St Leonard, Shoreditch

Above: The impressive west front of the church, facing onto Shoreditch High Street.

The first recorded mention of the parish church was in 1160. Whoever decided on its site certainly chose a commanding position – at the intersection of what had once been two Roman Roads. Running north-south is a long Roman road running out of the City, of which the part near the church is now made up of Shoreditch High Street and Kingsland Road. Crossing almost at right-angles is the line of the second Roman road, now called Old Street and Hackney Road.

In the days of our childhood, many of us remember the nursery rhyme that contains the following lines in which the bells of Shoreditch are mentioned, referring to St Leonard.

Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow.

Although there are several versions of the nursery rhyme, the lines above are probably the ones that you recognise. It was first published in 1744 but almost certainly dates from an earlier time. While there are various interpretations put on the words, it is interesting that the reference to Shoreditch implies poverty or being in debt. Shoreditch was never known to be a place where wealthy people lived, being more a locality where hard-working craftsmen earned an honest living.

The church is not always open but, if you ever get the opportunity to visit, you will find that there are several famous names associated with the parish. One is James, the father of the famous actor Richard Burbage, who lived in Shoreditch and died there 1597. He was buried in the church, where there is a plaque to him on one of the interior walls. The plaque also mentions Richard, the son of James Burbage, who died in 1619, as well as Cuthbert, the son of James Burbage, who died in 1636.

There is an unusual monument to Elizabeth Benson, who died 1710, who was a local resident and not known for any particular reason today. The monument depicts two skeletons tearing at a tree.

Above: The elegant spire as seen from the churchyard.

A new church – the one that we have today – was built 1736-40 by George Dance (Elder). The magnificent spire is less easy to see from the City of London than it used to be. From the north, however, there are several good spots at the northern end of Kingsland Road where the spire acts a marker for the keen-eyed observer.

One name associated with the church is that of the local doctor who first diagnosed the awful symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. James Parkinson died 1824 and was buried in the churchyard. There is a large plaque on the south wall on the inside of the church, recording that he was baptised and married in the church where he was a life-long worshipper. The plaque was erected at the expense of the nurses from the nearby St Leonard’s Hospital.

The church was badly damaged in 1944, during the Second World War, by the bombing. The church was considered to be of sufficient importance architecturally that it was fully restored in 1955. A few years later, in 1980, the exterior of the church, including the steeple, was cleaned.

The church stands at the northern end of Shoreditch High Street, surrounded by its large churchyard. Standing at such a busy crossroads, it is hard to imagine the early times when the area was mainly fields and this was a country churchyard. Nevertheless, the church still carries an air of elegance and it is always a pleasure to see it on this otherwise grim and untidy corner of London.


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