There’s a church next to busy Piccadilly Circus which most us probably know more from the market in its courtyard than the church behind.
Yet, this unassuming brick church is one of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches built to support the development of the local area from fields into houses in 1676 and largely funded, it’s thought, by the Earl of St Albans who held the lease for the land in the area.
Although the Earl paid for the main building, the rest was funded by the congregation, and not always in a timely manner as there are a lot of records of debts and lawsuits over unpaid bills from the suppliers who worked on fitting out the church and the steeple.
Thanks to a growing congregation, in 1902 an outdoor pulpit was added to the building overlooking the courtyard, where the poor (or late) parishioners could hear a service as well.
The church managed to thrive, but in October 1940 was hit by a German bomb and severely damaged. During the restoration, the old lead-covered spire was replaced by a much lighter fibreglass copy.
It then suffered the same neglect that many city churches faced, in a declining local population and the rise of secularism so that those who remained were less inclined to hear a priest jabber on about a magic man in the sky.
By 1980 so dire was its fortune that it’s said claimed that when the rector Donald Reeves was offered the post, the bishop allegedly said “I don’t mind what you do, just keep it open.”
And open it has remained – by ditching stuffy old preaching and embracing a liberal approach that would have old ladies choking on their cups of sweet tea.
The famous market opened a year later in 1981 and has been there ever since and the church is such a regular on the music concert scene that for many it’s probably now more familiar as a music hall than a church.
Inside is a good restoration of the Wren original design, with the ornate woodwork over the altar by Grinling Gibbons.
One of the more notable features are the uplighters, which are integrated into the pews and give the church a very different lighting effect compared to the more conventional chandeliers in other churches, and was introduced by Sir Albert Richardson during the restoration.
There’s an awful lot of clutter around the church, but that’s a sign of one that’s still in active use, and regardless of opinions about the religion, it’s always nice to see an old building still being used for its original purpose.
Location map and local interesting places
- 1] St James's Church Piccadilly
- 2] RC Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St Gregory
- 3] Notre Dame de France
- 7] Mason's Yard, SW1
- 8] Angel Court
- 9] Crown Passage, SW1
- 10] Blue Ball Yard, SW1
- 11] Pickering Place, SW1
- 12] Whitcomb Court
- 13] Tyler's Court