Sunday 21 October 2018

Hawksmoor, Wolfe, and Fuller's Earth: St Alfege Church crypt

St Alfege Church is a Greenwich landmark, standing in its centre since the eighteenth century when it replaced its collapsed predecessor. It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and funded as one of the Fifty New Churches - of which only a dozen were built.

However, one of the most interesting parts of the church goes almost unseen - the crypt below. (Although not entirely below ground - a trick to raise the main body of the church and make it seem more imposing.) It is currently only open for tours on special occasions, although there are plans to make it accessible in future. 

A narrow staircase leads from an external door into the crypt, where bodies were interred in family vaults until 1859. They included John Julius Angerstein, a prominent businessman and underwriter, chairman of Lloyd's in the 1790s, and art collector whose paintings became the core of the National Gallery's collection. He is controversial today since the extent of his involvement in the slave trade is contested. 

Another vault is slightly cryptically occupied by 'Martyr's'. This is the name of a local family rather than a description of the occupants.

The most famous occupant was General James Wolfe, celebrated for victory over the French at Quebec in 1759. He was fatally wounded in the battle, and this 'martyrdom' made him the most celebrated military hero of his period. However, he had already made a name for himself through improving weapons skills and tactics and achieved his position as major-general aged just 32. He had fought at Culloden in 1746, where he allegedly refused to shoot a wounded Jacobite despite orders to do so. 

When interments ceased, the vaults were filled with Fuller's earth, an absorbent clay - just visible through a grille at the front of each vault.

Not all the vaults held wealthy families: there is also a church vault. In total, the crypt held over a thousand bodies. Below its floor are even more, burials from the earlier church building including the composer Thomas Tallis.