All Hallows, Barking
Byward Street, EC3
Of the thousands who flock to the Tower of London every year, very few notice the modest-looking church which stands only a few feet away. Yet despite its post-war appearance, All Hallows actually predates the Tower by 400 years.
Rising on Saxon foundations and nestling between fifteenth-century walls, the modern All Hallows is all too easily dismissed at first glance - even the interior seems unremarkable. For the historic remains of the church have been so carefully incorporated into the reconstruction that it takes time to discover them all.
With its odd mix of architecture and even odder name (it was founded on land belonging to the abbey at Barking, Essex) All Hallows is an elegant eccentric. Remodelled and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the church maintains an unbroken tradition of religious ritual. There was a place of worship here long before the dawn of Christianity and the English Druidical Order still gathers here for its ceremonies.
At the commercial hub of the city and with commanding views of the Thames, All Hallows has always been an important church. Its status was assured by its links with the Port of London and increased as Britain became a major maritime force.
This special bond with the seafaring community has given All Hallows a distinctive flavour. In fact one of the first things a visitor notices is that there are models of ships everywhere - hanging in the arches, nestling in the window ledges, attached to walls - all lovingly constructed and beautifully detailed.
The models, part of a collection which is unique in British churches, are tokens of thanks for cargoes safely delivered and voyages completed unscathed. Today they serve as a pertinent reminder of how perilous sea journeys were when men navigated by the stars.
While all of the ships on display have their interest, the three most notable models are that of the Santa Maria, located above the gallery door, which is the earliest; that next to it, an elaborate model of the Victory and that of the TSMV Royal Daffodil, which can be seen in a glass case by the stairs. The last, a comparatively recent donation, will strike a particular chord with those who served in the Second World War, as she was one the flotilla of little ships which helped evacuate troops from Dunkirk in 1940.
The Mariners' Chapel in the South Aisle has more evidence of All Hallows' long relationship with the sea. The focal point of the Chapel's screen is a crucifix made of wood that came from the Cutty Sark bearing an ivory figure of Christ which is said to have come from the flagship of the Spanish Armada.
When the docks handled millions of tons of merchandise and the river was a forest of masts, All Hallows was strategically placed to serve state officials as well as ordinary sailors. The Custom House and the Navy Office were both within its parish boundary and this was its saviour in the 17th century when the Great Fire cut a swathe through the city.
The head of the Navy Office at that time was Admiral General Sir William Penn who also happened to live nearby. The Admiral's desperate bid to head off the blaze was recorded by his friend and trusted colleague, Samuel Pepys.
In his diary for Wednesday September 5, 1666, Pepys noted: 'But going to the fire, I find, by the blowing up of houses and the great help given by the workmen out of the King's yards, sent up by Sir. W. Penn, there is a good stop given to it.' Later, however, he added: 'I up to the top of Barkeing steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw... '
Barkeing steeple was, of course, the tower of All Hallows. The tower survived to look out over a similar scene of devastation when the Blitz destroyed the city almost three hundred years later. Unfortunately, though, the unspoilt medieval church did not.
By a miracle, some marvellous relics have been preserved nonetheless. One, a magnificent Saxon arch, the largest artefact of the era to be found anywhere in London, came to light when a bomb blast blew down the wall which was covering it. The arch, which contains Roman tiles, stands over the site of a second-century house and part of the floor of that house is a prize exhibit in the small museum of local history which has been set up in the undercroft.
Also in the undercroft are the church registers - an unmissable sight, as much for their antiquity as for the chance of catching a glimpse of the many famous names they contain. Since the records date from the reign of Elizabeth I, one name not included is that of Bishop John Fisher, who was executed on Tower Hill in 1535 and interred near the North Porch. Fisher, who first opposed Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and then refused to accept the King as head of the church, is remembered instead in a sculpture over the porch entrance. His remains were later transferred to St Peter Ad Vincula, on Tower Green.
A victim of political intrigue who does feature in the register, though, is William Laud who was Archbishop of Canterbury to Charles I and his prime supporter against Parliament. Laud was finally trapped and beheaded in 1644 and the word 'Traitor' can been seen smeared out next to the entry in the book of burials. The bishop's body was later removed to St John's College, Oxford.
The year 1644 saw another significant event at the church, especially for American history. On October 23, the same William Penn who was to save All Hallows from the Great Fire brought his baby son to be baptised here. So 'William, son of William Penn and Margaret his wife, of the Tower Liberty' was taken into the church that he would later reject in favour of the Quaker faith. Penn, whose relentless search for religious freedom led to the founding of Pennsylvania, was christened in the existing baptistery although the wooden font which was then in use is now in Christ Church, Philadelphia. A fabulous font cover, believed to be the work of Grinling Gibbons, protects the present stone font.
Of marriages recorded at All Hallows, one of the most interesting is that of John Quincy Adams, later sixth president of the United States, which took place in 1797. In England to help resolve important political issues Adams obviously still made time for romance!
A much more unlikely romantic to tie the knot at All Hallows was George Jeffryes, afterwards the notorious 'hanging judge'. He married his first wife, Sarah Neesham, here in 1667.
All Hallows is open every weekday, 9 am - 5.45 pm and at week-ends 10 am.- 5 pm.
A small charge is made for an audio tour of the church which includes entrance to the crypt museum which is open 11 am. - 4 pm. Monday to Saturday and 1 pm. - 4 pm. on Sundays.
Brass rubbing 11 am. - 4 pm. Monday to Saturday and 1 pm. - 4 pm. on Sundays.
Tower Hill or Monument (District & Circle Lines)
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published on Britannia by permission of the author.
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission.