St Giles has long been, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, a place of ‘entrance and exit’, whether for those arriving in the capital for the great medieval fairs of the city of London, for the condemned men and women making their way west to their executions at Tyburn or, more prosaically, for the thousands of tourists who pour into London from the underground station beneath St Giles Circus. Its position at one of the great crossroads of London has given St Giles much of its character and indelibly shaped its history.
1101: the first church
There has been a house of prayer on the site since 1101, when Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, founded a leper hospital here. At this time, St Giles stood outside the city of London with the lepers isolated from the population as a whole; the chapel probably became the church of a small village, which serviced the hospital.
Leprosy died out in England in the course of the Middles Ages, and when Henry VIII dissolved all religious houses in England [Plan of site on p. 59 of Parton’s History of St Giles] the hospital was dissolved and its site and endowments confiscated by the Crown. The hospital chapel became a parish church in 1542 and the area surrounding it became the parish burial ground. The parish was large, stretching from Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the east to what is now Charing Cross Road in the west, to Seven Dials in the south, and including all of Bloomsbury. This was when the words ”in-the-fields” were added to its name.
The hospital’s other buildings and the rest of the site were given by Henry VIII to Lord Lisle, subsequently Duke of Northumberland, and Protector of Edward VI. A village developed around the church and some monastic buildings were turned into cottages. In the 1550s the population of the area was about 350. From about 1600 St Giles began to be developed as a wealthy suburb and in 1628 the church was rebuilt in the latest and most elaborate style, with contributions from the wealthy residents of the parish.
The St Giles Bowl
The Churchyard of St Giles was for many centuries synonymous with capital punishment in London.
During the fifteenth century, the gallows were removed from Smithfield in the city of London to the north-west corner of St Giles Churchyard, where Hog Lane (now Flitcroft Street) met St Giles High Street. At the Churchyard gate condemned criminals on their way to execution were offered a bowl of ale, the ‘St Giles’s Bowl’, as their last refreshment in this life. Anthony Babington and thirteen co-conspirators were the last people to be hanged and disembowelled here on 20 and 21 September 1586 for plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I and make Mary, Queen of Scots Queen.
Although the gallows were then transferred to Tyburn (now the site of Marble Arch), executed people continued to be buried here. Among those executed at Tyburn and buried at St Giles were the Earl of Derwentwater, one of the commanders of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion and Claude Duval the notorious highwayman.
1631: the second church
At the start of the seventeenth century, St Giles-in-the-fields was still on the outskirts of London. The earliest illustration that remain of St Giles dates from this period and shows a church with a round tower, capped by a dome. This dome was replaced by a larger spire in 1617 but shortly afterwards the church was considered ruinous and was consequently demolished. A Gothic brick building was built between 1623-1630 to replace it.
This was largely paid for by Alice, Duchess Dudley, daughter-in-law of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley. The church was consecrated by William Laud, Bishop of London in 1631. The church still has an illuminated manuscript listing the subscribers to this rebuilding, known as the Doomsday Book.
During the early seventeenth century, the church retained the links to the monarchy that had existed at the time of its founding: the then-rector Roger Mainwaring served as chaplain to Charles I and was a supporter of Bishop Laud’s reforms to liturgy. As a result, the second church was decorated in an advanced ‘high church’ style, with a screen separating the chancel and nave, as well as painting of the apostles on the organ loft and stained glass windows. This approach put brought the clashes over religious observance that developed in England during the 1630s to the heart of the parish.
As civil war approached in the late 1630s, St Giles’ parishoners petitioned parliament about what they claimed were the ‘popish reliques’ in the church. As a result, the church vestry was ordered to dispose of statues and tapestries in the church, the stained glass was removed and, between 1640-43, two successive rectors were ejected from the parish on charges of ritualism and subsequently imprisoned.
Following the restoration in 1660, the pendulum swung back again as stained glass was returned to the windows and a number of new fittings were ordered for the church, including a new pulpit. (which can still be seen in the church today) and a significant amount of silver.
1664-65: the plague years
Shortly after the restoration of the monarchy, a great disaster was visited upon the parish of St Giles when, at the end of 1664, the first victims of what became the Great Plague of London, fell ill and died in the houses at the northern end of Drury Lane. In the subsequent year, thousands of victims were buried in pits in St Giles graveyard and the parish became synonymous with the plague.
The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded his reaction to the plague, the effects of which he first encountered while passing through the parish of St Giles.
Following the Fire of London in 1666 the population expanded rapidly as new streets were laid out. In 1685 over 2,000 houses were recorded in the parish, and over 3,000 in 1715. In 1711 the population of St Giles was estimated at c.21,000.
‘Much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw.’
- Diary of Samuel Peyps, 7 June 1665
1733: the third and present church
By the early eighteenth century, the church building was once again in a poor condition due to damp, which was probably caused by the large number of plague victim burials that took place in the churchyard. At the same time the population of the area was booming with the development of Bloomsbury. This resulted in the division of the old parish of St Giles and the construction of a new church for the parish of St George’s Bloomsbury.
The parishoners of St Giles petitioned the Commissioners appointed in 1711 to build new churches in the London suburbs, for a grant to rebuild the church. After initially being refused because St Giles was not a new foundation, the parish was eventually allocated £8,000 and a new church was built in 1730-34, designed by the architect Henry Flitcroft in the palladian style (Flitcroft went on to design Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, one of the principal landowners in this part of London). At the same time the elegant Vestry House was built, for meetings of the Vestry, the council of laypeople and clergy who managed parish affairs. The new church was consecrated Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, on Christmas Day 1733.
The list of supporters for rebuilding the church in 1733 show that there were still many aristocratic residents in the parish. By the eighteenth century St Giles had become a cosmopolitan area: Irish people were noted to have settled here in 1628, and Greeks and Armenians in the 1640s. The area also attracted a large number of Huguenots from France. Many of these new arrivals came to this area seeking work and protection from unrest in their homelands. In 1675 it was noted that ‘the poor do daily increase by the frequent resort of poore people from several countries and places, for want of due care to prevent the same’ and an assistant beadle was appointed to search them out. In 1710 it was noted that ‘a great number of the inhabitants of St Giles’s are French protestants’.
The St Giles Martyrs
Eleven Roman Catholics who were implicated in an alleged plot to kill Charles II were executed for treason at Tyburn and buried here in 1679 – William Ireland SJ and John Grove on 24 January, Lawrence Hill and Robert Greene on 21 February, Thomas Pickering, OSB on 21 May, Fr Thomas Whitebread SJ, Fr William Barrow (alias Harcourt) SJ, Fr John Fenwick, SJ, Fr John Gavan, SJ, Fr Anthony Turner, SJ on 20 June, and Richard Langhorne on 14 July. They were beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.
On 1 July 1681 Oliver Plunkett, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, who was implicated in an alleged plot for a French invasion of Ireland, was hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn and buried here. His body was later removed to Lamspring Abbey in Germany and is now at Downside Abbey in Somerset. His head was taken to Rome, and then given to the Archbishop of Armagh, and is now displayed at St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, County Louth. He was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
“How many people may there be in London who, if we had brought them deviously and blindfold to this street fifty paces from the Station House and within call of Saint Giles’s church, would know it for a not remote part of the city in which their lives are passed? How many who, amidst this compound of sickening smells, these heaps of filth, these tumbling houses with all their vile contents, animate and inanimate, slimily overflowing into the black road, would believe that they breathe this air?”
– The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
'The synonym of filth and squalor'
As people flocked into London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the population of the parish grew rapidly, exceeding 30,000 by 1831. Such rapid change was accompanied by chronic social problems. The area to the north side of St Giles High Street as far as Great Russell Street became one of the poorest parts of London, known as St Giles Rookery, notorious in art and literature of the time for its drunkenness and licentiousness.
In the 1740s St Giles was described as full of common lodging houses and gin shops. Some of the great eighteenth century English artist, William Hogarth’s prints depict the poor of St Giles. His Harlot’s Progress is set in Drury Lane; Tom Nero in the Four Stages of Cruelty is a St Giles’ charity boy shown tormenting a dog near the church; Gin Street is set in the parish; and his Idle Apprentice is taken up for robbery and murder in a cellar in St Giles.
The St Giles Rookery became the iconic slum in nineteenth century London. During this period, many of the local residents were Irish, having fled Ireland to escape from the potato famines of the 1840s. A survey of the Rookeries in 1849 revealed that in some four-roomed houses between fifty and ninety people found nightly lodgings. In 1851 the population of the parish had risen to 37,407. There continued to be a very high death rate in the parish, with 190 burials in July 1840, and 1,856 during the course of the year.
The increasing population of the parish and the lack of drainage led to major outbreaks disease, and a very high death rate. The first appearance of Cholera in 1848 led to the area being regarded as a focus of infection. In 1850 there were 1,213 burials of residents of St Giles’s parish in the Burial Ground at St Pancras. The most burials on one day in 1750 were twenty-five, on 15 December 1850. In 1851 107 people were reported to be living in an eight-roomed house.
In 1844-7 major clearance of slums began with the construction of New Oxford Street through the middle of the Rookery, but this merely increase overcrowding in the surviving buildings. From 1851 sewers began to be laid in the area, and the water supply was improved. However, major concentrations of very poor housing remained, and poverty intensified in the Seven Dials district, to the south of the Churchyard. There were always many breweries and workshops in the parish, and from the 1870s, they began to take over the overcrowded houses in the Rookery, and the population of the area began to decline.
Yet the parish was also home for a time to leading lights in the romantic movement – indeed the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were baptised in the font. The nineteenth century also saw regular alterations to the fabric and furnishings of the church. The pulpit was moved at least five times between 1807 and 1896 and stained glass was placed in all the windows. Meanwhile the distinguished architects Sir Arthur Blomfield and Wiliam Butterfield made alterations to the interior in 1875 and 1896, including the introduction of the checkered black and white tiles seen in the church today.
St Giles in the 20th Century
The St Giles area suffered substantial bomb damage during the Blitz, but the church itself escaped severe damage, which merely removed most of the Victorian stained glass and caused some damage to the roof. In the aftermath of the war, the church underwent a major restoration in 1952-3 described by John Betjeman as ‘One of the most successful post-war church restorations,’ (‘The Spectator, 9th March 1956).
Since the 1950s the area has undergone enormous and sustained redevelopment, with the loss of small shops and houses in St Giles’ High Street and the construction of the massive St Giles Court, Centrepoint tower and Central St Giles developments. The parish also experienced a dramatic change of use, becoming primarily a business and leisure destination, instead of a residential community.
The resident population of the area fell dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century to around 4,000 in 2001. However, many people have been drawn to this area for work, leisure and education. In the 1960s Denmark Street became known as a centre of the British music industry while the north of the parish became part of the thriving educational community centred on the University of London.