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St Nicholas Cole Abbey was the first London church rebuilt by (Sir) Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. It did, however, suffer greatly in the Blitz, and to that extent is really only for the Christopher Wren completist - there's not much to set a Wren devotee's pulse racing in Cole Abbey. Having said that, it could be argued that the current uncluttered plainness is closer in spirit to Wren's desire for simplicity and openness than many other of his surviving churches. (And for some it is still comparatively ornate: one new arrival from the north of Scotland, where the churches are very plain, was heard to remark that he thought the church looked like a theatre with all its gilt and fancy trimmings

The church's name - St Nicholas Cole Abbey

The origins and derivation of the name 'Cole Abbey' are unknown: the only sure thing is that it was never an abbey. The most plausible theory is that its title derives from the mediaeval word coldharbour, meaning a shelter for travellers. Perhaps there was a lodging-house nearby.

History pre-1666

The first recorded mention of St Nicholas Cole Abbey dates from 1144, in a letter of Pope Lucius. Land deeds in the reign of Richard I (1189-1199) later record 'a new fish market' near the Church of St Nicholas; and in a Charter of 1272 it is referred to, affectionately, as 'Sci Nichi retro fihstrate' or 'St Nick's behind Fish Street'. From the number of fishmongers buried here during the 16th century, it would appear to have maintained a close association with the fish trade which began in the reign of Richard I when a new fish market was established nearby. A wealthy fishmonger in the reign of Elizabeth I gave £900 'to bring Thames water to a tank on the north wall of the Church for the care and commodity of the Fishmongers in and about Old Fish Street'.

(The pedestrianised alley at the east end of the church is called Old Fish Street Hill. The next road to the east is called Friday Street, said to have been named after a mediaeval fish market held here on Fridays - it used to be longer, but lost much of its length to the construction of Queen Victoria Street and the bombing of the Second World War. Distaff Lane, the short street behind the church, was formerly part of a longer Knightrider Street, before which it had been Fish Street.).

The church is named after the patron saint of children, and an inventory of the church's possessions at the time of the Reformation describes some of the vestments being 'as for children', so possibly the ancient ceremony of the 'Boy Bishop' was celebrated here. The stark simplicity of the services which replaced such ceremonies in the reign of Edward VI were not popular in the parish according to one observer who rejoiced, in 1553, at the restoration of the Roman Rite under Queen Mary: 'Mass at St Nicholas Cole Abbaye goodly sung in Latin, tapers set on the altar and a cross, and all this not be commandment but by the people's devotion.' It was here in fact that the first Mass in London was celebrated after Mary's accession. The priest at the time was said to have sold his wife to a butcher, for which he was pelted with rotten eggs.

Later the patronage belonged to the Puritan, Colonel Hacker, who commanded the guard for the execution of Charles I in 1649.

1666 and all that

The church had prospered during the Middle Ages, and was enlarged at various times, but it shared the fate of so many City churches in 1666, being destroyed in the Great Fire.

Cole Abbey was the first City church Sir Christopher Wren built after the Great Fire, completed in 1677. Included in the total cost of £5,042 6s 11d are recorded such items as 'Dinner for Dr Wren and other Company - £2 14s 0d' and 'Half a pint of canary for Dr Wren's coachmen - 6d'. Wren adopted a simple, classical design in radical contrast to the still-fashionable decorated Gothic; by then the face of English Christianity had been changed by the Reformation, and Wren's new church reflected the simplicity and openness of Protestant worship.

In 1737, John Wesley recorded that his friend and fellow Methodist, George Whitefield, preached a stirring sermon at St Nicholas on 'Profane Swearing in Church'.

The population of the city of London declined dramatically in the 19th century, as the area became less residential and more commercial. Some population figures: 1841 - 123,000; 1861 - 107,000; 1881 - 51,000; 1901 - 27,000.

In 1867-71 Queen Victoria Street, on which Cole Abbey stands, was cut through from the Victoria Embankment to the Bank of England (the District Line was built underneath at the same time). The churchyard was sacrificed for the street, the contents of the churchyard being removed and reinterred elsewhere. Some fragments of gravestones can be seen in the floor by the north door. It was then that the south door, formerly the back door, became the front door of the church.

Under the rectorship of Henry Shuttleworth in the late 19th century, the church became a centre for lively discussion and debate. Shuttleworth is thought to be the model for Mr Morell, the socialist priest in Shaw's play Candida.

The church was reordered in 1874, and partly restored in 1928-31.

This restoration work was undone during the second Great Fire of London - the Blitz of the Second World War. In the early hours of Sunday 11 May, 1941, Cole Abbey was gutted by fire bombs; it was the worst raid London experienced in six years of war, and left over three thousand people dead or seriously injured. The Law Courts, the Tower of London and the Royal Mint were hit; Westminster Hall was set on fire and the House of Commons gutted, with Big Ben having its face pocked and scarred as a bomb passed right through its tower - yet still managed to strike two o'clock correctly a few minutes after the bomb had fallen; Westminster Abbey was badly damaged; in the British Museum, a quarter of a million books were burnt. The blaze was seen from Cuddesden Hill, near Oxford; the red glow was visible to the German bombers when they were over Rouen, 160 miles away.

In 1951, Cole Abbey featured prominently in the Ealing comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob, starring Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway and produced by Charles Crichton. The gold bullion robbery takes place just outside the church, on Queen Victoria Street, and it features as a landmark in that whole sequence of the film. The devastation from the Blitz remains evident - it is without window glass, roof or spire, and it is surrounded by open space instead of buildings. It's a film worth seeing, whether you're interested in Cole Abbey or not!

In 1962, after two decades in ruins, Cole Abbey was restored under the direction of Arthur Bailey, casting off the dubious 'improvements' of the Victorian era and closely following Wren's original design and decoration. The upper part of the tower was rebuilt, with the spire being made taller than before. The shops which had formerly been built up against the south wall (evident in one of the pictures on the wall of the church) had now gone, so these windows were opened up. Stained glass, designed by Kenneth New, was put into the east windows.

In 1982 the Church of England leased Cole Abbey to the Free Church of Scotland. Most of the movable artefacts were transferred at this time to the neighbouring Anglican church of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe (on the same side of the road as Cole Abbey, in the direction of Blackfriars). A gilt metal statue of St Nicholas (formerly part of the 1874 gateway to Queen Victoria Street), listed in some guidebooks, has now also been moved to St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe.

The church as it now appears

The walls, gates and stairs of the gateway from Queen Victoria Street date from 1874.

The body of the building is a balustraded stone box with quoins. It has arched windows under straight hoods on brackets. Brickwork from the mediaeval church can be seen on the outside of the west wall; this wall originally faced a narrow alley, and incorporates rubble and brick (the north and east sides were originally the main ones), while the south wall is of Portland stone. On the outside of the south wall, to the left of the main door, is a war memorial inscription to ten members of St Nicholas Cole Abbey who lost their lives in the two World Wars - nine in the First and one in the Second.

The spire is described by some as looking like an inverted funnel or trumpet. It is leaded, hexagonal, and has an iron balcony and railings at the top.

The weathervane on top of the spire is in the form of a ship. If you spot it on old prints, however, you have found not Cole Abbey but St Michael Queenhithe: our weathervane topped St Michael's spire until that church was demolished in 1874.

The interior is a plain rectangular room with a west gallery and screen under three arches. The ceiling is flat and uncoved, and divided into panels; there are small pendants at the junction of the ceiling beams, first made in 1884. The walls include Corinthian pilasters, and swags of plaster over the East windows (recreated from Wren's originals)

All the woodwork is Renaissance; some of it is original, but the panelling and seating in particular have been so cleaned and lightened that it all looks new and matching. The font cover is by Richard Kedge, who did joinery work for Wren; it has foliage carving and openwork scrolls supporting a crown (the font is a modern copy). The 17th century pulpit survives, with rectangular panels and typical festoons, swags and cherubs' heads, but without its tester and on a modern base. The communion rail, with twisted balustrades, is a partial survivor from the 17th century. The royal coat-of-arms now over the south door, also dates from Wren's time; the royal arms were displayed in all Wren's new churches, as had been the practice since the Reformation. The arms would formerly have been on the reredos, Other woodwork from the reredos has been reset in places such as the south doorcase and the west gallery and screen (including two gilded cherubs).

The only stone carving in the church is a mediaeval carved stone head, which is preserved (clearly not in its original position) behind the panelling immediately inside the main door (behind a locked panel, which can be opened on request).

The stained-glass windows date from the 1962 restoration, and are by Kenneth New. The three windows form one horizontal composition, the central element of the design being a long ship. The theme is the extension of the church - a theme chosen because by 1962 the Anglican priests of Cole Abbey were no longer engaged in parish work but in roles relating to the Church of England's mission work. All the other windows are of clear glass.

There are some pictures of Cole Abbey, in various states of post-War distress, on the wall behind the old pulpit.

The chandelier is made of brass, with twenty-four branches in two tiers. It dates from the mid-eighteenth century.

The organ dates from the restoration of 1962.

The sword rest - of wrought iron in an upright symmetrical frame - dates from 1747. Sword rests were peculiar to the City Churches, and were used by the Lord Mayor on his state visits.

A brass plaque commemorating the burial of James Wood (benefactor of the Worshipful Company of Bowyers, which had links with the church) in 1629 is still to be seen, on the floor behind the old pulpit.

In its time the building has witnessed many social and religious upheavals. Though the old life of the City has changed irrevocably with the departure of a resident population, the church retains its connections with Queenhithe Ward, and continues as a place where the unchanging gospel is proclaimed.

Bibliography (all well worth a look)

John Betjeman, City of London Churches; Pitkin Press, 1993.

Simon Bradley & Nikolaus Pevsner, London: The City Churches, Penguin, 1998.

William Kent (ed), An Encyclopaedia of London; JM Dent & Sons, 1937.

Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (eds) The London Encyclopaedia , Book Club edition, 1985.

Philip Ziegler, London at War 1939-1945, Mandarin, 1996.


All the above has been "cut & pasted" from the official Cole Abbey site! 


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