St John's Church and "Old Boney"
The author of this blog, Daniella King, will be leading her walk Footprints of East London as part of the Spitalfields Music Festival 2018 on Sunday 2nd and Saturday 8th December, starting at 10.00 a.m. on both days. You can find more details and book for festival events, including Daniella’s walks, by clicking here: 2018 Festival Programme.
There are many iconic buildings in Bethnal Green, but perhaps few are as recognisable as St John’s Church.
Located at the cross road of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road, and next to the “Green” of Bethnal Green, it may be mistaken for a church that has been here for generations where in fact it was built just over 200 years ago.
The church dates from a time when Bethnal Green was expanding. An area which has been rural, was now growing in size. A growing population of mainly the lower and middle classes, needed somewhere to attend on Sundays to sing their hymns and to say their prayers.
Bethnal Green’s first church was St Matthews which was built in the 1740s., when the area became a separate parish from St Dunstan in Stepney. Ten new churches were erected in the Parish between 1826-1849. Although many of churches have long since been lost, very few parishes can share the claim to fame of having a church dedicated to all eleven apostles.
St John was started in 1826 by Sir John Soane, who was also known for his work on the Bank of England and Dulwich Art Gallery.
So – what is the Old Boney link? Referred to as a “Waterloo church”, the church was funded through the Church Building Act 1818, through which money set aside by Parliament to celebrate the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Over 100 churches in London were built or restored as a result of this, However, St John was still hindered by the lack of money and one item that was lost from the original design was the steeple. The tower that we see was described by Soane as a pepper pot, while others unfairly as an “object of low wit and vulgar abuse”
A serious fire in the 19th century and extensively rebuilt after World War 2 damage, has resulted in changes in the look and design of Soane’s original church.
For the locals in Bethnal Green, many will have their own fond memories of their local church, especially memories of family christenings, weddings and funerals.
And yet – without Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo – this church would not be gracing the skyline of Bethnal Green.