By and large the churches in this country remain interesting and curious buildings, they often have long and fascinating histories and they are a whole variety of shapes, sizes and styles. I’ve often wondered what would happen nowadays if you tried to get planning permissions to build such a building. Leaving aside the question of where you would get the vast funding necessary for building the place, can you imagine the plans going in front of your average local planning committee? “Oh yes, a 300ft steeple? No problems, are you planning a tower as well?”
Nicholas Hawksmoor can be rather disingenuously be described as Britain’s second most well-known architect after Christopher Wren – (but Hawksmoor got a mention in Peep Show, which Wren never did) – and he is responsible for 6 churches dotted around London. One of them is St George in the East located on the junction of Cannon Street Road and the A1203 Highway.
It’s a church that I see very regularly as my twice weekly lunchtime jogging route takes me past it and it’s a pleasant and impressive sight that breaks up the monotonous grey of the traffic that rushes down the busy dual carriageway. Because my running prowess limits me to a modest 5km it’s somewhere that’s easy to reach for a lunchtime visit.
Although the church grounds face right onto the A1203 there’s still an almost eerie sense of calm as you step into the grounds even though there’s nothing but a bit of a hedge and wall separating the two. The south side is blocky and almost functional looking and if it wasn’t for the towers you might think you were outside a museum.
A rather slippery mossy path leads round to the east and the grounds proper which display a much more attractive vista with the curved arch of the nave the focal point.
There’s a row of weathered tombstones lining the path which leads down to one of the most interesting bits of the church, the Nature Study Museum. The former church mortuary was converted in 1904 into a nature study centre and museum, which displayed live exhibits as well as stuffed animals, plants and flowers. The building is now in a very dilapidated state but hopes and plans to restore the building are afoot and one can only hope they come into fruition.
Leading away from the church in the north-eastern corner is a path that takes you up to Cable Street and deposits you right next to St George’s Town Hall (opposite Shadwell station) where the west wall is decorated with a large colourful mural commemorating the “Battle of Cable Street”.
The potted history of this event was the opposition by local Eastenders to a march through the area by the British Union of Fascists (BUF), led my Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts in October 1936. The locals, bolstered by Jewish, Irish, socialist and communist groups held back the march under the slogan “They Shall Not Pass” and it’s widely accepted that this event and ones that happened in the aftermath were the catalyst for the decline of the BUF before the Second World War.
My walk took me along the length of Cable Street, back towards the west and on the junction with Dock Street there’s a Red Plaque which commemorates the event.
A final mention for today’s update, is for the 3 pubs which are spottable along the route. On the junction of the A1203 and Chigwell Hill is The Old Rose, which although boarded up still has a row of shiny brass lamps outside. The former Britannia Tavern at 232 Cable Street is now private housing, but the attractive green and yellow tiles are still present on the outside of the building. Finally on the junction of Cannon Street Road and Cable Street is the Crown & Dolphin. Still complete with signage there’s a fantastic story of the skull of a suspected murderer being displayed in the pub for many years. Poor John Williams, the owner of the skull, was the last person in England to be staked through the heart at his funeral in 1812 when he committed suicide whilst arrested for the involvement in the Ratcliff Highway Murders.
Alas all three are currently closed but I hope that even if they don’t return as pubs, suitable uses will be found for these lovely old buildings.
A final postscript is that on my way to the church I passed a building proudly bearing the sign that it is the "Strangers Rest Evangelical Church" – I reckon this is what you’d end up with if you submitted your plans to build a church nowadays........or even a pub maybe.
St George in the East Site