s immigrant population, beginning with the Huguenots, then Jews from Iberia, then Germans and Scandinavians and finally the Chinese and Indians. As such it was always one of the very poorest parishes in London and the area was better known for its taverns and brothels than its church. Because the parish was so very poor the church soon began to suffer depredations. In 1735 the south wall was rebuilt but after that date no further money could be found and when part of the ceiling fell down in 1831 there was no question of repair. The church was closed and left in ruins.

It took until 1818 for a grant to come from Parliament for rebuilding the church as part of the “Waterloo Churches” programme, although there is no specific reference to St. Paul’s, the building was constructed by the mid-1820s at a cost of £27,000. The architect was John Walters, but he died in 1821 at the age of 39 (from overwork) and so his design was completed by J. Streather.

In the 1850s the new basins of Shadwell Docks were built and this produced some movement in the walls of the church, still evident today and when the “New” Basin was built it was necessary to construct huge buttresses to stop St. Paul’s slipping into the water. Around the same time William Butterfield was employed to make changes to the church, particularly the interiors.

The East End and London’s Docks suffered terribly during the War, but St. Paul’s Church (like it’s more famous Cathedral neighbour) managed to survive relatively unscathed, only losing the east window. The surrounding area was devastated and was largely rebuilt in the typically hurried and ugly style of post-war regeneration. The whole area was considered ‘no-go’ and unsavable during 1960s and 1970s and plans were afoot to bulldoze the whole lot – church included – in the 1980s. However, the small local population fought off the destruction and as the 1980s progressed the regeneration of Docklands began to bring Shadwell slowly back to life.

1956 was the 300th Anniversary of the church and such luminaries as Sir John Betjeman, Clement Attlee and the High Commissioner for Australia took part in an appeal for repairs to be undertaken. In 1964 the war damaged window was finally replaced and then in the late 1980s the warehouses and sheds around the New Basin were removed and replaced with new housing and open spaces – suddenly St. Paul’s was visible again and regaining its place at the centre of the community.

Today it stands sentinel over a regenerated and quite prosperous area – a great survivor and an interesting building.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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