Hackney Church has been around since at least 1275, witnessing Hackney’s transformation from rural village to the diverse inner-city borough it is today. The present church of St John at Hackney, completed in 1797, is a Grade II* listed Anglican Church in the heart of the London Borough of Hackney. It was built to replace Hackney’s medieval parish church, of which St Augustine’s Tower remains at the edge of its churchyard. Having served its community for almost eight centuries, Hackney Church has a big story to tell!
1275First record of a church in Hackney
A church is first recorded in Hackney in the year 1275, though it is possible that a small chapel existed here before the Norman conquest. This church was dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo.
1519Rebuilding of the Tower
Hackney held a significant place in Tudor England, being popular with nobility and even the King. The Rector of the time, Christopher Urswick, substantially rebuilt the tower of St Augustine’s Church to resemble something like it does today.
1660Church becomes known as 'St John at Hackney'
Having formerly been known as St Augustine’s, from 1660 the church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, thenceforth becoming known as St John at Hackney, and often simply as ‘Hackney Church’.
1789Recommendation to build a new church
Due to the growing population of the parish, in 1789 a recommendation is made to build a new church to the north-east of the old. The recommendation was for a building to seat 3,000 parishioners.
1792Work begins on the new church
Work begins on the new parish church of Hackney, and beset by delays caused by financial worries and poor ground, takes five years to complete. The architect is James Spiller, a friend and protege of Sir John Soane.
1797Consecration of the new church
The new church of St John at Hackney is re-consecrated in July 1797 by the Bishop of London, with several of the tombs from the old church moved to the new. By 1798, the nave of the old church is largely demolished, though the Tower remains to enable the ringing of the bells.
1814New tower completed
Initially constructed without, Spiller returns in 1814 to add a Tower in Portland Stone on the north side of the church, and four porticos on each corner. A stained glass east window is added two years later. The old tower of St Augustine’s remains, and still stands.
1825Hackney is divided into three Rectories
In 1825 the parish of Hackney is divided for the first time into three Rectories, as the parishes of West and South Hackney are created. This begins the process of the eventual division of the parish of St John at Hackney into almost two dozen others, as the population of the borough exploded.
1890The St John's Church Institute opens on Homerton High Street
St John at Hackney purchases a 16th century house on Homerton High Street to come the church institute, hosting a variety of activities for the local community. The building would later be renamed Sutton House, and is now run by the National Trust.
1955Fire destroys the church roof
Although St John at Hackney largely avoided bomb damage during the second world war, a fire among workmen’s tools begins in the roof in 1955, destroying large parts of the church.
1958St John at Hackney is re-consecrated and reopens
The church is repaired under the architect N. F. Cachemaille-Day, and is re-consecrated by the Bishop of London on St John’s Day 1958. A new roof covers the nave, and a new altar and sanctuary are added.
1992The church commemorates its bicentenary.
A festival is held to commemorate the bicentenary of the building of the new St John at Hackney Church.
2018Restoration project begins
A new restoration project begins under designer John Pawson and architects Thomas Ford & Partners to reconfigure the church to its original Greek Cross plan, increasing access to this much loved community heritage asset for many generations to come.
Hackney Church is surrounded by a ten acre churchyard, containing hundreds of tombs and graves that bear witness to almost five centuries of Hackney’s history. While the churchyard is now mostly recreational space, the tombs that remain tell the fascinating stories of those that have lived and died in Hackney since the end of the Middle Ages, often changing the world as they went. The churchyard was closed for burials in 1854, just as Hackney’s was being absorbed by London’s outer reaches. Some of those buried here are listed below.
Christopher Urswick became Rector of Hackney in 1502, holding the post until his death in 1521. This followed periods as Dean of York and Dean of Windsor. Urswick substantially rebuilt the then St Augustine’s parish church, giving the Tower much of its present appearance. He also briefly appears as a minor character in Shakespeare’s Richard III. His tomb sits in the Urswick Chapel inside St John at Hackney. Urswick founded the Hackney Free and Parochial School, now named after him as The Urswick School.
Henry Percy, buried in an unknown location in Hackney churchyard in 1537, was the Sixth Earl of Northumberland. He is now remembers as having been betrothed to Anne Boleyn, but was forced to rescind the engagement when she became involved with King Henry VIII. He is also known for having been sent by the King to arrest Cardinal Wolsey in 1530.
1583Lady Lucy Somerset, Baroness Latimer
Lady Lucy Somerset, Baroness Latimer, was buried at her request in Hackney in 1583. She is primarily known for having served Henry VIII’s fifth consort, Katharine Howard, as a Maid of Honour. It had been rumoured that the king had been considering her to be his sixth wife. Her tomb was relocated to the new St John at Hackney Church, and is one of its most elaborate.
Harry Sedgwick was a trustee of St John at Hackney at the time of the building of the new church. Upon completion, he organised the planting of the churchyard with Elm and Horse Chestnut trees, some of which can be seen down Churchwell Path today. He is also responsible for the Sedgwick Medals, still given out to pupils at The Urswick School.
John Hunter, buried in Hackney Churchyard in 1821, was an officer in the Royal Navy, and latterly the second Governor of New South Wales, Australia. The Hunter River north of Sydney, is named after him.
1826Joachim Conrad Loddiges
Joachim Conrad Loddriges, buried in Hackney Churchyard in 1826, founded and managed one of the world’s most notable plant nurseries in the 18th and 19th centuries in Hackney. Born in Germany, Loddiges moved to Hackney during the Seven Years’ War and rose to prominence as a gardener and botanist whose legacy lives on in England’s parks and gardens today.
1839John James Watson
John James Watson was Rector of Hackney from 1799 until his death in 1839, latterly also holding the post of Archdeacon of St Albans. He was an important member of the High Church group known at the Hackney Phalanx, who became hugely influential educationalists, setting up schools for the local poor.