Notes on St Peter's Cornhill, London
The Revd Thomas Roberts A.M.

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St Peter's, Cornhill, London.

The church of which the Revd Thomas Roberts was Rector, St Peter's Cornhill, was closed some years ago but is today used as an overspill for the hugely popular "charismatic" church of St Helen, Bishopsgate - so I am informed by the Rector of the nearby St Michael's, Cornhill (which latter, by all accounts, is not to be missed for its high standards in musical and liturgical worship). "We inhabit a theological and musical tradition of excellence and we are trying our best to uphold it and continue it", the Revd Dr Peter Mullen of St Michael's has written: "The worship and apprehension of God has to be practised attentively, with dignity, with the best we can bring, with the beauty of holiness." One suspects that these are sentiments that the Revd Thomas Roberts would have endorsed, in preference to the "pop" exuberance that apparently characterises his old parish today. Be that as it may...

The "City of London Churches" website states that "Before the Great Fire of London in 1666 there were over a hundred church spires and towers dominating the City of London skyline. Ninety-seven of these were parish churches that fell within the walls of the city and many of these churches and parishes were extremely small. The Great Fire destroyed eighty-nine churches". This afforded an opportunity for re-planning of the City, when the City authorities and the architect responsible (Sir Christopher Wren), had they had their way, would have substantially reduced the number of parishes. In many cases, however, the demands of citizens prevailed, and an Act passed in 1670 provided for the rebuilding of fifty-one of the eighty nine destroyed churches. Several old parishes would vanish entirely, being united with neighbouring ones, though with continued representation by their own churchwardens and parish clerks, and, for many years, separate parish registers.

"Of those churches rebuilt by Wren and new ones built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many were to be destroyed during the Second World War by enemy bombing action in 1940-1...Today a mere thirty-eight survive."

St Peter's Cornhill was one of those churches destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, rebuilt to a Wren design in 1667-1681, and which survived the blitz unscathed. Substantial restoration work took place in 1872.

The church has a red-brick tower topped with a dome and a little obelisk, and then a ten foot long St Peter's key, all looming over a tiny, tucked away churchyard which is still surrounded by shops, as all City churches once were. Inside it is big, with a tunnel vault and aisles, and a rood screen designed by Wren's daughter. This carved wooden screen is one of only two in a Wren church - the other, and perhaps finer example, is in St Margaret, Lothbury. The distinction of this example is that it was specifically built for St Peter's, whereas that in St Margaret's was transported from Allhallows, Thames Street.

Mendelssohn is known to have played the organ here (1840 and 1842) and the instrument on which he played is still installed, although the console is confined to the vestry.

Nigel Hayler has told the story of how "A keen-eyed Victorian cleric at St. Peter's once kicked up an unholy stink when he discovered that a new office development would encroach onto church land by a single foot. The protesting priest eventually sent the architects right back to their drawing boards. Their vengeance, when it came, was swift and merciless. From the pavement on Cornhill, look up at the terracotta coloured building that abuts the church. Perched angrily on top you'll see three Cornhill Devils. One spits, another sticks its fingers up, and all of them cast grotesque greetings down onto parishioners entering the church. The devil closest to the street apparently bears more than a passing resemblance to the unlucky rector."

The history of the church reaches back many centuries: in fact "the first reference to a church on this site was in 1040" while a basilica is known to have been sited in the vicinity from AD 179. "The first archbishop of London, in the reign of Lucius, built the said church by the aid of Ciran, chief butler to king Lucius; and also that Eluanus, the second archbishop, built a library to the same adjoining, and converted many of the Druids, learned men in the Pagan law, to Christianity."

The name "Cornhill" is first mentioned in the 12th century, when a corn market was held on the rising ground in the neighbourhood.

To the south of St Peter's is the elevated graveyard of which Dickens commented in Our Mutual Friend that the graves were "conveniently and healthily elevated above the living". It was in use as the main place of burial for the parish until 1850 and following closure it was laid out as a garden for public use."


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