A Millennium of Ministry
St Mary-at-Hill has stood 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 be sure that a church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin has stood here since at least the end of the eleventh century.
Billingsgate Quay was an important harbour on the River Thames in the tenth and eleventh centuries and the route from the quay north into the City of London would have led past the church. The steep rise from the river gave it the name of St Mary at or on the Hill. The church wardens’ reports and accounts for the period 1420-1559 (published with the commentary by H. Littlehales in 1905) tells us that the church had side chapels dedicated to St Stephen, St Katherine, St Anne and St Christopher. The eleventh-century church has been extensively renovated, altered and extended through its history.
A 1756 map of Billingsgate and Bridge Wards, including St Mary-at-Hill, from Maitland’s The History of London © The Trustees of the British Museum released under a Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercialShareAlike 4.0 International (CC
BY-NC-SA 4.0) license
Although there has been a church here since at least the eleventh century, there have been burials here for even longer. Excavations by the Museum of London 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.
To be buried within the church or in its chapels you had to be wealthy. A memorandum from the churchwardens’ accounts, dated 1523, says that burials within the chapels were charged at 16s 8d, burials in the nave at 8s 4d, while internment in the Great Churchyard to the north cost just 8d for an adult and 4d for a child. The churchyard was closed for burials in 1846 and all human remains were carefully removed to West Norwood Cemetery in south-east London. The churchyard is now a courtyard garden. The church crypt and vaults were similarly emptied of human remains, around 3,000 in all, between 1892 and 1894. Some slabs and memorials remain, but there are no skeletons below.
The remarkable Resurrection Panel, now inside the church, was probably originally positioned overlooking the churchyard. It is thought to date from the 1670s and is one of a small number of Last Judgement scenes carved in that period in London.
The panel was probably produced in the workshop of prominent City mason Joshua Marshall, who was responsible for the rebuilding of the church in 1670-74. Weather and pollution took their toll, but the panel was conserved by Taylor Pearce Studios, re-instated in the narthex and re-dedicated during the Fish Harvest Festival in 2010.
The Resurrection Panel
Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries
The church bells of the tower and steeple were rung for the crowning of Henry VIII in 1509, although the medieval tower was replaced in 1787-9 by George Gwilt’s square brick tower. Sadly, the church bells were removed after fire damage to the church in 1988. The 1534 Act of Supremacy, which declared that Henry was Supreme Head of the Church of England, marked the beginning of the English Reformation. St Mary-at-Hill, along with every other church across the country, was entering a new era.
The seventeenth century was a period of huge upheaval: the Civil War raged between 1642 and 1651, the king was executed and six years after the monarchy was restored, London lost one in five of its inhabitants to the plague. With the city still reeling, in September 1666 the Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane, a stone’s throw from St Mary-at-Hill. The church was largely destroyed, along with 86 others and thousands of homes and businesses.
Renovation after the Great Fire
Plans for rebuilding the City churches after the Great Fire were famously overseen by Dr (later Sir) Christopher Wren, but it may have been the overlooked genius Robert Hooke who supervised the rebuilding of St Mary-at-Hill 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 Great Fire had consumed the interior of the church leaving only parts of the walls and the brick work of the tower. Incorporating the previous fabric as far as possible, the original north and south walls were reconstructed and the building was extended a little to the east. An ornate main frontage of exposed stone was built on the St Mary at Hill street side, with three windows. (The central one 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.
The nearby St Andrew Hubbard was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and not rebuilt, but united to St Mary-at-Hill. In 1901 St George, Botolph Lane, with St Botolph, Billingsgate (similarly incorporated after the Great Fire) was sold for re-development. These two parishes were added to the parish of St Mary-at-Hill. In 1954 the neighbouring church in Eastcheap, St Margaret Pattens with St Gabriel, became a Guild Church, making St Mary-at-Hill the Parish and Ward Church of Billingsgate.
An anonymous etching of the Great Fire of London made in Germany, 1666 © The Trustees of the British Museum
At the end of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the century, St Mary-at-Hill was under the lively and inspired ministry of Prebendary Wilson Carlile, founder of the Church Army. His 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 in the church eating their sandwiches, watching lantern shows and coming and going during meetings according to their shifts at work. On Sundays, Carlile would himself lead a band around the streets, playing his trombone and drumming up custom for the next service in the church. Frequent organ recitals and hearty singing were considered important during Carlile’s time here.
Wilson Carlile in the pulpit at St Mary-at-Hill, date unknown © ChurchArmy.org
In the early sixteenth century a famous choir of priests, lay clerks and boys, including Thomas Tallis and William Mundy, sang elaborate daily services in the church. 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, fully restored after fire damage in 1988. Those who come to our periodic lunchtime organ recitals are still welcome to eat their sandwiches and pop in and out depending on their lunch break. Find out more about the church’s musical heritage here.
The October Festival of the Sea is a tradition still maintained at St Mary-at-Hill. Instead of the more usual fruit and vegetable harvest, we celebrate our links to Billingsgate’s Fish Market with a Fish Harvest. Over the years, this annual celebration has provided the opportunity for new choral works to be composed for inclusion in the Festival service.
Billingsgate porters at the 2016 Fish Harvest Festival © Niki Gorick Photography
St Mary-at-Hill Today
Today, St Mary-at-Hill continues as a thriving inner-city church. The church still serves the local parish with two services a week and the Fish Harvest festival is still held every year in the church.
Bringing our mission into the twenty-first century, we have twinned our toilets with facilities in the Congo. For more information about this arrangement, please read the Toilet Twinning Website.
Detail of a stained-glass window in the east end of the church showing stylised fish