St Paul's dominates the west side of Covent Garden Piazza -
the heart of the Capital's theatreland and London's first square
- and the church plays an important part in the lives of many
people; residents, workers and visitors to Covent Garden.
History In 1631, Francis Russell, Earl of Bedford, commissioned
Inigo Jones to design a Square, surrounded by noble mansions,
with a chapel, and four streets to converge in it.
He designed an Italian Piazza, but the whole plan was never
completed. The Russell family funds were running low, and the
story goes that the Earl sent for Inigo to discuss the building
of the chapel on the Western side. He told him that it must
not cost too much - "In short," he said, "I would have it not
much better than a barn." "Well then," said Inigo, "You shall
have the handsomest barn in England!"
Work on the building of the church began in 1631, with the impressive
Tuscan Portico facing eastwards on to the Piazza. However, the
Bishop of London, William Laud, insisted that the altar should
be against the east wall, so the Portico was never used, two
small doors being substituted on either side of it. The main
entrance was by the west door, opening on to the little graveyard,
and leading to the country lane which later was to become Bedford
The completed church The church was completed in 1633,
at a cost to the Russells of £4,400, but was not consecrated
for divine worship until 1638.
By 1645, the Bedford Development had become so populous, and
so many streets were being built that, despite the protests
of the incumbent of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Covent Garden was
made a separate parish and Inigo Jones' church was dedicated
to St Paul.
The very first victim of the Great Plague - one Margaret Ponteous,
a doctor's daughter, was buried in the churchyard at St Paul's
on the 12th April 1665 - the cause of death in thechurch register
being given briefly as PLA. Her death gave no clue to suggest
the start of the worst plague in London's history. In 1788, the architect Thomas Hardwick began a major restoration,
which included facing the interior with stone.
Fire In 1795 there was a disastrous fire at the church,
when the roof, painted ceiling, and parts of the walls were
destroyed - caused by plumbers doing some trifling work in the
bell-tower and leaving their fire unguarded during their mid-day
break. The parish records were fortunately saved, as was the
pulpit which had been the work of Grinling Gibbons - or one
of his pupils.
Plans were made quickly for the re-building, but many people,
including Horace Walpole, thought the original had been too
plain and any rebuilding should be more decorative. Nevertheless,
Thomas Hardwick preserved Inigo Jones' original simple conception,
and reproduced it faithfully.
additions and alterations The organ - situated in a gallery above the
west door - was built by Henry Bevington in 1861, incorporating
part of the case which had been designed by Hardwick in 1795,
and possibly with parts of William Gray's earlier organ.
In 1871 William Butterfield was commissioned to carry out some
alterations; he removed the galleries, raised the channel floor
and rearranged the furniture. At this time the east doors
were blocked up.
of many plaques in St Paul's commemorating legends of
the stage and screen
Many famous names have been connected with St Paul's - John
Wesley preached here, J.M.W Turner and W.S Gilbert were baptised
here, and those buried here include Sir Peter Lely, Samuel Butler,
William Wycherly, Grinling Gibbons, Thomas Arne, and Thomas
Rowlandson. The ashes of Ellen Terry and Edith Evans repose
The theatrical connection began as early as 1663 with the establishment
of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and was further assured in
1723 by the opening of the Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal
Opera House). It is still `The Actors' Church,' the Actors'
Church Union has its offices here, and so the inner walls and
in the garden can be seen memorial plaques to famous personalities
in the world of the performing arts.
Today St Paul's still stands as the parish church
for the Parish of Covent Garden - which was enlarged in 1986
to incorporate the Parishes of Holy Trinity, Kingsway and St
John, Drury Lane.
Services are held regularly throughout the week. Each service,
depending on the time and day of the week, attracts its own
distinctive congregation - be it the man on his way to business
who attends early morning prayer, or the local office worker
attending mid-day holy communion, or the customary Sunday congregation.
The latter is a congenial association of local residents, frequent
worshippers from other parts of London, members of the entertainment
world, out of town visitors and tourists.
Often present are Christians on leave or holiday from overseas
who regard St Paul's as their "church-back-home". One of the
greatest things this Church can, and, does offer is a place
of calm amidst the tumult of Central London.