At a recent London Historians History in the Pub night, based on the history of fire in London, I met a gentleman called Ian Heron, who suggested that I might be interested in a project of his, the partial restoration of Christ Church, Greyfriars.
A medieval site, Christ Church was re-built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was one of eight Wren designed London city churches that were destroyed by the German air force on the single night of December 29th 1940.
Ian Heron wants to see part of the church restored to its former glory and become a memorial to the citizens of London who lived through the Blitz and the other times that the city has come under attack.
Yes, I was interested, so I went along to meet Ian at the ruined church to see what he had in mind.
And now I am obsessed.
For not only was this medieval church destroyed by the Great Fire and gutted by the German bombers, it fell victim to those most sacrilegious of vandals – 1970s town planners.
Today Christ Church looks like this:
You might be forgiven for thinking that the missing two walls were knocked down by a bomb, or crumbled under the weight of burning timber as London blazed in 1940.
You’d be wrong. Here is a picture of the church taken from the opposite direction on the morning after the German bombers had done their work. You’ll notice that, among the destruction, those two walls (directly ahead and on the right) survived the bombing.
Actually, those two walls, designed by Wren in the 17th century, were removed in 1970 to make way for the traffic filling up London’s streets. Down came the walls designed by London’s greatest architect during the city’s golden age of architecture, in came the cars and buses. Shrug went the shoulders.
Ian remembers this being a bit of a controversy at the time, but nobody was prosecuted for it, or exiled, or thrown from the roof of St. Paul’s. Nowadays, there is no mention of what happened in 1970, only a hint of recognition that an act of urban vandalism was committed.
This plaque sits upon a modern wall built in 2001 to claim back the church’s original footprint.
So a gesture has been made. A concession that knocking down the walls of a 270 year old church to allow a road to encroach upon medieval holy ground might have been the wrong thing to do.
For Ian Heron though, nowhere near enough has been restored. He wants to see those walls rebuilt, he wants the space turned into a peaceful sanctuary for city workers, and he wants the whole thing to become the Citizens’ Memorial.
Ian has had this project in mind for most of this century. He is a former architecture student, so his interest is in the lack of respect the site has been shown.
As Ian puts it, “One has to ask whether this Grade 1 monument in its present state exemplifies the tradition of civic pride associated with the City of London. To many, leaving the ruin as it is would seem to dishonour the achievement of England’s greatest architect, Sir Christopher Wren, and the contribution made by his work to our national identity.”
His interest is also more personal though, for Ian’s father was a fire warden during the Second World War, working in Bethnal Green, scene of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster of March 3 1943. It is more than fitting that Ian alone has kept the dream of restoring this church alive, and hopes to turn it into a site that reminds future generations of the sacrifices that Londoners made, and the damage that fire has inflicted upon them over the centuries.
Ian has drawn plans and written a proposal, and he has had the work priced up at around £4 million. Until recently, however, he hadn’t got very far, because he doesn’t really know any of the people that he needs to, i.e. the people that run the City of London and English Heritage.
That all began to change recently, however, when Ian captured the imagination of City of London Member Anthony Eskenzi, who has declared himself “behind the proposal one hundred percent”. Mr Eskenzi, whose family established their business in the city of London in the 18th century, is described by Ian Heron as the proposal’s “friend and advocate within the City”.
After many years of quiet and isolated dedication to his cause, Ian now has a City Member, with his own Chartered Surveyors practice, bending the ears of the right people, asking the right questions and pushing the the proposal up the right avenues, hopefully to a wonderful conclusion.
Ian’s blog and proposal explain his ideas pretty thoroughly, so I’ll just mention the highlights here:
- Restoration of the church walls to enclose the space and create a sanctuary for Londoners in the heart of the city
- Gardens and benches to be maintained for an attractive space that people can relax in
- Design and construction to be entirely sympathetic with original materials and current local demands for space and access.
- Existing pavement to be included within the walls to create an attractive thoroughfare for pedestrians, providing a daily glimpse into a sacred urban sanctuary
- Site to become the Citizens’ Memorial for London
So, from the angle similar to the first picture, the church will hopefully look like this,
and a site that currently only hints at its 700 year history can begin to reclaim its role as one of the city’s loveliest places. It would also be a massive improvement on what is currently the only memorial to the people of London, in the grounds of nearby St Paul’s Cathedral:
If you would like to support the Citizens’ Memorial, or simply get the occasional update, please email Ian Heron at email@example.com or subscribe to his blog at http://thecitizensmemorial.wordpress.com/
I sent the above to Ian Heron for his approval last night. After a few tweaks (‘vandals’ and ‘vandalism’ are his words, I had ‘criminals’ and ‘crime’), he approved it for publication this morning and I was ready to click ‘Publish’. Purely coincidentally, on the journey to work I happened to be reading Diana Souhami’s book ‘Murder at Wrotham Hill‘, a dramatised history of a 1946 murder in Kent. The victim was bombed out of London during the Blitz, and one passage describes what Londoners were going through in 1940.
Ian’s proposal is very much about the restoration of an important piece of architecture, and the creation of a place of sanctuary for modern Londoners. However, it is also a perfect place to honour the London citizens that lived through the war. As I read Diana Souhami’s words, it struck me that she was describing exactly the experiences that Ian wants to commemorate, and I realised that I hadn’t given this much emphasis in my blog.
So, in Diana Souhami’s words, here’s what they went through:
“Black Saturday, 7 September 1940, was the start of the Blitz on London. Hitler ordered it as a prelude to invasion. It was the fiercest air battle of the war. There was the bleak wail of air-raid sirens, then at five in the afternoon the sky filled with bomber planes. Five hundred aircraft an hour for eight consecutive hours. On that first day 430 civilians were killed and 1,600 severely injured. The following day 412 more people died. Over the next months there were constant bombing raids. Two hundred German bomber planes flew over London every night for 57 nights in succession. By the end of September 1940 about 6,000 people had been killed and 10,000 seriously injured. Houses, shops, offices and public buildings were destroyed, railways lines smashed, trolley lines brought down and gas, water, electricity and telephone supplies broken.
It was the same ordeal, night after night after night: the wail of sirens, the drone of planes, the shells that lit up the sky, the crashing of bombs, the sound of heavy guns. Christmas was the gloomiest Londoners could remember. Much of their city had been demolished. Seventy-six thousand buildings had been damaged. Over 3,000 bombs were lying around, needing to be defused. Civilians were being killed at a rate of 6,000 a month. On 29 December eight Wren churches were among the buildings destroyed and GPO’s Central Telegraph Exchange in St Martin’s Le Grand burned to the ground without enough water to put the fire out.
Churchill wrote: ‘At this time we saw no end but the demolition of the whole Metropolis.’”