St Leonard’s Shoreditch Church is a striking landmark within the London Borough of Hackney and its current structure dates back to the early 18th century.
Dedicated to St Leonard – who is the patron saint of prisoners and the mentally ill – it is well known for being the resting place of many actors from the Tudor period, while it also features in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.
History of the church
The church is located at the intersection of Shoreditch High Street with Hackney Road, which is viewed as the site where all the Roman roads used to join. It was situated near The Theatre, which was the first theatre in England and is famous for giving a debut to some of Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, the crypt is home to many of the Elizabethan theatrical fraternity. Tours of the crypt, tower and the church itself can be arranged on request.
St Leonard’s has always had a close connection with the community, dating back as far as the time of the Spanish Armada, and this explains its unique character. When it was rebuilt in the 18th century after a partial collapse, no funds were left to buy paint because the church spent all of its money giving out bread and coal to poor people. Along with its Clerk’s House, it is actually the oldest building in Shoreditch. The church also became the first to be lit with gaslights in London in 1817.
Architecture of the church
The present church was designed by George Dance the Elder, who was a pupil of famed architect Christopher Wren, and it is widely heralded as one of the most important architectural structures in England.
The tower is a plain Tuscan portico that is surmounted by a square clock-tower and belfry, which is supported by a stone octagon. Although the design was controversial at the time – it was described as feminine by some upon completion – it is now firmly recognised as a national treasure.
Many of the original 18th century fixtures and fittings remain, including the font, the pulpit and the communion table, ensuring the building retains a level of authenticity that is not always seen.
The quality of the acoustics has helped to make the building a favourite among the music world. Indeed, around 1,200 artists have used the church as a music venue in the past few years, with Jack White among the most famous. The building also hosts a number of events, from pop-up choirs to screenings of independent films and performance art.
Part of the appeal of the venue is its tracker organ, which was built by Richard Bridge in 1756 and is one of the few remaining organs not to feature pedals, while it also retains all the original wooden pipes. The church is equipped with a modern electric organ too – Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker used the instrument when producing an album for Serafina Steer. The church has also featured in an episode of the acclaimed BBC comedy programme Rev.
Plans are currently being discussed to see about re-opening the 12th century church crypt so that visitors are able to walk the floor. Not only will this give people the chance to see the resting place of early English actors, it will also allow them to walk the very floor that Shakespeare walked over 400 years previously.
Monday to Friday – 12 pm to 2 pm (March to October)
Other visiting times are possible if previously arranged with the church.
Getting to the church
By train – Go to Old Street Station and then it’s a 10-minute walk
Go to Liverpool Street Station (Bishopsgate side) and then it’s a 15-minute walk
Go to Shoreditch High Street or Hoxton on the London Overground and then it’s a 10-minute walk
Hop on any of the 26, 35, 47, 48, 55, 67, 78, 149, 242, or 243 services, as they all pass by the church.
Times of worship
More than 200 people come to the church every week to pray. Worship takes place every Sunday, and on the first Sunday of every month, there is an early communion service at 9 am.
Worship schedule –
10.30 am – 10 minutes of personal prayer
10.40 am – Morning worship takes place