The ruined remains of a military church is on the verge of reopening part of the building following restoration work.
St George’s Garrison Church in Woolwich was built in the 1860s for the next door Woolwich barracks. Its construction was the result of a public outcry during the Crimean War (1853-6) about the living conditions for soldiers- as a result, hospitals, new barracks, and garrison churches were built. This being one of the many.
When completed it was described as “the first decent chapel provided for soldiers’ use in the Country”.
The high walls and rich brick decoration made it a landmark building in the area, however, its soaring roof was hit by a V1 flying bomb during WW2, and the inside of the church was gutted by the ensuing firestorm.
Although a temporary roof was added, the church was not used again for worship, and it slowly decayed. In 1970, the upper levels of the church were demolished, and a cheap iron roof was put over the altar to protect it.
Although still consecrated ground, it’s been a decaying shell ever since.
What makes the church, at least what remains of it, so remarkable though, and so worthy of restoration are the mosaics. These were not part of the original church, which was itself richly decorated in the polychromatic brick style popular during the Victorian period, but were added in 1902-03.
The mosaics are thought to be based on those in the Roman and Byzantine monuments in Ravenna, Italy and feature such classics as St George and the Dragon and the rising phoenix.
The mosaic of St George and the Dragon forms part of the Victoria Cross memorial, which also includes marble tablets inscribed with the names of members of the Royal Artillery decorated in conflicts from the Crimean War to the middle of World War II.
In 2011, they received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of nearly £400,000 to stabilize the building and protect the altar with its mosaics. That saw the old corrugated iron roof replaced with a more durable, and pleasing to look at roof which helps to protect the altar from the worst of the weather.
Since then, the mosaics have been under restoration, and they now expect to be able to remove the hoardings that have concealed the altar space and open it up again before Christmas.
A number of memorials to fallen soldiers line the walls, and a new memorial to those who died in conflict more recently, including Fusilier Lee Rigby who was killed in Woolwich in 2013.
Today the open air space is used for public events, theatre plays and can even be used for wedding receptions. The modern, and also ruined, sundial in the middle of the ground will be removed, and the gravel path, while crunchingly pleasing to walk on isn’t particularly good for people with mobility issues, so will be paved over.
They’ve also uncovered part of the crypt below the altar, and have identified that during the 1970 work on the high walls, that the rest of the crypt was bricked up.
The hoped-for aim is to clean that space up, so that the church can have some storage and facilities, which then makes it much more viable as a venue to be used by the local community.