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St. Olave Hart Street
Photo of St. Olave Hart Street
Photo of St. Olave Hart Street

Country United Kingdom
Denomination Church of England,
earlier Roman Catholic
Style Perpendicular Gothic

St Olave Hart Street is a Church of England church in the City of London, located on the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane near Fenchurch Street railway station.

John Betjeman described St Olave’s as “a country church in the world of Seething Lane."[1] The church is one of the smallest in the City and is one of only a handful of medieval City churches that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666. In addition to being a local parish church, St Olave’s is the Ward Church of the Tower Ward of the City of London.[2]



The church is first recorded in the 13th century as St Olave-towards-the-Tower, a stone building replacing the earlier (presumably wooden) construction.[3] It is dedicated to the patron saint of Norway, King Olaf II of Norway, who fought alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. He was canonised after his death and the church of St Olave's was built apparently on the site of the battle. The Norwegian connection was reinforced during the Second World War when King Haakon VII of Norway worshipped there while in exile.

Saint Olave's was rebuilt in the 13th century and then again in the 15th century. The present building dates from around 1450. According to John Stow’s Survey of London (1603), a major benefactor of the church in the late 15th century was wool merchant Richard Cely Sr. (d. 1482), who held the advowson on the church (inherited by his son, Richard Cely, Jr.). On his death, Cely bequeathed money for making the steeple and an altar in the church. The merchant mark of the Cely family was carved in two of the corbels in the nave (and were extant until the bombing of World War II). No memorial to the Celys now remains in the church.[4]

Saint Olave's survived the Great Fire thanks to the efforts of Sir William Penn, the father of the more famous William Penn who founded Pennsylvania. The flames came within 100 meters or so of the building, but then the wind changed direction, saving the church and a number of other churches on the eastern side of the City.[2]

However, it was gutted by German bombs in 1941 during the London Blitz[5]. and was restored in 1954, with King Haakon returning to preside over the rededication ceremony, during which he laid a stone from Trondheim Cathedral in front of the sanctuary.


St Olave's has a modest exterior in the Perpendicular Gothic style.[6] with a somewhat squat square tower of stone and brick, the latter added in 1732. It is deservedly famous for the macabre 1658 entrance arch to the churchyard, which is decorated with grinning skulls[7]. The novelist Charles Dickens was so taken with this that he included the church in his Uncommon Traveller, renaming it "St Ghastly Grim".

St Olave Church Interior

The church was a favourite of the diarist Samuel Pepys, who worked in the nearby Navy Office and worshipped regularly at St Olave's. He referred to it affectionately in his diary as "our own church"[8] and both he and his wife are buried there, in the nave.

The interior of St Olave's only partially survived the wartime bombing; much of it dates from the restoration of the 1950s. It is nearly square, with three bays separated by columns of Purbeck limestone supporting pointed arches. The roof is a simple oak structure with bosses. Most of the church fittings are modern, but there are some significant survivals, such as the monument to Elizabeth Pepys[9] and the pulpit, said to be the work of Grinling Gibbons. Following the destruction of the organ in the blitz, the John Compton Organ Company built a new instrument in the West Gallery, fronted by a large wooden grille; this organ, and the Rectory behind, is ingeniously structured between church and tower.

Perhaps the oddest "person" said to be buried here is the "Pantomime character" Mother Goose. Church documents record her interment on September 14, 1586. A plaque on the outside commemorates the event. The churchyard is also said to contain the grave of one Mary Ramsay, popularly believed to be the woman who brought the Black Death to London in the 17th Century.[10]

The church tower contains 8 bells. These are rung by the University of London Society of Change Ringers. The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.[11] St Olave's has retained long and historic links with Trinity House and the Clothworkers' Company.

Notable people associated with the church


  1. ^ Betjeman, John (1993). City of London Churches. Pitkin Publishing. ISBN 978-0-85372-565-7.  
  2. ^ a b St. Olave's Church Website. Retrieved on 2009-12-11.
  3. ^ “The Churches of the City of London” Reynolds,H.: London, Bodley Head, 1922
  4. ^ Hanham, Alison (2002). The Celys and Their World: An English Merchant Family of the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521520126.  , pp. 7 and 318.
  5. ^ "The Old Churches of London" Cobb,G: London, Batsford, 1942
  6. ^ “The City of London Churches” Betjeman,J Andover, Pikin, 1967 ISBN 0853721122
  7. ^ "London:the City Churches” Pevsner,N/Bradley,S New Haven, Yale, 1998 ISBN 0300096550
  8. ^ "Pepys: the unequalled self" Tomalin,C: London, Viking, 2002 ISBN 0670885681
  9. ^ "The Visitors Guide to the City of London Churches" Tucker,T: London, Friends of the City Churches, 2006 ISBN 0955394503
  10. ^ Cambridgeshire Collection - History On The Net
  11. ^ Images of England — details from listed building database (199509) accessed 23 January 2009

See also

External links

Coordinates: 51°30′39.04″N 0°4′46.88″W / 51.5108444°N 0.0796889°W / 51.5108444; -0.0796889



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