Just around the corner from the grand and impressive St Bartholomew-the-Great church is its smaller cousin, the Less. It’s a good old fashioned church with a 15th century tower, a rather odd internal layout, and what’s claimed to be the oldest medieval wooden bell frame within the City of London.
There’s been a church on this site from 1184 and sits within the St Bartholomew’s Hospital site from when it was a monastery. The church’s tower and west façade date from 15th century, with two of its three bells dating from 1380 and 1420.
Inside though away from the tower entrance is not medieval at all, as in 1793 a new octagonal interior was built in the clean lines of the fashion of the time, with high simple lunette windows to let in light.
Octagonal Anglican churches are very rare.
The builder, George Dance is though to have adopted the plan in part as an expedient, fitting the piers into the roughly square area enclosed by the medieval nave and aisle walls, but may have been influenced by the dozen non-conformist octagonal churches built between 1761 and 1776.
Unfortunately, none of George Dance’s work survives as it was built from wood, promptly rotted and what we see today is a faithful replica, made from stone in 1823 by the hospital surveyor, Thomas Hardwick. Sadly, of necessity he also pulled down the rest of the medieval building apart from the tower and the west end.
So it’s still pretty old.
The stained glass depicting St Luke, St Bartholomew and Rahere is new though, dating from 1950 to replace WW2 bomb damage. One of the oddities of the church, which becomes apparent when you go inside is that the main body of the church is a couple of feet higher than the surrounding land, and you have to go up some steps to get inside. That’s quite rare, and no one is entirely sure why it was done.
The church is however no longer technically a parish church, but a Chapel of Ease. The change took place fairly recently, when it was decided to merge two parishes together.
Two parishes, of Bartholomew-the-Great and Bartholomew-the-Less have sat next to each other since they were founded. The hospital, being a former monastery was its own parish, therefore St Bartholomew the Less was, uniquely, a hospital parish church, as made such by letters patent of Henry VIII in January 1547 which refounded the church after the dissolution of the monastery.
In recent years, shared the same Priest-in-Charge. However in 2015 it was decided to formally merge the two parishes, and the The Great became the official parish church, while neighbouring The Less was demoted to a Chapel.
Being inside the hospital, it has longer opening hours than is usual as it caters for hospital visitors, so is open daily from 8am-10pm.