In 1710 the the New Churches in London and Westminster Act was passed by Parliament requiring 50 new churches to be constructed in London to cope with the increasing population of the city. The Commission for Building Fifty New Churches (in London and the surrounding aeas) commissioned the design and building of the new churches, which became known as ‘the Queen Anne Churches’ since she was on the throne at the time. St Luke’s on Old Street, constructed between 1727–33, was one of the last to be built. It was intended to cope with the overflow of parishioners from St Giles’ Cripplegate in the Barbican area.
The parish of St Giles consisted of two parts, on either side of the City of London’s boundary with Middlesex. (There was no London Borough of Islington in those days.) ‘Cripplegate Within’ also known as ‘the Freedom’ was inside the City’s boundaries, as the name suggests. ‘Cripplegate Without’, also known as the ‘Lordship’ was ‘without’ (outside) the City walls and was part of the county of Middlesex. It was Cripplegate Without which was turned into the new parish of St Luke in 1732. (The name ‘Cripplegate’ had nothing to do with cripples. The original gate in the City’s wall was particularly lacking in head room, and so the gate became known by its Middle English nickname, Crepul Gate – meaning a gate for creeping through.)
In 1718 the site for St Luke’s Church was purchased. Building work commenced in 1727. The new church was officially consecrated on St Luke’s Day, 18th October, 1733.
The church was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James, who were the official surveyors of the Commissioners For Building Fifty New Churches. Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) was one of Christopher Wren’s leading disciples, and he is a famous architect of the English Baroque period in his own right. John James (1672-1746) is not as well-known today, but he worked on St Paul’s Cathedral and Greenwich Hospital with Hawksmoor and was famous in his day.
We know now that these two men were responsible for building St Luke’s church. But it was not clearly recorded at the time who the architects of St Luke’s were, and it was assumed that it was designed by George Dance the Elder, the City of London surveyor, who designed many of the new churches in London at about this time. In 1960 Kerry Downs, a leading scholar on Hawksmoor, wrote an article in Country Life revealing that papers had been found at Lambeth Palace library showing that Hawksmoor was the co-architect of St Luke’s with John James.
The incorporation of the obelisk-style spire at the West End of St Luke’s is the most striking feature of the church. The obelisk is intended to look ancient Egyptian. It is assumed that this was Hawksmoor’s inspiration, since he is known to have been interested in incorporating references to the ancient world into his buildings.
Obelisks originated in ancient Egypt. When the Romans conquered Egypt, they transported several of them to Rome, and the Romans built many themselves. Obelisks were always made from a single piece of stone. The obelisk in St Luke’s, however, was constructed from individual courses of masonry.
There was a fashion for creating obelisks in Papal Rome from the 16th to the 18th centuries. This may have influenced Hawksmoor, although he was not known to have ever visited Italy. However, he would have seen drawings and paintings. The positioning of the obelisk is clearly very deliberate, so that it can be seen by anyone walking north along Whitecross Street. Whitecross Street was a thriving pedestrian thoroughfare in those days.
The mason who was responsible for the construction of most of the church, Thomas Shepherd, died in 1729 and was replaced by Christopher Cass. It was Cass who constructed the obelisk. The church’s organ was built by Jordan & Bridge in 1733 and was paid for and donated to the church in 1734 by a Mr Buckley, a brewer in Old Street.
The church had the misfortune to pick up the nickname of ‘Lousy St Luke’s’. This wasn’t a reflection on the quality of its religious services. It was because the weathervane on the top of the spire – which was meant to be the head of a dragon with a fiery tail like a comet – in fact looked like a louse from below.
The organ was rebuilt in 1843-44 by Gray & Davison, which was a large-scale London-based manufacturer of church organs. Henry Smart, an organist and composer, became the resident organist until 1865. The deal he negotiated was that the parish had to hire a quartet of professional singers to augment the amateur choir.
Some fairly major alterations to St Luke’s were carried out in 1877-78 by Sir Arthur Blomfield, an architect who designed the Royal College for Music, and who became known for his restorations of several churches and particularly for the restoration of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.
The church has an association with various moderately well-known people from the past. William Caslon, a designer of typefaces and books, and his son also William, were buried in St Luke’s churchyard in 1766 and 1778 respectively. Henry Smart, the organist and composer, has already been mentioned. George Dance the First, a prominent architect of the 18th century was buried in the churchyard of St Luke’s.
With the decline in religious activity in the post-War period, St Luke’s seemed increasingly redundant. It was also discovered that the north side of the church had been built on unstable ground, and that extensive works needed to be carried out to prevent subsidence. It was the cost of remedying subsidence which finally put paid to the continued use of the church. In 1959 the church was deconsecrated. Its parish was merged back into the parish of St Giles Cripplegate. (The building itself is now in the parish of St Clement.) The interior features were completely stripped out. The font and the organ case were installed in St Giles’s church, and the reredos and the altar rails went to Saint Andrew Holborn.
The roof was discovered to be unsafe and was removed. For the next 40 years only the empty shell of the church was left. The irony was that St Luke’s had completely escaped wartime bombing, despite the obliteration of much of the surrounding area, but it was now turned into something equivalent. It became what they called a ‘managed ruin’.
The original rectory of the church still stands in Helmet Row. It is a Georgian house which was built in 1778 but altered and extended by Blomfield during his 1877-78 renovation.
In the 1990s, the churchyard was restored and reopened; and it is now a public space for people to use to enjoy.
In the early 2000s the derelict roofless semi-ruin was chosen as a new home for the London Symphony Orchestra. The architect, Axel Borough of Levitt Bernstein, not only had to provide for a new roof, but a roof that would keep out traffic noise from Old Street which is so close nearby. The chosen solution was for the roof to be constructed of heavy concrete slabs which are supported by steel columns inside the church.
To prepare the property for commercial use, all the bodies had to be cleared out of the crypt and the area surrounding the church. A total of 1,053 corpses were removed and reburied at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.
By 2003 St Luke’s had been fully renovated. The London Symphony Orchestra uses it for rehearsals and musical education programs. It is not only used by the London Symphony Orchestra; many famous performers have performed there, including Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Elton John, and Van Morrison.