Science Museum / Imax

 
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 Street.

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.

The 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.


Victorian 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.
   Memorial plaque
 
One of many plaques in St Paul's commemorating legends of the stage and screen
   


Famous parishioners
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 here.

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.


For more information see the church's website: www.actorschurch.org

Article reproduced with permission from St Paul's Church, Covent Garden.