T. S. Eliot’s Wasted Churches

Jacqueline Pollard

“Where the Tower was Traced Against the Night”: T. S. Eliot’s Wasted Churches


In T. S. Eliot’s evocation of cultural memory, The Waste Land, literary allusion connotes both gaps and similarities between post-war modernity and the past. As James Longenbach summarizes, “the wide field of references are folded into the present to remind us of historical continuity and show us the way out of our predicament–they are ‘fragments. . .shored against my ruins’ (line 431)” (183). The past’s artifacts help to ground, or situate, people more firmly in the present and stave off crises of identity. Similarly, Eliot’s use of London’s geography extends beyond mapping out The Waste Land’s territory; the inclusion of London’s edifices accomplish the same cultural juxtaposition as literary allusion. More precisely, the poem’s references to London’s city churches offer the reader a then-contemporary example of not simply a cultural “forgetting,” but the willful destruction of heritage.

St. Magnus Martyr

In 1919, the London Church Commission included two of The Waste Land’s churches, St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Magnus the Martyr, on a well-publicized list of nineteen “redundant” churches that Christopher Wren and his peers rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666.1 The Commission planned to demolish the buildings and sell the land to commercial interests (“Old London Churches”).2 This proposal sparked public outrage, on both sides of the Atlantic, at mammon’s displacement of British heritage.

In June, 1921, Eliot himself participated in the debate by publishing a “London Letter,” titled “The True Church and the Nineteen Churches,” in The Dial.3 In this article, Eliot draws attention to the conflicting treatment of heritage sites by juxtaposing conservationists’ efforts to preserve Keats’s house, a private residence scheduled for demolition, with the London Diocese’s decision to continue pressing for the City churches’ destruction, and he considered three common arguments–the aesthetic, communal, and sanctuaried elements that justified the churches’ preservation.

St. Mary Woolnoth

In his “Letter,” Eliot initially stresses aesthetics, claiming that while the churches fail to attract tourist hordes, they give the Square Mile “a beauty which its hideous banks and commercial houses have not quite defaced [. . .] the least precious redeems some vulgar street, like the plain little church of All Hallows at the end of London Wall. Some, like St. Michael Paternoster Royal are of great beauty”(690).4 In highlighting the churches’ visual appeal, Eliot echoes arguments offered by, among others, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, which initiated a petition drive to preserve the churches, and to “emphasise the importance of these edifices as works of art and [. . .] that they may be allowed to remain intact and unmutilated” (“Si Monumentum” 105).5 Yet Eliot’s contrast between ancient and the modern constructions offers more than a critique of architectural styles. The “hideous banks and commercial houses” on “vulgar street[s]” dominated the twentieth-century city where few residents remained, and Eliot’s assertion that the even the plainest of the churches “redeem” the area indicates that the buildings compensate for the commercial structures’ lack of appeal; however, the phrase also connotes a religious or moral usage: to preserve from sin. Certainly, the shift in the urban landscape and community prioritized the transitory and the material, seen in the area’s daytime population and business orientation.7

Eliot links those commercial interests with those of the Church; in an implied sneer at the Church of England authorities (which recalls the tone of his 1920 poems, “The Hippopotamus” and “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”), he explains of the Commission’s decision: “the lack of congregation is the ecclesiastical excuse and the need for money the ecclesiastical reason” (106). As residents moved out of the City, Sunday service attendance decreased drastically. But, Eliot suggests, this argument masks the true purpose for the demolitions: financial gain. Eliot continues, “[t]he fact that the erection of these churches was apparently paid for out of a public coal tax and their decoration probably by the parishioners, does not seem to invalidate the right of the True Church to bring them to the ground” (107). Eliot’s emphasis on the public’s role in the church rebuilding, despite the fact that Londoners funded the reconstruction via an involuntary tax, underscores his perception that the Diocese overreached its authority.

All Hallows, London Wall

Other writers suggested that, in offering the properties for sale, the Church essentially prostituted its–and its congregants’–legacy.7 The Bookman’s Herbert Reynolds asserted that the churches were “built [. . .] at a time of dire impoverishment. They are the objects of self-sacrifice far greater than any now called for in their retention” (107). The churches reflected London’s durability and character; they acted as monuments to the narrative of Englishness on both general and personal scales: they belonged to the people. As Charles Hall Crouch stated in Notes and Queries, “[t]here must be few old families who have not had some ancestor christened, married, or buried in the churches scheduled for destruction, and are the pious memories of the founders and benefactors, and the sanctified sentiment connected therewith to count for naught? [. . . .] it is surely our duty to hand [the churches] on to our descendants as we have received them from the hallowed past” (220). Crouch’s call for his (presumably British) readers to remember their personal links with the churches, and his invocation of “the hallowed past” reflects similar arguments that the churches made history manifest; they provided access to an English past which might otherwise be lost. Reynolds claimed that with the loss of the churches, “the recollection of many illustrious personages and notable events will be banished to the remote fields of tradition and fable when but faint echoes penetrate to the hastening passer-by” (107).8 Beyond aesthetics, the structures grounded those events from the past that might otherwise dissolve into abstractions. Whether their reasons lay with aesthetic, spiritual, or historical interests, the public protested that the churches embodied English heritage, and their loss devastating–especially in the war’s aftermath. Indeed, several commentators drew on military language when arguing their opposition to the Commission’s proposal. R. D. Swallow, for example, wrote in The Contemporary Review that the Commissioners’ report “came as a bomb not on London only, but throughout the country” (79). Crouch directly associated the Diocese’s plans with the recently-ended combat, writing “and this after we had congratulated ourselves that [the churches] had escaped destruction from German aeroplanes” (220). Such references recall the churches’ significance as representatives of London’s seventeenth-century resurrection after plague and fire laid waste to the capital.

St Michael Paternoster Royal

Eliot resists laying claim to England’s heritage himself, but he attempts a connection between his personal experience of the churches and a wider European heritage. When, he writes, a man wishes for sanctuary from the financial district’s noise and angst, he might find it inside these churches: “[t]o one who, like the present writer, passes his day in this City of London (quand’io sentii chiavar l’uscio di sotto) the loss of these towers, to meet the eye down a grimy lane, and of those empty naves, to receive the solitary visitor at noon from the dust and tumult of Lombard street, will be irreparable and unforgotten” (691). Even if deserted, Eliot argues, the churches retain value as places of solitude and introspection beyond the City’s fog and chaos. To lose “these towers” means more than a change in London’s physical landscape; it also signifies a disconnection from the human past that anchors identity–an anxiety evoked in The Waste Land.

Eliot’s citation of Dante’s Inferno XXXIII.46 further informs his “Letter.”9 Count Ugolino utters the line “quand’io sentii chiavar l’uscio di sotto” (“when I heard the doog below locked up”) while relating how authorities left him, and his children, to starve within a locked tower. Eliot’s Dantean reference reinforces the idea that the churches offer an escape from the imprisoning financial district as well as providing a connection to the past. As with The Waste Lands allusions, the juxtaposition of the Medieval allegory, the Restoration church, and the modern City, conflates past and present and illustrates an essential sameness that defies historical distance, and which roots the modern Western world to its origins.10

St Mary Aldermanbury

Eliot remained interested in the London churches at least until he departed for Margatein November 1921. In a letter to Richard Aldington in October, 1921, Eliot noted that he “should love to do a book on Wren, or at least on the églises assassinées [‘murdered churches’] of London” (Letters 474). He went on, instead, to complete The Waste Land. The public went on to repel the planned “murder” of the churches: the House of Commons ruled against the Church Commission’s proposal in 1926, and the majority of the “doomed” churches remain extant. Those that failed to survive include several gutted during the Blitz and one, St Mary Aldermansbury ¹¹, which an American consortium purchased and removed to Fulton, Missouri. A St. Louis architect, Frederick Sternberg, headed the project (Blatch 186).


1 Owing to the Diocese’s much publicized, much debated proposal, we might assume that many of The Waste Land’s early readers would have been acquainted with the churches Eliot in Eliot’s poem.). Some notable historical associations with the two churches include St. Mary Woolnoth’s rector, John Newton, who gained fame as the reformed slave-trader who composed the hymn “Amazing Grace” (Bumpus 27). A rector of St Magnus the Martyr, Miles Coverdale, translated the Bible into English (Besant 159). Additionally, the church stood beside oldLondonBridge; stone blocks from that structure now rest in the church’s porch.

2 The Literary Digest reported that “A great bank [Barclay’s] has offered £12,500,000 for one church site [All Hallows, Lombard Street], and it is expected that the total value of the nineteen church properties will reach £1,695,620 (nearly $7,000,000)” (“Doomed Churches” 33).

3 According to Valerie Eliot, her husband “visited [all of the churches] while working in the City” (Letters 128 n.35.I).

4 Eliot also refers to St. Michael Paternoster Royal in early drafts of “The Fire Sermon,” writing:

“This music crept beside me on the waters”

And along the Strand, and up the ghastly hill of Cannon Street,

Fading at last, behind by flying feet,

There where the tower was traced against the night

Of Michael Paternoster Royal, red and white (189-93) (TWLF 35).

Londoners identify St Michael Paternoster Royal as “Dick Whittington’s church.” This local legend, “four times Lord Mayor ofLondon,” lived beside the medieval church, funded its rebuilding in 1409, and was buried therein. Wren rebuilt the structure post-fire (Blatch 144).

5 The editorial’s title, “Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice,” alludes to Wren’s memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral: “If you seek this man’s monument, look around.” The Burlington’s editors claimed that their petition attracted “a great many renowned English and foreign scholars” as signatories (“Nineteen” 3).

6 In 1920, the City’s residents approximated “13,000 and a business day-time population of perhaps not far from a million” (“Doomed Churches” 33).

7 In a telling malapropism, H. T. Sudduth, who sympathizes slightly with the preservation movement, misidentifies St Mary Woolnoth as “St Mary Woolworth” in an article titled “London’s Superfluous Churches.” By replacing the sacred with the commercial, Sudduth accomplishes the Commission’s aims.

8 In May, 1920, a New York Times journalist asserted, “there are historical associations connected with the sites and the older churches which stood there [prior to the fire]. For instance, it was at the older church of St. Dunstan’s [in Eastcheap] that the London men who fought at Crecy and Agincourt mustered before going down to take ship for France in the river near by” (“Old London Churches“). In this example, the church played a more than incidental role in English cultural memory.

9 Eliot misquotes Dante slightly, writing: “quand’io sentii chiavar l’uscio di sotto.” In the original, Dante writes: “ed io sentii chiavar l’ uscio di sotto / all’ orribile torre” (Inferno 33.46-7). Compare Ugolino’s imprisonment within the “horrible tower” with Eliot’s lament of “the loss of these [church] towers.” Eliot also alludes to Ugolino’s line in “The Fire Sermon”: “I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and once only” (410-11).

10 Similarly, Eliot accomplished this in alluding to Dante in “The Burial of the Dead”: he envisioned London’s living dead walking, like Dante’s Trimmers around hell’s vestibule, toward the City, to where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (67-8). In 1950, Eliot said of Dante, “Certainly I have borrowed lines from him [to] establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life” (“Dante” 128).

¹¹ A participant in the TS Eliot discussion list kindly linked to this material. He also asked about the correct name of the church St. Mary Aldermansbury: the church in question has been identified using both St. Mary Aldermansbury and St. Mary Aldermanbury. As the former is the name used in the majority of my sources, I went with that one. I thank him for his interest and concern (I should have noted its dual ID).

Works Cited

Aligheri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. by John Aitken Carlyle.London: Dent, 1900.

Besant, G.B.City Churches and Their Memories.London: Selwyn and Blount, 1926.

Blatch, Mervyn. A Guide to London’s Churches.London: Constable, 1978.

Bumpus, Francis. London Churches Ancient and Modern. Vol. 2. NY: James Pott, 1908. 2 vols.

Crouch, Charles Hall. “Nineteen City Churches in Danger.” Notes and Queries. s12-6 (1920): 220.

“Doomed Churches of LondonCity.” Literary Digest. 66 (1920): 33-4

Eliot, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot: 1898-1922. Ed. Valerie Eliot. Vol. 1. NY: Harcourt, 1988.

—. “LondonLetter: The TrueChurchand the NineteenChurches” The Dial. 70 (June 1921): 690-1.

—. The Waste Land: A Facsimile. Ed. Valerie Eliot. NY: Harcourt, 1971.

—. “What Dante Means to Me” To Criticize the Critic. NY: Farrar, Strauss, 1965. 125-35.

Longenbach, James. “‘Mature Poets Steal’: Eliot’s Allusive Practice.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. A. David Moody. Cambridge: CambridgeUP, 1994. 176-88.

“The Nineteen City Churches” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. 40.226 (1922): 3.

“Old London Churches” The New York Times. 30 May 1920. 3 Oct 2007.

Reynolds, Herbert. “The Churches of the City of London” The Bookman. 62 (May 1922): 107.

Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. 38.216 (1921): 105.

Sudduth, H. T. “London’s Superfluous Churches.” Outlook. 7 Jul 1920: 475.

Swallow, R. D. “The Future of the City Churches.” The Contemporary Review. 119 (1921): 79-83.

Photo Credits

All Hallows, London Wall
Engraving. <http://www.antique-prints.de&gt;. Accessed 30 Oct 2007.
Photograph. <http://www.london-city-churches.org.uk&gt;. Accessed 20 Oct 2007.
St Magnus Martyr
1922 photograph. <http://www.viewimages.com&gt; [defunct site]. Accessed 30 Oct 2007.
Engraving. <http://london.lovesguide.com&gt;. Accessed 30 Oct 2007.
St Mary Woolnoth
Contemporary Photograph. < http://www.inetours.com&gt;. Accessed 30 Oct 2007.
Engraving. Motco.Com Accessed 30 Oct 2007.
St Mary Aldermanbury: Love’s Guide to the Church Bells of the City of London.
Accessed 30 Oct. 2007
St Michael Paternoster Royal:
1951 photograph. <http://www.viewimages.com/&gt; (defunct site). Accessed 30 Oct 2007.
Engraving. Love’s Guide to the Church Bells of the City of London.
Accessed 30 Oct. 2007.

Copyright 2007 Jacqueline A. Pollard

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