All Hallows by the Tower – with an American connection!

By: shortfinals

Jan 26 2011

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Category: British Isles, Castles, England, Great Britain, London, Royalty, Second World War, United States

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Tower Hill in London is literally soaked in history – and, you could add, it has been soaked in much more, the blood of hundreds executed in the nearby Tower of London. As well as the remains of the early Roman city wall around Londinium there is the Tower Hill Memorial, which commemorates those lost from the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets in both World War One and World War Two who have no known grave. Dominating this area, of course, is the magnificent Norman fortress of the Tower of London (created a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988), hard by the River Thames, and it would be relatively easy to forget the other cultural and historical sites clustered around it.

Immediately to the west of the Tower is the church of All Hallows by the Tower, a church with links to over 1700 years of history. This church has Roman ‘roots’, it was also the resting place for those newly executed in the Tower of London, and is the Guild Church of the international Toc H movement (a famous charitable and service organisation, which had Christian beginnings but welcomes those who hold to other religions, or none).

There has been a church on this site since 675; indeed, there is a superb 7th century Saxon doorway still visible in the nave. The church also contains the remains of a Roman pavement (discovered in 1926). At one time, All Hallows was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and administered by the monks of Barking Abbey, however, since it has assumed its own identity it has undergone several major re-building phases, especially in the 11th and 15th centuries. Christopher Wren’s favourite woodcarver, the superb craftsman Grinling Gibbons, carved the magnificent font cover in 1682 for the (then) large sum of £12.

The church was nearly destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666), and was only saved by the actions of Admiral Sir William Penn (1621-1670) – the father of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. The Admiral caused the destruction of properties around All Hallows, thereby making a firebreak. The notable diarist (and Sir William’s next door neighbour), Samuel Pepys, wrote:-

‘But going to the fire, I find, by the blowing up of houses and the great help given by the workmen out of the King’s yards, sent up by Sir W Penn, there is a good stop given to it.’

The American connection with the church is quite significant. William Penn (1644-1718) was baptised in All Hallows, and received his early schooling in the church schoolroom. Also, John Quincy Adams (the sixth President of the United States) married Louisa Catherine Johnson in All Hallows on 26th July, 1797. There are modern-day links to USA churches too, particularly The Church of the Epiphany, New York, and Christ Church, Philadelphia.

What the Great Fire failed to do, the German Luftwaffe nearly succeeded in doing in 1940. During the Blitz on London the church was burnt out, only the tower and the walls remaining. A new foundation stone was laid by the then Queen Elizabeth (later to become the Queen Mother) in 1948, and nine years of restoration work saw the church rededicated in 1957, with the Queen Mother in attendance.

The large stone plaque which you can see above, set in the wall of the church, commemorates the work of Toc H and All Hallows standing as its Guild Church. I am quite certain that the Reverend Philip Thomas Byard ‘Tubby’ Clayton CH, the Vicar of All Hallows from 1922 to 1962 and founder of Toc H, would have approved of the present establishment, which opens its doors to all faiths, and ministers to, and serves the needs of all.

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