All Hallows by the Tower

The oldest church in the City, inextricably bound up with the Thames and the Port of London

Just a few steps away from the tourist-thronged Tower of London stands a church, founded in AD 675 as a chapel of the abbey of Barking, that is older than and steeped in as much history as its famous neighbour. And yet only a comparatively small number of visitors make it up to the South Entrance in order to explore within.

Despite standing by a busy main road, it’s the quietness that strikes you as you step inside, though from time to time there is the faint rumbling beneath your feet of a nearby underground train. Yet its situation by the Thames, with the parish’s southern boundary being in the middle of the river, has naturally had an important effect on its life. And the Mariners’ Chapel in the south aisle reflects this.

The altar in the Mariners’ Chapel

The altar, panels, model ships, memorial plaques, and stained glass windows all bear witness to the church’s links with the sea, the river, and the Port of London. The Custom House, quays and docks were on the riverside close by.

The wooden screen behind the altar commemorates the links between the Port of London Authority and All Hallows by the Tower. In the centre of the altar a candle burns for “all seafarers who are in danger or distress”, and a prayer for all those, whoever and wherever they are, “exposed to the many dangers of the deep”.

The Crucifix above the altar in the Mariners’ chapel

The crucifix above the altar was made from a piece of wood from the Cutty Sark and the ivory figure of Christ is believed to have come from the captain’s cabin of the Spanish Armada’s flagship.

A fine model of the Cutty Sark above the altar screen catches the light

Model of a barge that used to stand in the front window of a Thames barge builder

Looking around the chapel you will see several intricately made model ships, hanging from arches, placed on furniture or in cabinets. Over the years they have been given to the church as ex votos, symbols of thanksgiving, memorials, or simply by boat builders as they moved premises.

Model of MV Royal Daffodil, a pleasure steamer. Over a number of trips she rescued 9,500 men from the shores of Dunkirk during the Evacuation in 1940
The British Trent Memorial Bell commemorating the nine seafarers who lost their lives in the North Sea on June 3rd 1993

There are a number of poignant memorials, around the church, in the chapel and in the Crypt Museum, including one for HMS Hood, sunk during the Battle of Denmark Strait in the Second World War, with the terrible loss of 1,415 lives, leaving only three survivors. Also on display is the Maritime Memorial Book, established by the Maritime Foundation in 1987 recording the names of those who “have no grave but the sea” to which names can still be added if you search their site. And on June 25, 2019, a Thames Memorial by Clare Newton was dedicated in a moving service to all those who have lost their lives in the Thames.

The Thames Memorial by Clare Newton

The church was bombed on two occasions during the Blitz: first the east end was badly damaged by a bomb in December 1940, and three weeks later the whole building was gutted by incendiary bombs, leaving only the tower and outer walls standing. However, All Hallows was fortunate at this time to have the Reverend Philip Thomas Byard Clayton, nicknamed affectionately ‘Tubby’, as its vicar.

An army chaplain during the First World War he had teamed up with another chaplain, Neville Talbot, creating Talbot House as a refuge for battlefront soldiers, an alternative to the temptations of the town of Poperinge in Belgium, where they could spend their leave. It was known as Toc H, which grew into an “international philanthropic organisation promoting ideals of service, comradeship and reconciliation.” After Clayton’s installation as Vicar of All Hallows in 1922, the church became the guild church of the movement.

On the very day that the church was bombed Clayton at once declared that it should be rebuilt. His enthusiasm and powers of persuasion had a strong impact. The foundation stone was laid by Elizabeth, the Queen consort of George VI, in July 1948. There followed practical donations in the form of various building materials and financial support from all over the world, and the church was re-dedicated in 1957.

During all this time Clayton remained vicar of All Hallows by the Tower and also chaplain to the Port of London Authority. A report in The Guardian on August 4, 1947, describes how he kept “a close eye on anything happening on the Thames” and highlighted his concern about accidents on the Tower beach. Bathing was allowed “when the tide is safe” and there were wardens to watch the children but several accidents had taken place when the beach was closed. He was also worried about the dangers posed by the ‘Iron Gate Stairs’ there. As a special precaution for the August Bank Holiday that year, Clayton arranged for a “voluntary patrol of men” to watch the Stairs from a boat.

The stained glass windows, especially in the south aisle, bear witness to the church’s close association with the sea and the river Thames. As all but two of the seventeenth-century stained glass panels were destroyed during the Blitz, the beautiful stained glass windows you can now see were all made post war. Several of them were donated by the City of London Livery Companies associated with the church.

The Port of London Authority window can be seen above the book shop
The Coat of Arms of the Port of London Authority
Detail of Port of London Authority Window with representations of the Tower of London and surrounding buildings
Detail of the Port of London Authority window: Edward Grobbe Shipowner, 1278 and John Rolff Shipwright, 1432
The window of the Company of the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames

The church’s close links with the river can be seen again in the annual ceremony of Beating the Bounds. This is a tradition dating back to medieval times, when parishes processed around their boundaries, beating boundary markers with sticks to mark out their territorial limits. The added interest to the All Hallows’ ceremony is that part of their boundary runs along the middle of the Thames and the beating party “made up of the clergy and the Masters of the livery companies associated with the church, go out on the river in a boat to beat the water with their canes before returning to shore and continuing around the rest of the parish.”

In writing this piece I have concentrated on All Hallows’ close links with the Thames, the Port of London and shipping world-wide. However, there is much more to discover including its architectural history, which dates back to Roman times; its strong association with the Tower of London; its role in the temporary care of bodies of high profile prisoners beheaded on Tower Hill – a list of confirmed executions can be seen here; and its links with America, which will be of particular interest to my American readers.

Memorial to William Penn above an entry door to the Church of All Hallows where he was baptised on October 25, 1644 (c) Alan Levine, USA

Admiral Penn, father of William Penn who founded the colony of Pennsylvania, was also a Member of Parliament at the time and helped to save the church during the Great Fire of London in 1666 by directing some of his men from a nearby shipyard to create firebreaks to protect both St Olave, Hart Street and All Hallows, by demolishing nearby buildings. His son William was baptised in the church and educated in the church school before setting off to America. A further link is that with John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, who married Louisa Catherine Johnson in All Hallows on July 26, 1797.

At ease with its eventful past, wide international links, and place in the fabric of both the City of London and the country, All Hallows welcomes visitors to its services, those in search of history, and those who seek space for prayer and quiet contemplation. It is today a modern, “active and inclusive Christian community”, and its associations and ties with the river Thames remain as strong as ever.

The east-facing window in the north Aisle

Using the link highlighted here, you can find out more about the history of All Hallows by the Tower

London’s Favourite Lion

Surviving war and redeployment, the South Bank Lion has become a cherished monument.

Standing majestically on the east side of Westminster Bridge is a white, sculptured lion looking down over the traffic and the thousands of commuters and tourists that stream in and out of the city every day.

Known as the South Bank Lion it has become one of London’s favourite landmarks since it was lifted onto its plinth in 1966. Yet its history doesn’t begin there. It was sculpted by William F. Woodington for James Goding’s new Lion Brewery built on the South Bank between 1836 and 1837. 

The imposing five storey brewery, designed by Francis Edwards, had an impressive river frontage dominating a stretch of the South Bank between the Hungerford railway and Westminster bridges. And Woodington’s 13 tonne lion, standing on top of the brewery, supported on its substantial base, became a well-known Thames-side landmark from the start. An engraving dated 1837 depicts an ‘aquatic festival’ on the Thames to celebrate the opening of the brewery and the lion is centre stage on top of the building.

Londoners and visitors noticed it as they passed, among them Emile Zola, exiled from France, who remembered seeing it from the room where he was staying at the Savoy. He describes the morning mist slowly parting, giving the impression that the lion was suspended in mid air. “It amused me greatly […] to see the British lion waiting to bid us good day.”

The lion is made out of Coade stone a durable, very strong weather resistant artificial stone that was manufactured close to the brewery. Businesswoman Mrs. Eleanor Coade perfected the recipe and the firing process, and her firm became the very successful Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory. Believed to have been lost since the closure of the factory in the mid-nineteenth century, the recipe has been rediscovered, improved, and is now manufactured by Coade Ltd. in Wiltshire.

The lion, in its natural white colour, stands on top of the building surveying the scene. Artist: E. W. Radcliffe. C. 1850. This image is reproduced by kind permission of the London Borough of Lambeth, Archives Department

From prints dated around 1837, it appears that the lion began its life in the original white Coade stone but a letter to The Times dated December 1st, 1948, from Geoffrey Hoare, whose family took over the Lion Brewery in 1924, makes it clear that the lion had, at some stage been painted red. He writes that his family, who owned the much older Red Lion Brewery by St. Katharine Docks “had thought about objecting to the ‘Lion Brewery’ having their lion red, but did not bother about it as ours was so much better known in the brewing trade.”

In 1931 the main building was badly damaged by fire but the lion survived and remained on top of the parapet. The site was used by the London Waste Paper Company, then stood derelict, miraculously escaping destruction throughout the Blitz, while surrounding buildings were hit and razed to the ground. It was eventually pulled down in 1949, and the lion saved, to make way for the Royal Festival Hall, which was a major feature of the development for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

As plans advanced for the Festival, King George VI studied the details and expressed an interest in both this lion and a smaller one that had stood above the main entrance away from the river. After consultations, it was agreed by the London County Council that “in view of their historical and sentimental interest, as well as their intrinsic value, that the lions would be preserved” and incorporated somehow in the Festival of Britain. This was in no small part due to King George’s affection for these lions, which had survived the Blitz and symbolised the spirit of British resilience, so perfectly matching the theme of the Festival.

A noble symbol of British resilience

The smaller lion was eventually given to the Rugby Football Union in 1971, its centenary year, and now royally resplendent in gold leaf, it stands above the Lion Gate, behind the west stand at Twickenham.

The lowering of the lion from the old brewery rooftop in 1949 was very difficult. A journalist from the Manchester Guardian wrote that “the building looks as though it might crumble at any moment, and the lion in its cradle did not complete its journey to the ground that day.” As restoration began on the sculpture, a bottle was found within it containing a trade card from Routledge & Greenwood, once owners of the Coade building, with the name of the sculptor Woodington on the reverse. There were also some George IV coins, and underneath one of the lion’s paws were Woodington’s initials W.F.W. and the date, May 24th, 1837.

Now the magnificent lion that had watched over his stretch of the Thames for more than a hundred years found himself restored, cleaned, repainted in red gloss and set on a plinth outside Waterloo Station next to one of the entrances to the Festival of Britain. At the time this was a fitting place as the British Rail logo included a red lion as part of its design. A photograph belonging to the Borough of Lambeth archives shows the lion still in position in 1958. By 1966 however, in a letter to The Times, a representative of the Greater London Council explains that “British Railways need the lion’s present site” for redevelopment adding that “this majestic animal weighs several tons and moving it will be no easy task.”

The Lion in Winter

Indeed it was not easy but the lion was once again restored and carefully returned to its original white colour. A copy of The Times dated March 17, 1966 was added to the objects found in 1949 and replaced within the sculpture.

The historical plaque fixed to the plinth on which the lion is standing

The move was completed on April 3rd, 1966 and in 1981 the lion, from then on known as the South Bank Lion was given protection with a Grade II* listing by English Heritage.

The South Bank Lion standing before a more recent London landmark

London, and particularly Westminster, is crowded with historical statues of varying quality and grandiosity, commemorating heroes, politicians and personalities, some of whom have faded from the public consciousness and others that will remain at the forefront of our history. But this noble lion is a symbol for all of us, and if you take the time to look at him, you will see that there is also something infinitely touching about his sad, world-weary eyes…

The South Bank Lion standing proudly at the East End of Westminster Bridge