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became the actors’ church. The first English theatre was close by in New Inn Yard where several of Shakespeare’s plays had their initial performance. Many of the Elizabethan theatrical fraternity are buried in the medieval church under the crypt. This includes three Burbages, James who built the first English theatre,; his son Cuthbert who built the Globe theatre and his other son Richard who was the first to play Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard 3rd, Othello and especially Romeo. So the first Romeo is buried in the crypt where Shakespeare placed the final scene of his tragic play. It was enlarged over many years until it had three aisles and became a substantial building. This however was a problem, for the river outside regularly overflowed and eventually damaged the foundations.

An 18th century engraving of St. Leonards when the church had a more open aspect than it has today courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Following the consequent partial collapse of the tower and other parts of the building in 1716 the mediaeval church was rebuilt in Palladian style by George Dance the Elder in 1736 - 1740, with a soaring steeple 192 feet tall, an imitation of Christopher Wren's magnificent steeple on St Mary-le- Bow in Cheapside, and a giant four columned, pedimented Tuscan portico. Palladian-style architecture was popular at the time. Inside the church the entablature is supported by giant Doric columns.

Although as a student he had worked on St. Paul’s cathedral, and subsequently repaired and reordered several churches, this was the only church Dance designed and built from an original design. His main work was with public buildings, for example he built the Mansion House for the Lord Mayor. However, this new church created dissension when first opened. It was very unlike the chunky and ornate Hawksmoor style so popular in the late Baroque period. The slender columns and subtle colonnades, and bright windows were an innovation that

was hard to accept as a church. Luckily tastes have changed and now it is seen as a national treasure. It is, with its Clerk’s House, the oldest building in Shoreditch. During its reconstruction it was also, apparently, the location of the first-ever building industry strike. Local workers refused to work because of the low wages on offer and Irish labourers were brought in. This raised the ire of the locals and led to anti-Irish riots in the area. In 1870, the Victorians ‘vandalised’ it, stripping out the galleries and bricking up the ground floor windows. They did not realise that they compromised the structural integrity of the building. Twentieth century war damage hastened its problems. It was apparent by 1990 that the building was becoming unsafe, so eventually it was closed for nearly two years to be rebuilt nearer to its original form. Shoreditch Church has always been committed to its community. (When the Spanish Armada was coming up the channel, the church was giving out bread and coal to poor people.) So when it was recently rebuilt, a large amount of money was spent on its community needs and no funds were left to buy paint. Hence it still looks a bit sad and tatty.

The current community is highly diverse. The wealth of the City meets the deprivation of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. The estates to the east have traditionally been dumping areas for the disaffected and poor immigrants. However, the large Bengali community is being assimilated into the newly rich creating yet another wonderfully fruitful village. However, there is another community of semi-derelict people who live on the streets. To help this community, the church has built ‘Acorn House’ the 18 bed residential unit for those who need a roof and security while they recover from various addictions. This is operated for the church by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust. More recently the Hanbury Project began its work to help give practical skills to those in recovery.

Among other projects, it has relandscaped the church gardens with stunning plants creating a valuable asset for the community. There are also four addicts groups that use the church hall in the week and a daily drop-in centre. It now helps nearly five hundred people a month. The wonderful acoustics have made it a favourite venue for music; about twelve hundred musicians have played here in the past four years. It is being used extensively as one of the performance venues for the Spitalfields Festival this year, including a special evening of baroque dance lessons and a concert from The Royal Academy of Music’s Baroque Ensemble. Of course, the church’s primary purpose is to retain its ancient and holy presence in Shoreditch. More than two hundred people a week come to pray and worship. For the future, there is the hope that the twelfth century church crypt may be able to be re-opened in such a way that visitors will be able to walk the floor that Shakespeare walked and maybe see the last resting place of those early English actors, bringing further recognition to what is one of London’s most fascinating churches.

An 18th century engraving of St. Leonards when the church had a more open aspect than it has today courtesy Wikimedia Commons


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