When I used to work in London and exited at Fenchurch Street Station, I would usually pass a small tower, which is all that remains of a church, which was intriguing in itself. What attracted me more to finding out about the place was the three skulls carved into the stone on the entrance. The building was St Olaves Church and it has a very interesting history.
The church is one of the smallest in the City
Surviving the Great fire of 1666, (the flames stopped 100 metres away) St Olaves was built in the 13th Century although in all probability a wooden structure existed beforehand. It would be rebuilt during the 1450s and have many alterations in its lifetime.
The church has close associations with Samuel Pepys, the diarist. His diary includes many observations of what was happening in St Olaves and would refer to it as ‘our own church’. His body was entombed alongside his wife’s at the church when he died in 1703.
The churchyard gateway, which I mentioned above, was built in 1658 and is referenced by Charles Dickens in the uncommercial traveller as St Ghastly Grim.
“It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes atop of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me in Saint Ghastly Grim, and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight.” (The Uncommercial Traveller)
Quite a fitting design of carving as less than 10 years later, in 1665, 300 plague victims were buried in the churchyard including the woman accused of bringing the plague to London.
During the Second World War, like much of London St Olaves would be severely damaged in the blitz but not completely destroyed. Enough of its structure and masonry remained that it was restored and re opened in 1950, with the guest of honour being King Haakon VII of Norway who had worshipped in the Church during the War.
St Olaves is dedicated to the Patron Saint of Norway – King Olaf II. He fought alongside Ethelred the Unready against the Danes during the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. On his death, Olaf was canonised and it is said the church was built on the site of the battle.
The build was listed as a grade I in January 1950. Its style is Perpendicular Gothic, which is emphasized by vertical lines. The church is open to visitors and worshippers today. For more information head to the website below: