Hackney Church has been around for almost 750 years. Every day we are unpacking an element of our amazing history, using photos, paintings, maps and much more to tell our story from 1275 to the present day.
A new feature will be posted below every single day, so please check back regularly. To find out about how you can get involved with heritage events and activities at Hackney Church, get in touch using the button below.
“I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.” Psalm 143:5
1 – The Beginning
The first record of a church in Hackney dates back to 1275, which is where our story begins. It is possible that an even earlier chapel stood somewhere nearby but no evidence of it has ever been found.
The original parish church of Hackney would have been a simple stone structure, at the centre of what was then a very small, rural community. No images of the church exist from this time, but the engraving above from 1790 shows what the entrance to the church might have looked like, being akin to any medieval rural parish church in England today.
2 – The Heart of Hackney
In the late Medieval period, Hackney was just a small village entirely surrounded by green fields, with a stream, known as Hackney Brook, running through it. The buildings of Hackney were clustered around the church, which would have been the heart of Hackney not only physically, but also culturally, socially and spiritually.
The watercolour below by C H Matthews dates from 1856, but gives a good idea what Hackney might have looked like for centuries previously. The church physically dominated the landscape, and could be seen for miles around. Hackney Brook can be seen running by on the left hand side. It is also interesting to imagine who the man on the bench might have been.
3 – St Augustine’s Church
The original Hackney Church was probably built on land owned by the military order of the Knights Templars. The church was dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo, likely because he was a strong influence on Templar rules and writings.
Then, as now, the church physically dominated the stretch of road known for centuries as Church Street, but now as the Narroway. In the late medieval period, the church would have had a tower, small chancel and several side chapels dedicated to various saints. The etching below of 1750 gives a good indication of the church’s original outward appearance.
4 – The First Restoration
Almost nothing of the pre-Reformation Hackney Church survives, and this was due to the influence of Christopher Urswick, an important figure in Tudor England and Rector of Hackney in the early 16th century.
Urswick, along with another local noble, Sir John Heron, largely reconstructed the nave, chancel and tower of Hackney Church in 1520. St Augustine’s Tower, which still stands in the churchyard today, mostly dates from this reconstruction, the first major restoration of Hackney Church. The undated plan below shows the layout of Hackney Church, which remained like this for the next almost three centuries.
5 – The First Rectory
Christopher Urswick also built the first known Hackney Church Rectory, where he and numerous successors lived, worked and entertained. The building, also known as ‘Church House’, stood in front of the church tower on Church Street, and stood for almost three centuries until it was demolished to make way for the building now known as ‘The Old Town Hall’.
The watercolour below, dating from 1790, shows Urswick’s House a decade before its demolition. The smaller structure on the right shows the parish ‘lockup’, where local petty criminals were kept overnight as penance for their crimes.
6 – The Reformation
As with thousands of other parish churches all over England, Hackney Church would have undergone significant change during the Reformation of the 16th century. Many of the side chapels would have been removed, along with the organ, and most of the imagery inside, especially any depicting the saints, or Mary.
As the 16th century progressed, the introduction of pews would have begun, until by the end of the 17th century the interior of Hackney Church would have resembled a jumble of pews, gallery’s and other seating. The elevation below shows the interior of the church in 1779, with the gallery seating visible behind the arches. The whitewashed walls attest to the degree of change wrought by the Reformation inside the church.
7 – Tomb’s Galore
Christopher Urswick perhaps still is the best known Rector of Hackney, even appearing in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Along with many notable figures in the life of Hackney Church before and since, upon his death in 1520 he was laid to rest in the chancel of the church itself. His tomb lay here for a further 250 years, before being moved to the new church of St John at Hackney, where it still lies today.
This late 18th century watercolour shows the interior of the original Hackney Church, looking towards the east window. Urswick’s tomb can be made out on the right hand side. This is exactly as it appears today, some three centuries later, in the now named Urswick Chapel.
8 – Green fields
Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries Hackney remained a completely rural village, growing steadily but remaining surrounded by green fields.
This engraving of 1755 shows a different view of Hackney Church, this time from the North-East, and was drawn sitting on what is now Lower Clapton Road. Hay is piled up in the foreground after the harvest, and a woman is carrying pails of milk down the road on the right. The open field on the left hand side is the site of the future new St John at Hackney Church.
9 – Mare Street
Looking at the original Hackney from the south-west, we also see another familiar view. Hackney Church has always sat at the top of what is now Mare Street, with the Tower visible from some way down the road that heads south towards London.
The 1791 engraving below shows a view looking north up what was then Church Street towards Hackney Church, from a position somewhere near the present Hackney Town Hall. The small bridge on the left crosses Hackney Brook, which ran along the line of the present railway line. The Tower is the only structure in this image to survive to the present day.
10 – St John at Hackney
Hackney Church was dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo for almost four centuries. That is until sometime around 1660, when the dedication of the church was transferred to St John. After some initial back and forth about whether the church were to be referred to as St John of Jerusalem or St John the Baptist, the name ‘St John at Hackney’ stuck, and has been used ever since.
The mid 18th century drawing below depicts another view of Hackney Church from around this time, now from the South-East, somewhere near where St John & St James Primary School is today on Churchwell Path. The wall running along the left hand side of the image now marks the southern boundary of the churchyard, and is where the bus garage stands today.
11 – The First Map
By the middle of the 18th century Hackney was a substantial place, home to several thousand people, though largely still surrounded by green fields. Maps are an excellent way to visualise its growth. The first detailed and accurate map of Hackney was produced in 1745, and is an incredible glimpse into pre-industrial Hackney, giving us a picture of roughly how Hackney would have been laid out for centuries previously.
The church is clearly labelled at the centre of Hackney. It is also noticeable that almost all of Hackney’s buildings line the major roads in and out, down Mare Street toward London, and east toward Homerton. Dalston is marked on the map, but is not yet connected with the rest of Hackney by human settlement.
12 – A New Church
Hackney’s population grew slowly but steadily throughout the 18th century, as its proximity to London made it an attractive getaway for well-to-do city merchants and businessmen. Population pressure placed increasing strain on Hackney Church, which was now often full to bursting, and simply did not have enough seats to meet the demand for filling them.
In the 1780s it was decided that the parish should look at ways to increase seated capacity to around 3,000, to cater for the swelling demand. This was either to be achieved by expanding the existing Hackney Church, or building a new church entirely. After some deliberation, it was decided that a new church were preferable, and an architect, William Blackburn, was trusted with trying to make it happen. The plan below of 1780 shows a very early plan to build a new church to the north and east of the old, though in a rather unusual shape, with an east-west facing nave struggling to fit into the space in which it was placed.
13 – Spiller’s Dream
William Blackburn died suddenly in the autumn of 1790, leaving the church needing to find a new architect. Up stepped James Spiller, a young protege of Sir John Soane. Hackney Church would become the most significant project of his career. At the same time, the trustees purchased Church Field, an area of land to the north and east of the old Hackney Church, on which the new church would be built.
Spiller’s first task was to draw up a number of imaginative plans for the new church. All played upon a grand, neoclassical style, the most unusual of which centred around an octagonal nave, with a domed roof held up by huge columns. The drawing below shows what this first proposal for the new Hackney Church might have looked like had it come to fruition.
14 – Attempt no.2
Spiller eventually settled on a more conventional design, though still one with grand ambitions. The octagonal nave, though radical and a direct challenge to the Nonconformism that was taking off in Hackney at the time, was thought impractical and was replaced with a square plan.
The interior of the church suddenly begins to look as it does today. A gallery level mounted on ornate columns surrounds the nave, whose focus is on a large East Window with a reredos below. Then, as now, the building was designed with light in mind, as huge clear glass windows beam light into the church from all angles at all hours of the day. Note though the grandeur of the detailing in Spiller’s original scheme – this was not necessarily to last.
15 – Getting there
Though the trustees were broadly satisfied with Spiller’s revised design, an inevitable round of cost cutting ensued, and one further revision saw the plans arrive at something very closely resembling the church we have today. The grandeur was slightly pared back – notice the removal of the ionic columns in the corners of the nave – but the focus on light and space remained.
Spiller was known as a protege of the famous architect Sir John Soane. The ceiling of the dining room at the Sir John Soane Museum today closely resembles that of St John at Hackney. Perhaps they shared a common inspiration.
16 – A Greek Cross
Unusually for a late 18th century Anglican parish church, Spiller’s plan centre around a Greek Cross plan, with the nave being composed of four equal sides. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this seems more than just a subtle hint to the nonconformist chapels springing up all over Hackney at the time, which were essentially large preaching boxes attracting hundreds every Sunday. St John at Hackney would dwarf them all.
The large east window of the church was to be surrounded on three sides by a seated gallery level. The spacious nave within would house a pulpit, and dozens of box pews. The new church would be able to seat almost three thousand.
17 – The First Building Project
A new church, tower and vestry room would be built within three years of laying the foundation. With a new church built, the former was unnecessary and destroyed. But thankfully, not all of it. In March 1798 the body of the old church was demolished and several of the tombs removed to the new church. The tower remained – left intact to hold the bells as funds did not allow building a tower on the new church.
The new church was consecrated on 15 July 1797.
18 – St Augustine’s Tower
In 1814 the tower was added to the new church but it was not strong enough to hold the bells from the old church. These were kept in St Augustine’s tower until the 1840s. In 1854, St John atHackney was underpinned and the bells were moved. Happily though, the contractor now said that demolishing the old St Augustine’s Tower was too much like hard work and so they remained.
The old tower of St Augustine’s Church remains standing and plays a symbolic and ceremonial role in Hackney.
19 – Two Thousand And Counting
At last, Spiller’s dream of having a greek cross plan church, seating almost 3000 people was fulfilled and the picture below shows how necessary it was to have all that space in a populated Hackney.
This engraving of a special service in 1827 shows the church at full capacity
20 – Church Institute
In 1890 the church purchased the early 16th-century house on Homerton High Street, in the grounds of which was constructed a school, and the house was named the St John’s Church Institute. The purpose of the Church Institute was to provide a social and recreational centre for young men. This would later be purchased by the National Trust, and is now known as Sutton House.
The photo below shows the first and last page of the prospectus and rules pamphlet for the Church Institute.
Click here to find out more about the present restoration of St John at Hackney, including project news, photos and more.