John Brodie Donald, the creator of the Lost London Churches Project, talks about how the project came about, its aim and his personal favourite “lost” church…
1. First up, when you talk about London’s “lost churches”, what do you mean by the expression?
“Of the 108 churches in the City of London in 1600 only 39 remain. The rest have been lost in the last 350 years, either destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 or in the Blitz or demolished by commercial developers as property prices soared.”
2. What is the aim of the Lost London Churches Project?
“The Lost London Churches Project aims to promote interest in the ancient church buildings and parishes of the City of London through collectable cards, books, maps and downloadable explorers walks. We have created a ecclesiastical treasure hunt – a way of exploring the history of the square mile that costs nothing and can be easily fitted into a few spare lunchtimes.”
3. How many churches are included in the project?
“There are 78 churches for which collectable cards have been produced and these are available in a growing number of churches in the City. It is hard to find evidence of what the churches lost in the fire of 1666 looked like, but hopefully after further research these will be included in a second edition. “
4. Does the project cover every “lost” church in the City of London?
“It covers not just ‘lost’ churches but also the extant ones for two reasons. First, because those who are collecting the cards need a place to pick them up which they can do in the churches that still exist. Secondly, although the church buildings were lost, the parishes still remain to this day for administrative reasons. Every one of the 109 churches still has a parish clerk. The parishes have been amalgamated with the existing churches. So, for example, St Vedast in Foster Lane is a church of 13 united parishes having acquired them as the church buildings were lost over the centuries.”
5. Tell us how the Lost London Churches Project came about?
“It all started when I was redrawing the Ogilby and Morgan map of 1676 in colour for my own pleasure. This large scale map (100 feet the inch) shows every single house in the City of 350 years ago. It was completed just after the Great Fire and so shows the location of all the lost churches clearly. The original covered 20 separate black and white sheets but I redrew them all joined together in colour on my computer. The end result was so huge it was impractical to print…So it made sense to break it up and publish in a book, and since the most interesting information in the map was the churches lost in the fire. it became the basis for the collectors book for the Lost London Churches project. At the same time, I was going through my late father’s papers and found a booklet of cigarette cards that he had collected in the 1940s. He also had a passion for painting watercolours of churches. That’s when I had the idea of producing a series of ‘cigarette cards’ showing the lost churches and the project was born.”
6. What’s the role of the cards?
“The role of the cards is to give some tangible treasure to collect while exploring the lost churches. Like trading cards or Pokemon the challenge is – can you collect them all? In every participating church you will be able to pick up that church’s card along with a pack of five random cards for a small voluntary donation. Cards are also available from the project’s website lostlcp.com.”
7. You mentioned earlier that there were a number of ways the City of London’s churches become lost?
“They were lost in three phases. Around 85 were destroyed or damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 of which 34 were never rebuilt. The others were rebuild by Christopher Wren, along with St Pauls Cathedral. Then 26 more churches were lost after the Union of Benefices Act of 1860 triggered a second wave of demolition. The purpose of the act was to combine parishes and free up space for the swelling capital of the British Empire. Lastly, the City suffered badly in the Blitz of World War II which took a further toll on these ancient buildings.”
8. How easy is it to spot remnants of the City’s lost churches?
“Though the buildings are lost, the parishes remain and you can still see the old parish boundary markers even on modern buildings. The best place to see an example of these is to walk down Cheapside along the New Change shopping centre towards the church of Mary le Bow. In only 100 or so yards you will have crossed the boundaries of five different parishes; St Vedast Foster Lane, St Matthew Friday Street, St Peter Westcheap, All Hallows Bread Street and St Mary Magdalene Milk Street. As you walk down the street look up above the shops ( see picture below) and you will see little plaques marking these parish boundaries. These type of parish boundary markers are scattered throughout the City. Our downloadable explorers walks on Google Maps available (for free) on our website lostlcp.com will show you some routes to find them. There is also a A4 sized map of the ancient parishes we have published for you to use as a guide.”
9. Have you uncovered any particularly interesting stories in your research into London’s lost churches?
“I think one the most interesting things is the unusual names and how they were derived: Benet Fink, Stephen Coleman, Mary Somerset, Martin Ludgate and Gabriel Fenchurch. Couldn’t these be the names in an Agatha Christie mystery where the key to the murder is church themed aliases? But seriously, every church has a rich history since most were established before 1200 so in visiting them you are trekking right back to medieval times.”
10. And lastly, do you have a favourite “lost” London church?
“My favourite is St Mary Abchurch just off Cannon Street. It is not only the headquarters of the ‘Friends of the City Churches’ charity but also a perfect jewel of a Wren church with the most glorious painted ceiling – like a secret Sistine chapel!”