Catastrophe at Covent Garden: the Church of St Paul burns, 17 September 1795

Inigo Jones (1573 – 1652), an engraving after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Image property of Westminster City Archives

The destruction of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Great Fire of 1666 is a well-known chapter in London’s history. Another St Paul’s, the parish church of Covent Garden, met a similar fate some 130 years later. We revisit the dramatic events of 17 September 1795 through the image collections of Westminster City Archives, and celebrate the phoenix-like reconstruction of one of London’s best-loved churches.

On the evening of 17 September 1795, the skies of Covent Garden were livid with smoke and flames, as the Church of St Paul burned.

St Paul’s Church burns, 17 September 1795. Image property of Westminster City Archives

St Paul’s Church burns, 17 September 1795. Image property of Westminster City Archives

The cause was a simple oversight by workmen who had been tending to the church steeple. They had left a pot of lead boiling over a fire and, left without proper supervision, the fire had spread to the church’s wooden roof. The fire quickly took hold, and soon the church interior was also ablaze. By the time the situation had finally been brought under control, only the outer walls of the St Paul’s were left standing.

The fire had destroyed one of London’s greatest monuments to the ground. The church had been built in 1633 to a design by Inigo Jones, and the “majestic simplicity” of St Paul’s had been widely admired. Its loss was keenly felt.

The old St Paul’s Church dominated Covent Garden, as seen here in 1720. Image property of Westminster City Archives

The old St Paul’s Church dominated Covent Garden, as seen here in 1720. Image property of Westminster City Archives

A further blow was that the fire had occurred while the church was uninsured, and thus the entire cost of rebuilding would fall upon the Parish. Nevertheless, the necessary funds were raised, and the church was rebuilt. The elected architect, Thomas Hardwick, respected the spirit of Inigo Jones’ original design, although he did introduce many new features, including the cupola. A mere three years after the church had been feared lost forever, the new St Paul’s was consecrated on 1 August 1798.

The new St Paul’s, just 10 years after it was consecrated, pictured during the Westminster Election in Covent Garden (1808). Image property of Westminster City Archives

The new St Paul’s, just 10 years after it was consecrated, pictured during the Westminster Election in Covent Garden (1808). Image property of Westminster City Archives

Want to find out more about Covent Garden? Visit our Covent Garden Memories community website to explore 400 years of the area’s history.

[Judith]

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One response to “Catastrophe at Covent Garden: the Church of St Paul burns, 17 September 1795

  1. Pingback: Bradshaw’s Hand Book to London, Day 6, A warren of streets & Covent Garden (no.34) | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

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