St Bartholomew’s Birthday (is coming up!)

900 years of mission, ministry and music

Great St Bartholomew’s is an ancient City of London parish neighbouring the Barbican with two churches: St Bartholomew the Great, the City of London’s oldest surviving church and St Bartholomew the Less, also unique in being physically sited in a hospital and playing a full part in its life. In our earliest days the Blessed Virgin Mary made her only recorded appearance in London here and since then, we have witnessed key moments in history: William Wallace and Wat Tyler were executed on our doorstep, as were religious martyrs of the Reformation. William Hogarth was baptized here; John Betjeman was a parishioner; and Benjamin Franklin once toiled in the printer’s workshop in the site now occupied by the Lady Chapel.

Adopted by City livery companies both historic and modern, and a favourite location for filmmakers from Richard Curtis to Marvel, St Bartholomew the Great is a vibrant ecclesiastical and artistic centre in the new Culture Mile. Our growing congregation, in-person and online, is drawn by an innovative combination of tradition and technology, which speaks to a modern, forward- thinking community of worshippers, heritage enthusiasts and music lovers.

St Bartholomew the Great was founded by Rahere, Henry I’s court jester (who did a lot more than jest). On a pilgrimage to Rome Rahere contracted a fever and vowed that, should he recover, he would build a hospital for the poor in London. On his way home, after returning to health, he had a vision of the Apostle Bartholomew, in which he was commanded to build a church in Smithfield to the glory of God to be named in honour of St Bartholomew.

Originally founded as a single institution, St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the parish of St Bartholomew were separated at the Reformation. Even so, they remain intimately linked, not only in the prayerful presence of St Bartholomew the Less but also in the recently restored office of Hospitaller, the second priest of the parish who spends half his time ministering in the hospital.

Henry I gave land to Rahere and the work to build the church and hospital began in 1123. The east end (much of which survives) was completed by Rahere’s death in 1143 and the remainder of the church by 1300. For over 400 years St Bartholomew the Great was an Augustinian priory.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 the prior and canons were pensioned off, the nave was demolished (most of the site is now the churchyard you see from Cloth Fair), the monastic buildings passed into other ownership and the monastic quire became the parish church.

Over the next three centuries the church continued in use, both religious and secular- parts were used at various times as a blacksmith’s forge, a school, houses, printing works, and a lace and fringe factory. In 1724 the young Benjamin Franklin, newly arrived in London, was looking for a job. He found one as a typesetter in a printer’s shop. The shop had once been the Lady Chapel. By the time that Franklin came to work there it was housing a dancing master as well as a shop.

In the mid-19th century the architectural significance of the priory was realised and an ambitious plan for its reordering began in 1864 with the greater part of the work being carried out under the direction of Sir Aston Webb, RA. The result is largely the church as it is today.

An opportunity to invest, restore, and rejoice in the future

In 2023, we will celebrate the 900th anniversary of the founding of St Bartholomew the Great. In celebration of 900 years of ministry and service, the Parochial Church Council have resolved to embark on a campaign to raise £10 million to preserve this heritage site for the next generation and all those that follow, and to support a long-term sustainable church musical programme through a major endowment.

This vision has been drawn from a comprehensive feasibility study report presented by Ptolemy Dean Architects in March 2020 and further shaped by qualitative fundraising research conducted with many who know the church; not just regular members of the congregation but the many more who recognise its importance to them and the City of London.

Ptolemy Dean’s report gives us a forensic analysis of the Church’s complex history of development and the challenges our predecessors have faced when seeking to make better use of this valuable heritage site, and improve accessibility. It also provides a powerful vision for the way forward that recognises architectural constraints and embraces the need for repair and restoration work, whilst minimising harm to the fabric of the building. At ground and triforium (gallery) levels, as well as in the surrounding external space, it is clear that we have an opportunity to reimagine our Church. The vision encompasses sensitive preservation of our heritage, alongside the creation of new features and facilities that support our mission and ministry. It also invites us to transform a currently underused site into a beating heart of fellowship, friendship, education and support, for all those who wish to come through our doors.

In addition, these inspirational plans provide us with an opportunity to improve our music offering, making it possible for us to achieve greater engagement with our local community in all its rich diversity.

Our 900th anniversary campaign

Realising this vision will require £10 million, pledged over the next five years from a first stage of fundraising that will take us to our anniversary celebrations in 2023. Beyond that, we hope to extend the campaign with a second phase of fundraising focused on replacing the Organ and significantly enhancing our music provision.

£7 million | transforming fabric, facilities and outreach activity

The vision includes

  • Protecting and preserving the building’s ancient fabric, involving roof repairs to the Nave and our 14th Century tower at St Bartholomew the Less. Achieving our ambitions around mission, ministry and music rests entirely on our ability to make St Bartholomew the Great safe and secure for the future. We have a responsibility to steward properly this physical part of our heritage so that the myriad activities that take place here can continue to flourish.
  • Opening the triforium (gallery level) as an education centre. This new space will become a hub for learning about the history, art and culture of the City. We have a wonderful opportunity to bring to life the story of early medicine, medieval revolts, monastic life and the Reformation. Through new interpretation and a heritage exhibition with interactive technology, our goal is to attract families and schools from neighbouring, boroughs to explore their local past. With the opening of the Museum of London in Smithfield, it is envisaged that together we will also become a compelling focus of attraction for visitors to London.
  • Rebuilding the second storey of the cloister to provide glass-walled counselling rooms, and new parish offices. The pandemic has revealed many opportunities for increasing the support we can offer to people suffering from mental health issues. We have found this to be especially true amongst the hospital’s patients, staff, and families, as well as across the City. Using our connections with the Hospital and across the City, we plan to partner with appropriate mental health service providers, becoming a centre for wellbeing in and around our two churches.
  • Creating an accessible garden as an oasis of calm and contemplation. As part of our overall plan to transform St Bartholomew the Great into a more welcoming and usable space, the garden project will also support our mental health initiatives and even serve as an alternative outdoor venue for artistic events.
  • Supporting our activities with an upgraded kitchen and disabled toilets. So that we can properly cater for events, school visits, and other functions, it’s important that we provide modern amenities that make it possible for anyone to worship, celebrate or perform here.

These 900th anniversary projects open up a wealth of opportunity for partnership and collaboration, all of which stand to benefit the people we serve. Together, they form a vision that has something in it for everyone; one that connects our past with our future and promises to share even more of this beautiful Church’s sense of place and personality with pilgrims and visitors, friends and neighbours, not least, Barbican residents.

£3 million | Music Endowment Fund

Music has been part of the life of St Bartholomew the Great for 900 years in one form or another. Located within the Culture Mile, the church has the opportunity to inspire and enhance the lives of all who come into contact with it for the next 900 years. Over the past century, St Bartholomew the Great has attracted a series of exceptional Directors to lead and develop its musical activities. Most of the music we provide demands skilled, professional performers.

An endowment to support in perpetuity the musical programme, including the maintenance of the organ, would pave the way for us to develop exciting new activities. With enhanced facilities and new rehearsal spaces, we have an opportunity to expand our current provision, creating a first-class venue for everyone from internationally renowned musicians to emerging artists and local dementia choirs.

A Special Milestone

The famous author and historian Tom Holland recently summed it all up when he wrote in The Spectator:

As St Bartholomew the Great celebrates its 900th birthday in 2023 there is much to celebrate. It has survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz. W.G. Grace worshipped in it; Deborah Mitford married the future Duke of Devonshire in it; Hugh Grant was filmed getting (almost) married in it. As much as any building in London, it bears witness to what T.S. Eliot called the pattern of timeless moments. It is a precious place indeed.

Find Out More

Later in the year we will be hosting a series of information events where you can learn more about our plans and the benefits they promise to bring to the different communities we serve.

To find out more or to register your interest contact Lulu Price at St Barts.

Article by Roy Sully and thank you to Church Manager, Eloise Harris, for the photos!