A few of you may have noticed my renewed interest for English Neo-Classical architecture. While exploring new and old bits of London, I came across some rather interesting examples of Anglican Georgian architecture, one of them is St. Paul’s Church in Clapham.
St. Paul’s is located in a trendy bit of the London district of Clapham, older than the Doomsday Book, located just south of the river bank right in front of Chelsea, in Southwark Diocese. The area is serviced very well by public transport but it’s also one of London’s greenest and youngest areas, disseminated with lovely and cozy housing as well as independent coffee shops and the occasional Waitrose or M&S store. A short walk from Clapham Common tube station will take us to Rectory Grove.
St. Paul’s is still located in a charming green space which also serves as churchyard, the 18th and 19th century classical tombs covered in ivy prove to be an excellent and peaceful background to the church. Because of its quiet position it truly has the feel of a country parish, which also makes it perfect for weddings!
A place of Christian worship dedicated to the old English title of Saint Mary the Virgin stood on this site at least since the 12th century, during the later Middle Ages it fell under the influence of Merton Augustinian Abbey which appointed its ministers. After the Reformation, the Gothic building was rededicated to the Trinity. Like most south London churches it survived the fire of London, but by the 17th century the building was in a state of decay and was considered unstable. The church was finally demolished in the late 18th century when in 1774 an Act of Parliament authorised the construction of a new one. Because of the unhealthy nature of London living in the 18th century, the much healthier Clapham Green grew in population. Afterwards a new Holy Trinity church was built by Clapham Common in 1776, but St. Paul’s remained the main parish church, as it is today.
The church was rebuilt in the early 19th century by architect Christopher Edwards, a rather well known London architect of the time. The first service was held on 24th September 1815. The church designed in the classical style with London stock brick, had Greek Revival elements, such as its geometrical shape and a general sense of Georgian simplicity. It is perhaps one of London’s finest examples of late Georgian ecclesial architecture. It reflects the structure of pre-Tractarian high church worship, with its single-aisled single nave, gallery (two further galleries were taken down during the last century), and spacious windows. In 1875, the prominent Victorian architect Sir Arthur Blomfield, known for having designed Selwyn College Cambridge, extended the east-end of the nave. Thankfully, in my opinion, this was bricked up post-WW2 to make room for the parish hall, preserving the Georgian proportions of the nave. Also Georgian is the lovely rectory to the left of the churchyard, thankfully, also still used as such. In 1955, the church became a grade-II listed building.
The Lady Chapel also hosts a fine set of five 17th century Baroque memorials, originally found in crypt, near the original tombs. The memorials are of members of the Atkins family, the parents and children. They’re fine examples of English Baroque sculpture, the father is dressed in a beautiful ancient Roman armour, calling back to England’s renewed interest in classicism. The father was Lord of the Manor. In the nave there is a fine memorial to William Hewer, who was Samuel Pepys’ understudy in the Navy Office, and with whom he lived during his last years.
St. Paul’s is a growing parish with a welcoming and inclusive charism centred in the liberal Catholic tradition of the Church of England, the present vicar only recently took his position here having previously held the prestigious position of Anglican vicar of Rome! He is preceded by a wonderful list of notable female clergy.
A wonderful testament to St. Paul’s inclusive history is a rather obscure fact, between 1799 and 1806 Clapham became home to a group known as the “Clapham Sect”, made up of key abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Buxton and Granville Sharp who set up an “African Academy” aiming at educating boys of African descent aged 10-17. Students learnt a variety of subjects, centred around a religious curriculum as the Clapham Sect was primarily a Church of England social reform organisation. Sadly, the school didn’t have a long life as most of them died as a consequence of a measles outbreak, only six children survived. Their bodies now rest in St. Paul’s churchyard, their stories are still recorded in the parish registers, making the church a fascinating part of British Black History.
St. Paul’s is also renowned locally for offering a rather good Opera. Opera in a Georgian church and picnic in the greenery is about as English as you get. In July I was privileged to be invited by the vicar to attend an outstanding rendition of the Nozze di Figaro.
Whether it’s for good worship or good culture, St. Paul’s is the right place for this growing and vibrant young area of London, I’d definitely pop in if I were you!