Wren 300, a city full of people

Parish of St Botolph Aldgate

Parish of
St Botolph Aldgate

The parish of St Botolph Aldgate, on the eastern edge of the City, escaped the flames of the Fire of London in September 1666. However, the local population had already suffered tremendous loss.

The Black Death or bubonic plague had swept through the parish just a year earlier. Many people died and were buried in large plague pits dug in the churchyard. Accounts of this are included by the writer Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722.

A request denied

The North-West Prospect of the Church of St Botolph without Aldgate, 1739 © London Metropolitan Archive

While the church which stood on this site from the 1500s may have survived the Fire unscathed, by 1711 the parish was keen to see it replaced. The rector, the Revd Thomas Bray, along with the churchwardens and vestry, petitioned the government for both a new church and minister’s house to be built in the East Smithfield district of the parish.

They argued that it was needed to serve the population of some 9,000 inhabitants, of which two thirds were too poor to pay local taxes. The case to build 50 new churches was not deemed a priority by the commission, and in any case, it ran out of money before it could fulfil its original objective.

A new church at last

The church of St Botolph’s was eventually rebuilt in 1741-44 to designs by George Dance the elder. This large and populous parish has been included in this project to provide an illuminating comparison with the parishes which benefitted from Wren’s rebuilding.

North east view of St Botolph without Bishopsgate, c1750 - London Metropolitan Archives

For richer, for poorer

The largest of London’s parishes with over 12,000 inhabitants in 1694, St Botolph’s was characterised by extremes of poverty and wealth. The wealthier inhabitants tended to live outside the City walls in the Portsoken ward, while poor people lived in East Smithfield.

Read more about the population of St Botolph Aldgate.

Tobacco merchants

One parishioner who accumulated considerable wealth in this period was the tobacco merchant George Richards who was buried in St Botolph’s. Apprenticed to the Weavers’ Company, George made a fortune by importing tobacco grown by enslaved labour on the plantations in the North American colony of Virginia.

Introduced to Virginia in 1612 by John Rolfe, the tobacco crop was produced by enslaved African people who were captured and forcibly transported across the Atlantic in increasing numbers during the 1600s.

'A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina', London, Thos. Jefferys, 1755, Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

George Richards became one of the leading tobacco merchants in London with assets worth £8,000 in 1690, just under one million pounds today. His daughter Sarah consolidated this position when she married fellow tobacco merchant Richard Perry, who served as Governor of the Bank of England.

Learn more about Enslavement and Migration.

Inside the church today

One of the few tangible connections with Wren’s London in St Botolph’s today is the organ and dates from around 1704. It replaced the instrument donated to the church in 1676 by parishioner and joiner Thomas Whiting, was made by the renowned organ maker Renatus Harris, and appears to have been previously located in Thomas’s house in Houndsditch. Whiting worked on three of the churches rebuilt by Wren and designed the second Brewers’ Hall. He also constructed sets and stages for three of the annual Lord Mayor’s Shows and was commissioned to build four triumphal arches for the coronation procession of Charles II in 1661.

Political differences

In the years following Charles II’s Restoration, the ministers of St Botolph were ‘High Church’, with Catholic leanings, and royalists. Dr Richard Hollingworth, minister from 1684, was the most vehement supporter of the Stuart royal family, monarchs from 1603 to 1714, and particularly Charles I who was beheaded in 1649. These views conflicted with the political regime of William and Mary. They were invited by some influential politicians to replace James II who was seen as favouring Catholicism.

Revd Hollingworth was forced to leave St Botolph’s in 1693, largely because of a legal dispute over who was entitled to income from the taxes paid by parishioners. He had previously been accused of conducting clandestine weddings in the church. When Sir Charles Umfreville seized back his inherited financial rights to St Botolph’s, gained under Henry VIII, he was also able to choose his own minister. The new minister, White Kennett, was much more sympathetic to William and Mary and the ruling Whig party. He rose within the ranks of the Church to become Bishop of Peterborough in 1718.

Parishes

Local churches were the focal point of sixteenth-century City life. Weekly worship and all the milestones of parishioners’ lives took place here: christenings, marriages and funerals. Many churches were lost in the Great Fire.

Read the stories of four that either survived or succumbed to the flames, and how they reemerged from the ruins.

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