Napoleon defeated, God dead, confidence up: How one London church reveals our secret history
This is a short story about what really happens to the things we think are permanent and powerful. And how they may not be at all what they seem.
In 1818, the British Government announced a bonanza of one million pounds to be spent on celebrating victory over Napoleon. Buildings, events, whatever. But make it impressive.
One result was a rash of ‘Waterloo churches’ such as Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone – designed and built by Sir John Soane, and completed in 1826.
(The picture shows its second, outdoor pulpit: a ballsy move amid the noise and thoroughfare, like a rock band promoting a new album by playing loud from the back of a truck. Turn heads, stop traffic. Or perhaps it was a desperate move. More of that in a moment.)
Yet once it was finished in 1826, the church saw service for barely100 years.
By the 1930s, it was derelict. By 1936, it had been retooled as a warehouse for Penguin Books, who figured they could store inventory for longer in its dry, dark crypt. The crypt was down some stairs, lower than delivery vehicles or wheeled trolleys could get. So they put a slide from a children’s playground going from the street down into the darkness below, and used that as a book chute.
Since the second world war, it’s been an art installation space (once exhibiting a piece involving a crucified ape), and a Christian publishing office. There are currently proposals to redevelop the building’s interior, and turn it into a shopping arcade.
The building itself is a blank page. Every age has written its own narrative of very different kinds of redemption and salvation on it.
First, relief at the defeat of Napoleon and the need to manifest the national feel-good factor. Then, with the addition of the street pulpit, the crisis of faith and the urgent need for 19th-century Anglicanism to attract new adherents out there – to propagandise against Darwin and Owen and the ebbing of the tide, to save the religion itself by street preaching to the masses.
It was a books warehouse for Penguin amid the great rise in literacy, with the boom of state education, and the pressing need to serve affordable books to this new, empowered readership, lifted from the slums.
Post-war, as attendance lapsed, it became offices – a manifestation of the property developer phenomenon that promised to take all that was old and make it new. The regeneration of space.
And finally, the new national mission: shopping. Lift yourself and benefit the nation through consumer spend. Retail therapy as patriotic duty. Self service, customer service and service industry as the new national service; religious service, even.
After all, the term for converting money and credit into goods has always been “redemption”.