St George's German Lutheran Church
|St George's German Lutheran Church|
St George's was the fifth Lutheran church to be built in London. It is now the oldest surviving German Lutheran church in the United Kingdom. At the time, the street was called "Little Ayliffe Street" and the area was called "Goodman's Fields". The name of the street changed to "Alie Street" about 1800.
Foundation and History
The founder was Dietrich Beckman, a wealthy sugar refiner. Beckman's cousin, Gustav Anton Wachsel from Halberstadt, became the first pastor. This area of Whitechapel had many sugar refiners of German descent in the nineteenth century and they constituted most of the congregation. From 1853 the churchyard and crypt were closed, and no longer accepted burials.
At its height, there were an estimated 16,000 German Lutherans in Whitechapel and the area was sometimes referred to as Little Germany. St Georges Church is the last remaining physical evidence of this major wave of immigration into East London. The final major influx of Germans was in the 1930s, when, during the Nazi period, the pastor, Julius Rieger, set up a relief centre for Jewish refugees at St Georges. The theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached here for a brief period in 1935, following the destruction of his own church nearby.
The church retains a set of furnishings, mostly from the 18th century, including a set of box pews and a high central double-decker pulpit and sounding board. The coat-of-arms of King George III (pre-1801) and two carved timber commandment boards in German hang in the church. The Royal Arms were required to be erected in Anglican churches but were adopted by nonconformist congregations voluntarily, as a mark of loyalty. There are donations boards for the church and adjoining former church school and among the donors listed is the King of Prussia.
The organ was built in 1886 by the Walcker family. They used the organ case of the previous organ (John England, 1794). When the organ was rebuilt in 1937, the case was reused.
The street frontage was crowned by a baroque bell tower in timber, taken down in the 1930s at the insistence of the District Surveyor as unsafe. A plain brick pediment and cement cross replaced it, somewhat diminishing the architecture of the frontage and the former location of the bell tower can still be discerned in the brickwork. The bell was saved and remains in the church.
Restoration and Recent Years
Having fallen out of use by the congregation it was transferred in 1995 to the Historic Chapels Trust who understood a programme of conservative restoration and structural repair costing £600,000 supervised by Thomas Ford & Partners. The church is now available for organ recitals, concerts, occasional acts of worship by various congregations without their own church and for secular events. Income from which helps to maintain the fabric, as the church is not endowed. Couples eligible to be married in Tower Hamlets may marry here and ceremonies are conducted in German, English or Latin.
An office of the Historic Chapels Trust occupies the small vestry rooms. The church is viewable by appointment and regularly open for visits. An active committee of Friends organises events at the church.
The St John and St Croix refugees
In 1763 about 600 Germans from the Palatinate and Würzburg attempted to travel to the Virgin Islands of St John and St Croix. Unfortunately the officer in charge abandoned them in London with no money or resources and no knowledge of English. Gustav Anton Wachsel, Pastor of St Georges church appealed for help on their behalf. The Tower of London gave them 200 tents to protect them from the rain, and there were charitable contributions of 600 pounds. King George III intervened and enabled them to travel to Carolina instead.
The St George's Library and Parish Records
Gustav von Anton's collection of books was kept in the vestry and with later additions to the library, came into the care of the Historic Chapels Trust with the building. They amounted to about 750 books, including early eighteenth-century prints of the Waisenhaus in Halle and Gottfried Keller's Die Leute von Seldwyla. In autumn 1995 an attempted theft prompted the Historic Chapels Trust to transfer the books to the British Library where they are catalogued as a special collection and available for study.
Books and microfiches available for baptisms 1763 - 1895 and other parish records are no longer at the church but may be consulted at LB Tower Hamlets Central Library
- www.hct.org.uk St Georges at the Historic Chapels Trust
- History of the Walcker family
- Germans in Whitechapel
- the St John refugees
- The British Library collection of books from St George's