A millennium of ministry
St Mary-at-Hill has served in the Parish of Billingsgate for nearly a thousand years. An “ancient church” on this site is mentioned in a legal document dated 1177, so we can conjecture with some certainty that a church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin has stood here since at least the end of the 11th Century. Billingsgate Quay was an important harbour in the 10th and 11th centuries. The route north into the old city would have led past the church. The steep rise of the way up from the river gave it the name of St Mary at or on the Hill. The original church was no doubt smaller than the present building which has been extended, altered and renovated throughout its history. The Churchwardens’ accounts from the C15th inform us that by then it had side chapels dedicated to St Stephen, St Katherine, St Ann and St Christopher.
Burials within the Church and in the Chapels were for the wealthy, as they were charged at 16s 8d, while internment in the Great Churchyard to the North cost just 8d. This is now a pretty courtyard garden. It was closed for burials in May 1846 and all human remains were carefully removed to West Norwood cemetery. The church crypt and vaults were similarly emptied of human remains (some 3,000 in all) between 1892-94. Some slabs and memorials remain, but there are no skeletons below. Museum of London excavations have found traces of much earlier graves on the site, confirming that the area was part of the Roman city as well as the later Anglo-Saxon settlement.
The resurrection relief, which was probably originally overlooking the churchyard, is one of a small number of Last Judgment scenes carved in later 17th century London. It most likely dates from the 1670s.
The prominent City mason Joshua Marshall was responsible for the rebuilding of the church in 1670-74: his workshop may well have produced the relief, although the actual carver is unknown. The relief was much-deteriorated but has been conserved by Taylor Pearce studios, re-instated in the narthex and re-dedicated during the Fish Harvest Festival in 2010.
16th & 17th Centuries
The Church Bells of the tower and steeple (replaced in 1787-9 by Gwilt’s square brick tower) were rung for the crowning of Henry VIII in 1509. During the later years of Henry’s reign, the English Church renounced the primacy of Rome. The Civil War raged between 1642-51 and six years after the Restoration of the Monarchy, with the City still reeling from losing 1 in 5 of its inhabitants to the Plague, the Great Fire of London (1666) started in Pudding Lane, a stone’s throw away from St Mary-at-Hill.
Renovation after the Great Fire
The overall plans for restoring the City churches were famously orchestrated by Dr (later Sir) Christopher Wren, but it may have been the somewhat overlooked genius, Robert Hooke, who supervised the rebuilding of St Mary’s while Wren was concentrating on St Paul’s. It is a matter of record that Hooke was responsible for building the internal wall under the tower, at the west end. The Fire had consumed the interior of the church leaving only parts of the walls and the brick work of the tower. Utilising the previous fabric as far as possible, the original north and south walls were reconstructed, but the building was extended a little to the east. An ornate main frontage of exposed stone was built on St Mary at Hill. There were three windows – mullioned and transomed. (The central window was blocked in 1767). The North and South windows were restored in Gothic style and doors retained in both walls. St Mary-at-Hill was one of the first churches rebuilt after the Fire, and was completed in 1677 at a cost of £3,980.
At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, St Mary’s was under the lively and inspired ministry of Prebendary Wilson Carlile, founder of the Church Army, whose dedication and personal energy saw the building and the streets around filled with much joyful noise unto the Lord. Not everyone approved of fish porters and shop-girls eating their sandwiches, watching lantern shows and coming and going during meetings according to the shifts they were working. On Sundays, Carlile would lead a band around the streets himself, playing his trombone, drumming up custom for the next service in the Church. Frequent Organ Recitals and lusty singing were considered important during Carlile’s time here.
In the early 16th Century a famous choir of priests, lay clerks and boys, including Tallis and Mundy, sang elaborate daily services. St Mary-at-Hill boasts what has been described as one of the ten most important organs in the history of British organ building. Built by William Hill in 1848, it is the largest surviving example of his early work. Small changes were made to it in 1880 and in 1971. The organ was silenced by a fire in 1988 but restored by Mander Organs. It was re-dedicated in November 2002 in the presence of the Duke of Gloucester. Those who come to our weekly organ recitals are still welcome to eat their sandwiches and pop in and out depending on their lunch break.
The October Festival of the Sea is a tradition still maintained at St Mary’s in Billingsgate. Instead of the more usual fruit and vegetable harvest, we celebrate the Fish Harvest. Our regular St Botolph’s Day (17th June) reception with music for a summer’s evening retains a link to the ancient local church of St Botolph, lost in 1666.
St Andrew Hubbard was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and not rebuilt, but united to St Mary’s. In 1901 St George, Botolph Lane, with St Botolph, Billingsgate (similarly incorporated after the Fire) was sold for re-development. These were added to St Mary’s Parish. In 1954 St Margaret Pattens with St Gabriel became a Guild Church, making St Mary-at-Hill the Parish & Ward church of Billingsgate.