Hidden in plain sight – All Hallows by the Tower

“It having only burned the dyall of Barking Church, and part of the porch, and was there quenched. I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; every where great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning. I became afeard to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could…”

Samuel Pepys

Originally dedicated to St Mary – All Hallows by the Tower is the oldest church in the City of London. It has witnessed many events in its time including the Great Fire of London in 1666 where Samuel Pepys climbed its steeple to watch the flames engulf London. Its proximity to the Tower meant that those executed on Tower Hill would usually be brought to the church post death before being moved for burial. Although rebuilt many times in its history, the foundations remain and the thousands of tourist and commuters in the City overlook its history.

Founded by the Abbey of Barking in 675AD under the Bishop of London, Erconwold, the first church was 24ft by 70 with no isles. Unfortunately, the only part of the church for this period to survive is an arch.

In the crypt, during excavations in the 1920s a mosaic floor was uncovered indication that the site was in use during the Roman period. The floor is still in situ and can be seen today. In other parts of the church recycled roman tiles and brickwork has been used, indicating that a Roman house may have once stood there. The church was re built in the late 11th century, about 10 years after the tower.

During 1309-10, the some of the Knights Templar’s would be questioned within the church during the suppression of their order. Most of the inquisitions carried out in London would have taken place in Holy Trinity Priory but a few happened at All Hallows. In November 1309, four Knights were questions at the church and denied all charges placed before them bar one. Another three knights had the same treatment in the January and a few more a few days later. All would declare them delves innocent and obedient servants to their faith. The prisoners were re questioned again later, this time after being submitted to torture and three of their number would admit to their charges and made a public confession. They would eventually be absolved of their crimes and sent to do penance among their enemies, stripped of all belongings.

A lady chapel was built in the churchyard in the 13th, which under Edward VI was placed as a royal chantry to pray for his family, and his own soul once departed. Unfortunately, all trace of the chapel no longer remains as it was demolished in 1547.

In 1650, an explosion occurred near the churchyard of All Hallows. Some gunpowder barrels caught alight and destroyed at least 50 house nearby and killing around 67 people and destroying the tower. Repairs were made and parts of the structure rebuilt in 1658, making All Hallows the only Church to have work carried out on it during the Commonwealth.

The luck, which seemed to have saved All Hallows in the Great Fire of London in 1666, would run out in the blitz. On 29th 1940, a firestorm would hit the church destroying all above ground bar the tower and one of the external walls. The rebuilding would start years later with the Queens mother laying the foundation storm to commence the re build. It was re dedicated in 1957 and was designed by Seely and Paget.

IN FOCUS – Seely and Paget:

John Seely and Paul Paget were partners in an architectural firm in the interwar years, which Seely set up for them both in 1922 (Paget was not an architect but became the ‘face’ of the company). They had met while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge and from there the two became inseparable, referring to themselves as ‘partners’ – in both life and work.

‘It was just the marriage of two minds … we became virtually one person’. – Paget.

Their masterpiece would be the transformation of Eltham Palace (see https://fortheloveofhistory.home.blog/2019/03/23/a-palace-of-old-and-new-eltham-palace/)

All Hallows is about 3,569 miles from Pennsylvania in America yet it has close links with its founder and one of Americas Presidents. William Penn, who would be the founder of Pennsylvania was baptised in the church and educated in the school room before growing up and emigrating to the new world. John Quincy Adams the 6th America president was married within the church walls in 1797 before he too would leave England. Their entries in the books can be seen in the crypt museum today.

The records were only discovered purely by chance in 1923. A carved lead-lined cistern was found and opened and inside were a number of documents including those listed above. It is believed that one of All Hallows Vicars may have felt it better to preserve the records in something that was fireproof and placed it within the tower where it would eventually sit untouched for over 200 years.

Today the church is a grade I listed building which is still in regular use. It is open to the public and has the museum in the undercroft, which one can usually get to oneself, as it is not very busy. Along with the Roman Mosaics still in situ, you can see a model showing London when it was known as Londinium, a barrel used as a crow’s nest by Shakelton on his last arctic voyage and Saxon crosses discovered on the site.

The Museum is open on … For more information please visit their site http://www.allhallowsbythetower.org.uk/


Hibbert, C (1988) London’s Churches. MacDonald Queen Anne’s Press: London

Anon (nd) All Hallows by the Tower – A History. Available from: http://www.allhallowsbythetower.org.uk/history/ [Accessed 18.6.19]

English Heritage (nd) Seely and Paget at Eltham Palace. Available from: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/lgbtq-history/seely-and-paget-at-eltham-palace/ [Accessed 30.6.19]

Historic England (nd) Church of All Hallows by the Tower. https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1064671

Lilian J Redstone, ‘The architecture of All Hallows’, in Survey of London: Volume 12, the Parish of All Hallows Barking, Part I: the Church of All Hallows (London, 1929), pp. 54-66. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol12/pt1/pp54-66

Paterson, M (2012) All Hallows by the Tower. Available from: https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2012/11/15/all-hallows-by-the-tower/ [Accessed 30.6.19]

Ross, D (nd) All Hallows by the Tower, London. https://www.britainexpress.com/London/All_Hallows_by_the_Tower.htm [Accessed 30.6.19]

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