Above: St Antholin’s spire still to be seen in Sydenham, just over the Forest Hill border.
The church of St Antholin, designed by Christopher Wren and rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, used to stand at a point where a projected line of Watling Street meets the existing line of Queen Victoria Street. The Victorian engineers had decided to construct a new road in the City of London – which we know as Queen Victoria Street, leading SW from the junction at the Bank of England.
Wren’s church stood on the north side of Watling Street which, until it was demolished, extended further east than it does now. It was truncated to join at King Street where Queen Victoria Street now runs today. The story goes that a Mr Harrild occupied an office overlooking the church of St Antholin whose church and spire he admired every morning when he arrived at work. One morning, to his shock and horror, he realised that ‘his church’ was about to be demolished. He managed to negotiate with the contractors to save the spire and have it transported to Dartmouth Road, at the point on the Sydenham-Forest Hill border where he lived. HIs house had a long back garden beside a turning called Round Hill.
Those are the facts of the story but what would probably be more interesting would be to know how he managed to get the spire saved from demolition. Most builders, once they have a contract, usually do not want to be bothered by what they regard as a ’well-meaning busy-body’. So how did he do it? How much did he have to pay them to carefully remove the spire? The easiest way to demolish the spire would have been to take a sledge-hammer to it but, if it was to be rebuilt somewhere else, it would require careful and expert demolition to take it down piece by piece. Most spires are made of a timber frame covered by tiles or covered in lead. All this demolition would have taken time to complete.
After careful dismantling, the material would have to be loaded onto a cart (or carts) and transported to Sydenham. Once there, it would have to be carefully unloaded and another builder would have to be engaged to rebuild the spire. Sadly, the details of all this work are not recorded.
Harrild’s house no longer exists and the long back garden is also gone. However, the spire, which he had erected at the end of his garden, is still in situ and can be seen – if you know where to look. To do this you need to walk along Dartmouth Road (from Forest Hill) and turn right into a narrow turning called Round Hill. Walk up the slope a short distance and you will see the spire on the right – surrounded by small modern houses.
This ‘little piece of Wren’ is still to be seen in Sydenham and it is still highly regarded by the locals. Various other pieces of the old church of St Antholin were moved to other churches in London. Its good to know that the Victorians were as distressed as we are today about seeing a grand landmark being torn down in the name of progress!