Above: Looking north in Abchurch Lane, at the church standing beside the paved area that was once the churchyard.
This beautiful and unusual church with a strange name stands tucked away and almost out of sight of the pedestrians in Cannon Street, even though its site is only a matter of yards from the north side of the thoroughfare. Walking west along Cannon Street, the second turning on the north side is quite narrow and goes by the name of Abchurch Lane. Walking into the lane you will first notice a small churchyard which is now paved in an ornamental fashion. Standing on its north side is the small rectangular church.
Harben, in his ‘Dictionary of London’ explains that the church was first mentioned in 1198. It is believed that ‘Ab’ is short for ‘Aba’, ‘Abba’ or ‘Abbo’ which are believed to be personal names from early times and probably refers to the founder or rebuilder of the church. Abchurch Lane, which takes its name from the church, was first mentioned in the 20th year Edward I (1291). Churches came ‘thick and fast’ in medieval times with almost one standing in every street or lane in the City. In a world which suffered sickness and knew that the almost certain outcome would be death, there were no real hospitals as we know them today. Wealthy people, therefore, did not think of leaving their money building of a new hospital but they often left funds to provide for the founding of a new church or the rebuilding of one that was already in existence.
The medieval church stood until the time of the Great Fire of London (1666). On Monday 3 September the flames engulfed this part of the City with the result that the little church was completely destroyed. The City authorities had the church rebuilt 1681-86 by Christopher Wren. He was under considerable pressure to save money wherever possible and so, in this case, he used the foundations of the old church on which to erect the walls of the new one. The church also contains a particularly fine reredos by Grinling Gibbons.
Many of Wren’s churches were built of stone. St Mary Abchurch was built of brick with stone quoins (or large rectangular stone blocks) supporting its corners – a feature that was typical of Wren’s design for many of his buildings.
During the London Blitz, a bomb hit the church in September 1940. The greatest damage done was to the dome. The church was repaired by W Godfrey between 1948 and 1953. The dome was restored by E W Tristan and work on it was completed after his death in 1952 by the artist Walter Hoyle. The dome is one of the finest features of the interior. It had been removed from the church by order of the churchwardens and kept in a place of safety for the duration of the war.
The church contains a large number of box-pews, dating from the time of rebuilding by Wren. It is one of the last churches in the City to retain its box pews which gives it a unique feel as you walk around. The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.
At the time of writing, the church is easier to see from Cannon Street than it has been since the Second World War. This is due to a neighbouring site being cleared in preparation for a new southerly entrance to the busy Bank underground station – on the east side of Abchurch Lane. The extensive tunnelling so close to the church has caused some structural problems for the church with cracks appearing in the north wall and one of the interior doors not being able to be closed properly due to structural movement. It is expected that, once the construction work for the new station entrance is complete, the structural problems in the church will be addressed.