The Streets Of London – Part Ninety Nine

St Andrew Street, EC1

St Andrew Street is the south-eastern spur of Holborn Circus and leads at its southern end into Shoe Lane. Between St Andrew Street and the eastern spur of the Circus, which is the continuation of Holborn, is to be found the largest of the parish churches designed by Christopher Wren, St Andrew’s Holborn.

Quite when there was first a church on the site is lost in the mists of time but there is a mention of an “old wooden church” in the records of Westminster Abbey, dating to 951 CE. There are some doubts about the veracity of the record as it is supposedly signed by King Edgar, who didn’t ascend to the throne until 959. There may have been a slip of the clerical pen or it may be a forgery but it is probably safe to assume there was a church there, and had been so for many a year.

In 1348 an armourer who had made his fortune by the name of John Thavie bequeathed his estate to the church for “the support of the fabric forever”. Astonishingly, the proceeds from the fund still pay for the upkeep of the church almost seven centuries later. During the 15th century the wooden church was replaced by one built out of stone. In some ways the church was a lucky one, surviving a lightning strike to the steeple in 1563, and escaping destruction during the Great Fire of 1666 when the wind suddenly changed direction.

While surveying the devastated city, Wren thought that St Andrew’s was in such poor condition, even if unscathed, that it needed rebuilding. He saved the mediaeval tower, refacing it with marble, and rebuilt the church from its foundations. Externally and internally it is typically neoclassical in design, a hallmark of Wren’s work, but it is an oddity in that it is a Wren church whose original had not been consumed by the flames of the Great Fire. The church was not so lucky during the Second World War, its interior being extensively damaged during the Blitz. It was restored painstakingly to Wren’s original design.

In 1826 the surgeon, William Marsden, found a homeless girl suffering from hypothermia, sitting on the church steps. He tried to get her admitted to some of the hospitals in the area but she was turned away because she couldn’t pay for her treatment. The girl died in Marsden’s arms and this experience encouraged him to found, in 1828, the Free Hospital, whose aim was to provide free healthcare to those who couldn’t afford it. It gained its Royal moniker in 1837 in recognition of its work in treating cholera patients.

The registers in the church throw light on attempts to secularise marriage during Cromwell’s interregnum. One entry reads, “An agreement and intent of marriage between John Law and Ffrances Riley, both servants to the Lady Brooke, of this parish, was published three several markett-days in Newgate Markett”. Under a statute passed in August 1653, the betrothed couple could chose between having their banns read in church on three successive Sundays or proclaimed by a bellman in an open market on three successive market days. Law and Riley clearly chose the latter method.  

The organ in the church is said to have been played by Handel and if you step inside, do not miss a pair of blue=clad figures, a boy and a girl, flanking the entrance to the west tower. These represent pupils who attended charity shoes, their distinctive uniforms being blue because it was the cheapest dye. Their stockings were often dyed with saffron because it was thought it deterred rats from biting them. The statues originally stood over the entrance to St Andrew’s Parochial School which was founded in 1696 and moved to Hatton Garden in 1721. The statues were put in the church after it was restored following its wartime damage.

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