The Watts Church Crawl (Part the 20th) Tower Hill

Since it’s opening in 1884, the name Tower Hill has been applied to no less than three stations in this vicinity: The first Tower Hill (I), (on which the present Tower Hill (III) is built) was opened in 1884, and then closed in 1946. There was another station slightly further up, called Mark Lane, which became Tower Hill (II) in 1946, until 1967, when it was closed, due to over-use, and there being no room to expand, which was when Tower Hill III was built. All of this is purely academic, but it does mean that there is a very exciting ghost station between Monument and Tower Hill, if you look very carefully. Obviously, since the current station, having been built in the 60s, is not exactly the sort of thing we are looking for, so let’s go and see what else the area has to offer.

This is a very historic part of London: Tower Hill is named Tower Hill because of the Tower of London: one of the most significant sites in the entire city. Great and terrible things went on in the Tower. And for an exorbitant amount of money a Beefeater will tell you all about them. I would like to focus on one part of the Tower though, which is the parish church, St Peter ad Vincula (called so without the slightest trace of irony).

St Peter ad Vincula is often thought to be the chapel of the Tower. This is not in fact true. There is a chapel proper within the Tower, and St. Peter’s is the old parish church, which was absorbed into the Tower during the reign of Henry III, when the walls were extended. It is sometimes compared distinctly unfavourably with Westminster Abbey, as being the great resting place for the traitors of British History; Thomas Macualy, in his History of England, published in 1848, remarked:

“In truth there is no sadder spot on the earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s, with genius and virtue, with public veneration and with imperishable renown; not, as in our humblest churches and churchyards, with everything that is most endearing in social and domestic charities; but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame. Thither have been carried, through successive ages, by the rude hands of gaolers, without one mourner following, the bleeding relics of men who had been the captains of armies, the leaders of parties, the oracles of senates, and the ornaments of courts.”

There are several very well known names resting here: three queens of England (all executed, two of them wives of Henry VIII), and Saints of the Catholic Church: Thomas More and John Fisher, who are buried without their heads; which ended up on spikes, before being thrown into the Thames. There were also a large number of bones discovered during excavations, which have been re-buried under the Altar, and whose names will never be known. There is also a memorial (it was meant to be his tomb) to Sir Richard Cholmeley, Lieutenant of the Tower under Henry VIII, and the only historic character to appear in a Gilbert & Sullivan Operetta; he was responsible for re-building the chapel in the 1500s.

The chapel itself, in keeping with its past history, is a very grey, colourless place, with little to brighten it up. You are conscious of what has gone on here, with the many brutal executions which took place on Tower Green a few yards away. There are however, one or two very fine memorials: in the north-west corner, John Holland, Duke of Exeter, sometime constable of the tower, and Sir Richard & Sir Michael Blount, father and son, who were successive lieutenants to the tower between the 1500s & 1610, have a memorial on the north wall of the Sanctuary. The organ boats some 17th century stencilling by Grinling Gibbons too. Sadlly there aren’t too many photos of the place around. Probably to do with security: it is next to the crown jewels after all.

Our next call is the oldest church in London, with the most marvellous dedication: All Hallows Barking by the Tower (though they seem to have dropped the Barking in recent years). Betjeman gives it the following entry in the Collins Pocket Guide to English Parish Churches:

CITY* (All Hallows by the Tower)

Medieval, largely destroyed by war, reconstructed 1956-7 by Seely and Paget who added elegant spire to 17th century tower. Gingling Gibbons font cover.


Betjeman’s very brief entry does not give us anything like the full story however, and so we shall look at other sources as well. The foundation dates from 675, and takes its name from the convent at Barking, who originally owned the living. It boasts a 7th century Saxon arch, made of recycled Roman tiles, which is the oldest piece of church fabric in the City.

Given its situation, the church boasts many connections. For example, it was up the church tower steps that Samuel Pepys climbed in 1666 to watch the great fire of London, which reached as far as “the dyall of Barking church and part of the porch, and was there quenched”. The church is also connected with a couple of the Caroline Divines: Lancelot Andrewes was baptised here, and Archbishop Laud was laid to rest here, after his execution at the Tower, until he was re-intered at St. John’s College, Oxford, which knew him so well.


The church shares a distinction with the church at Morebath, in that its Vicar retained his living all through the Reformation, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth, then presumably going to his reward at a ripe old age. His name was William Dawes.

The church, having escaped damage in the great fire, was very severely damaged during the blitz, and needed enormous re-construction, only being re-dedicated in 1957, but this fine sketch by G M Ellwood gives a good idea of what the church was like before. In addition to the Gibbons font cover, there were also some fine putti by him. Some of the original features survived the blast, and it was all restored very sensitively in the 50s. They still Beat the Bounds, which is fun.


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.