National Treasure: St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney

Sarah Freeman introduces us to a medieval gem – a freestanding former bell tower in east London. From the spring 2014 SPAB Magazine.

Tucked away in the secluded churchyard of St John at Hackney lies St Augustine’s Tower. This striking Grade I listed medieval former bell tower, located just behind a former Hackney Town Hall (now a betting shop) on the Narroway at the top of Mare Street in Hackney Central, holds the prestigious claim of being Hackney’s oldest building, dating to the late 13th century.

Whether sought out or stumbled upon, a visit to the tower is inspiring, due to the significance of its architecture, the story of the fortuitous series of events responsible for its survival as well as the experience of climbing up the spiral staircase. The invigorating ascent up the 135 steps reveals the Tower’s rugged character and is concluded by clambering out on to the open parapet where you are greeted by an unusual panorama of the London skyline. Whatever the weather there is nothing quite like spending an hour on top of this amazing structure, talking to the medley of local and not-so-local visitors.

Favourite Building_Tower exterior

Photo by Richard Allen

The Tower, constructed of Kentish ragstone with diagonal buttresses, is the only remnant of the former medieval parish church, which once extended to the east of the Tower, covering a large portion of what is now the churchyard of St John at Hackney. Wedge shaped stones in the churchyard show the extent of the former church. Unusually, the Tower gave out on to the south aisle of the medieval church; the remains of a connecting arch can just be seen externally on the east elevation. The likely construction date of the lower portions of the walls is circa 1275, the upper portions being the product of a later reconstruction circa 1520 carried out by Christopher Urswick, a courtier of Henry VII (and a minor character in Shakespeare’s Richard III).

In the late 18th century the medieval church was no longer big enough to cater for Hackney’s rapidly increasing population. When it was decided to construct the new parish church of St John at Hackney, designed by the architect James Spiller and built 1791-97, the £10,000 allocated did not stretch to a new bell tower. So when the medieval church was demolished, the Tower remained to serve as an ancillary bell tower to the new church.

A bell tower was in fact added to the main church around 1814, but, fortunately for the Tower, Spiller was not confident that it was sufficiently strong to bear the weight of the cast-iron bells. The church’s new tower was strengthened in 1854, after which the bells were relocated. But by this time the Tower had survived long enough for the Victorian sentiment for medieval buildings to be well established, and its long-term preservation was secured.

Once inside the Tower, the thickness of the stone walls is apparent, clearly shown by the depth of the window opening with its late Perpendicular tracery. The spiral staircase in the south-east corner leads to a series of rooms laid on top of one another, the first of which now houses a fantastic new permanent exhibition of the history of Hackney, curated by the Hackney Archives and Museum and the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust and largely funded by the Sainsbury Family Trusts.

The next room up houses the clock, which has been dated to the late 16th century. It was manually wound for over 400 years until mechanical winding was installed in 2006 to protect the mechanism. The former bell room is on the third floor, where there is a single bell that was installed in 1857, cast by Warner’s Bell Foundry in Cheapside. The bell openings have been restored with stone tracery.

Photo by Richard Allen

The Tower has been lovingly cared for by its custodians, the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust (HHBT), since 1990. As part of a wave of financial cuts in the late 1980s Hackney Council, who have owned the freehold of the Tower since the 1930s, stopped winding the 16th century clock and effectively shut up shop. Laurie Elks, the unofficial ‘Custodian of the Tower’ and a trustee of HHBT, recalls his early involvement with the Tower:

‘It was quite a job to get the Council to find the Tower keys; and a much bigger job to clear the accumulated debris of the countless pigeons who had made the Tower home. We managed to carry out some minor repairs but the Tower was a pretty treacherous visitor attraction at this time – with fenestration open to the elements, unguarded battlements, and very limited lighting.

My role as custodian of the Tower really took off when we got the old turret clock repaired and we needed someone to wind it each week. There was something irresistible about visiting the Tower each weekend, often at night, and slowly cranking up the huge weights to keep the clock running for the next week.’

Laurie and the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust oversaw works to the building in 2005-6, enabled by grant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to make the Tower into a safe and welcoming visitor attraction for members of the public. It is also increasingly being sought out by local artists and story-tellers as a venue and exhibition space, and even serves as a particularly entrancing Santa’s Grotto once a year!

The Tower is open to the public on the last Sunday of every month and annually during Open House weekend. Please visit the Hackney Historic Building Trust website for details.

Unique war memorials of St Albans

One of several features from the SPAB Magazine (Summer 2014) written to mark the centenary of the 1914 – 18 war. The SPAB’s communications manager Kate Griffin looks at a set of unique memorials in her home town, St Albans.

Albert Street, St Albans, in Hertfordshire, is largely unremarkable. Situated in the shadow of the Cathedral and Abbey Church in the City’s conservation area, it’s a typical hotchpotch of compact Victorian terraced cottages interspersed with in-fill dwellings of later date. Some buildings still bear the trace of a former life – wide windows suggest small shops and bricked up arches hint at long-gone trades and workshops.

Albert Street bears solid witness to a century of change that could just as easily be read in towns across the country.
There is, however, something almost unique about the street where I live and it’s something I look at every time I walk to the station on the way to work here at the SPAB.

Just a few doors down from my house, a plaque set into the brick wall of No 34 commemorates the names of the 12 men from Albert Street who lost their lives during the First World War. All these men served in the army. The memorial records two pairs of brothers, the Corleys and the Dunhams, (one pair reputed to have died on the same day), while another Albert Street resident listed here, Edward Foster, was the third son in same the family to die. His brothers lived elsewhere in the City. I often wonder whether any of these Albert Street men lived in my own house.

Albert Street memorial

Albert Street memorial. Kelly’s Directory 1914 shows Albert Street as an area of small terraced houses interspersed with neighbourhood shops including several general stores, a dairy, a butcher, carrier, greengrocer, corn dealer, scrap merchant, house decorator and beer retailers. It was described by a local at the turn of the century as a ‘very rough and poor’ street.

So far so sad, but not so very unusual you might think. Actually, this sober grey rectangle topped with a plain cross is the first of the permanent 1914 – 18 street war memorials in St Albans – and this makes it the first of a series of street memorials placed throughout the City which are thought to be unique survivals. The Imperial War Museum knows of no others still in existence, although there are some plaques to individuals on houses in Letchmore Heath, a village near St Albans.

The ten memorials mounted on ordinary houses in the Abbey Parish of St Albans were unveiled in 1920 and 1921 to commemorate more than 110 men (including nine pairs of brothers) who came from a small group of streets clustered around the Abbey. Approximately 650 men from St Albans died in the conflict so the high number lost from this tight knit working community is notable.

Fishpool Street

Fishpool Street memorial

Those who went to war from these modest streets and who never came back were men of the parish of St Albans Abbey and this probably why the anomaly of the street memorials came about. The fact that St Albans Abbey is a diocesan cathedral as well as a parish church meant that priority was given to its grander role when commemorating the dead of the First World War. It produced a Diocesan Book of Remembrance and commissioned a Memorial West Window.
In all other local parish churches (including those in St Albans) tangible, personal monuments were being put up outside or inside the building listing to honour the dead of that parish. The names of men lost from the Abbey parish were inscribed in the Book of Remembrance, but there was no separate memorial to them. People wanted to see their names of their loved ones in a public place; they wanted a place to lay flowers and remember their dead.

It is unclear where the idea for St Alban’s street plaques came from, but certainly Canon George Glossop, who served the Abbey for 40 years until 1925 and who lost two sons in the conflict, promoted the plan. The City Council still officially refers to the plaques as ‘The Canon Glossop Memorials’ although many other people were actively involved.  Records indicate that Abbey curate, the Revd Harry Evans made street collections to fund the scheme. It is said that when he visited the grieving families of the parish he offered the idea as a comfort.

Fishpool Street, St Albans

Fishpool Street, St Albans

As well as the plaque in Albert Street, visitors can still view Canon Glossop’s Memorials set into the walls of private houses in Bardwell Road, Fishpool Street, High Street, Holywell Hill, Lower Dagnall Street, Orchard Street, Pageant Road, Sopwell Lane and Verulam Road. (Two further plaques were re-erected following the redevelopment of the buildings on which they were originally placed. These can now be seen in Ridgemont Road and Grosvenor Road)

Verulam Road

Verulam Road memorial. This memorial also includes the dead from Cross Street, College Street, Queen Street and New England Street.

Sadly, around 50 years ago the names on one of the two Lower Dagnall Street plaque were obliterated, an act that led the City Council (in 1964) to take over responsibility for the maintenance of the remaining memorials with the co-operation of the owners of the buildings concerned. Today, although the memorials do not have specific protection, they are protected by virtue of their location in the conservation area.

Nearly all of the plaques conform to a general pattern with slight variations. Some have a ledge where vases of flowers were placed; some have a shallow hood to prevent weathering. They are all embedded into the walls of buildings and – with the exception of the High Street plaque on business premises in Wax House Gate – the buildings are private houses.
Generally, plaques are mounted on a house from which a man was lost. Following the dedication of the first memorial in Albert Street in the spring of 1920, the next three plaques in nearby Bardwell Road, Pageant Road and Sopwell Lane were dedicated in summer the same year by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Michael Furse.

Bardwell Road

Bardwell Road memorial

Crowds filled these narrow, humble streets as a grand procession led by the Bishop accompanied by the Abbey choir and clergy visited each site in turn to hold a short service before the memorial was unveiled by the Mayor.
In 1921 the remaining memorials were completed and unveiled, but by this time the country was disillusioned and beset by industrial unrest – a far cry from the hope that the ‘war to end war’ might usher in an era of peace and altruism.
When he unveiled the last street memorial in Lower Dagnall Street, ironically one that was later defaced, Dr Furse caught something of the bleak national mood in his address.

Lower Dagnall Street

Lower Dagnell Street, St Albans. After this memorial was defaced the City Council took on the maintenance of the remaining plaques

“These tablets, as you see, have been placed where they will be seen, and should be seen, by those who will pass by in future years through the streets where these men once lived. Each of the tablets we are unveiling today bears the words, ‘For Remembrance’. I do not suppose that any of you who have lost husband, son or brother in the war will ever be likely to forget, but there could be others, as the years pass by, who will forget, or indeed never knew, the price that was paid in those terrible years for what we believed to be the peace of the world.”


The five newly-listed plaques were recently awarded Grade II status as part of Historic England’s project to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. More information on the St Albans City and District website.
With thanks to:
Helen Bishop and John Cox of St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society. (SAHAAS)
The Street Memorials of St Alban’s Abbey Parish by Alice Goodman (pub.1987). An updated edition (with new research and information) is to be published by SAHAAS in autumn 2014
Download the St Albans War Memorials Walk from SAHAAS