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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

St George the Martyr Southwark, London's first St George church

Its 900 years feature Henry V, Dickens, Livery Companies - and what a ceiling!

St George the Martyr, Southwark

The foundation stone of today's church of St George the Martyr, Southwark, was laid on St George's Day (23 April) in 1734 and work was completed in 1736. Architect John Price adopted a neoclassical style that borrows heavily from Sir Christopher Wren.


A grant of £6,000 towards its construction was given by the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, set up in 1711 to build new churches for the expanding London population. Strictly speaking it was not a new church, but a rebuild of a much older one that had become dilapidated.

 

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The first record of a church here is in 1122, when St George the Martyr was given to Bermondsey Abbey by Thomas Ardern and his son Thomas. This was the time of the Crusades, when the cult of St George first came to England. The dedication of the church to St George predated by more than two centuries Edward III's adoption of the saint as patron of the Order of the Garter and almost three centuries before he became patron saint of England.


That happened in 1415, the same year as the Battle of Agincourt in which the English army led by Henry V defeated the French. When Henry returned from the battle in November 1415, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London rode out from the City to greet him at Blackheath, attended by thousands of nobles and citizens dressed in ceremonial robes.


The procession then passed St George's church and across London Bridge, where a massive effigy of the saint was constructed for the occasion. According to one version of the story, the Mayor and Aldermen met the King on the steps of the church itself.

The view towards the east end of the church

The church of St George in Henry V's day, a late 14th century rebuild of the original Norman church, stood until it was replaced by the current building in the 18th century. It can be seen in the Panorama of London drawn in 1544 by the Flemish topographical artist Anton van den Wyngaerde. The church is in the foreground, left of centre, in the picture below. It is thought that Wyngaerde may have used the church tower to survey at least part of his view of London.

Part of Wyngaerde's London Panorama. By Nathaniel Whittock - Maps of Old London - copy of originals in Bodlean Library., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The medieval church also appears in the background of William Hogarth's engraving Southwark Fair, created in 1733, shortly before the building was demolished. It depicts the crowded, noisy exuberance of a popular festival whose reputation for vice and criminality led to its suppression in 1762.

Southwark Fair by William Hogarth - Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Perhaps the most striking feature of the interior of the church today is its ceiling, with a painted relief in carton pierre (a form of paper mache) depicting cherubs emerging through a cloudy sky.

The ceiling by Basil Champneys

The ceiling was created in 1897 by Basil Champneys, better known as an architect (whose most famous building is the John Rylands Library in Manchester).

Champneys' cherubs

The church's wooden galleries were added in 1808. The frieze above the galleries includes the coats of arms of four City of London Livery Companies - Skinners, Grocers, Fishmongers and Drapers - who contributed to the church's construction costs.

The wooden pulpit and marble font date from the construction of the current church in the 1730s.

Box pews, a fairly rare feature in London chuches today, were installed in the 19th century. They were shortened to their current height in 1855.

St George's box pews

A lead cistern was installed in 1738 after the churchwardens agreed to pay 20 shillings a year for a supply of water from the main. It remains in the church, but is now used as a table for leaflets and has seen use as a collection box.

The cistern

The church's organ was originally built in 1702 (predating the current building) by Abraham Jordan at his workshop next door to the church. A distiller, who taught himself to build organs, Jordan became one of the most important organ makers of his time. The instrument he built for St George's included some work by Bernard Smith from the 1680s. An immigrant from Germany, originally called Baerent Smit, 'Father' Smith became the 'King's Organ Maker' in 1681 and was also a very significant exponent of the craft of organ making. Abraham Jordan's original 1702 organ has undergone significant changes and rebuilds, but has an impressive pedigree.


On the gallery below the organ is the Royal coat of arms of the House of Stuart, which likely date from the 1620s when the previous church was standing.

The Stuart coat of arms and the organ gallery

The stained glass windows at the east end of the church, above the altar, was made during post World War II restoration work in 1951-52 by Marion Grant. In the central panel, there is a representation of Jesus' Ascension, while the side panels depict St George (left) and St Michael (right), confusingly slaying a dragon, representing the devil.

The east window by Marion Grant

Below St George in the left hand panel is a small kneeling figure representing Little Dorrit, with a bonnet hanging down her back. In the eponymous novel, Charles Dickens' fictional character was baptised and married in St George the Martyr. She also spent a night in the church after being locked out of her home, the nearby Marshalsea Prison, where she lived with her imprisoned debtor father.

Little Dorrit kneeling below St George

A figure of St George, this time with a dragon, can also be seen in stained glass in a window below the south gallery. It was brought to the church in 1933 from the chapel of Hanwell Residential School when it closed in 1933. The only window in the church to survive World War II, it commemorates alumni of the school killed in World War I.

St George below the south gallery

The church has a clock with four faces in the steeple. Three of the clock faces are predominantly white and are illuminated at night. However, the clock facing east, towards Bermondsey, is mainly black and it stays dark at night. Originally it did not even have a clock dial and hands.

The Bermondsey- facing clock

According to legend, this is because the people of Bermondsey did not join residents in other local areas in paying towards the costs of building the church in the 1730s.


St George the Martyr is usually open weekdays from 9am to 5pm and is just over the road from Borough tube station. It is well worth a visit, even if you live in Bermondsey.

 

To see the schedule of London On The Ground tours, please click here.


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