St Benet Fink, London

St Benet Fink

History of the Church

A Church with a proud and important story to tell

The name ‘Benet’ is the English contraction of the name Benedict, the patron saint of this church, who founded monastic communities in Monte Cassino and Subiaco in Italy in the 6th century. He is the patron saint of Europe and of students, because his ‘rule’ for his monks laid a stress on the importance of study, as well as prayer and worship of God, and manual work within the monastic community.

Although the building was built in 1911-12, the history of a church whose dedication was St Benet Fink goes back much further. Little is known of the early history of St Benet Fink in the City of London, but the first record of it appeared in 1216; there is a further mention in 1252 of a church of ‘St Benedict Fink by Cornhill’, which would have tallied with the fact that St Benet Fink was indeed not far from Cornhill. It is possible that there was an older foundation dedicated to St Benedict on that site near Cornhill, because of the discovery of a 10th century Saxon gravestone when the church was demolished in 1846. Also discovered was a spring of fresh water beneath its wall; often a sign that there had been a religious foundation on the site; freshwater being the sign of new life, God’s blessing and the sacrament of Baptism, by which one becomes a Christian.

John Stow, the famous antiquarian and historian of the City of London, who died in 1605, stated that, whatever may have existed before, the church dedicated to St Benedict on that site was rebuilt by Robert Finke the elder. It was a common practice in those days to append the name of the benefactor whose money paid for the rebuilding of the church to the name of its patron saint; this was a way of distinguishing it from the other churches dedicated to God under the patronage of St Benedict in the surrounding area – incidentally, there were three: St Benet Fink, St Benet Sherehog and St Benet’s, Paul’s Wharf, which alone remains extant in its original position. The Fink family lived in Finch Lane, and, as spellings were not fixed in those days as they are now, it is most likely that the lane in which they lived was named after the family as well. In records of the time, including one in 1311, the church is referred to as ‘St Benedict Fyngh’, with many other variations of the spelling of Fink: Finke, Finck, Fyngh and Finch.

Once there were three St Benet’s: St Benet Fink, St Benet Sherehog and St Benet’s, Paul’s Wharf.

The Parish Priests of St Benet Fink were originally rectors, and were presented to the living by wealthy Neville family. In 1440, the right to present a candidate to an incumbency, the advowson, passed to the Hospital of St Anthony, thus making the living a perpetual curacy – the word curate meaning the one who had the cure of souls, i.e. the Parish Priest: the parish priest was appointed by the Master and Brethren of St Anthony’s hospital. This was on condition that the hospital erected a Free School in the parish, which they duly did. The advowson was given by King Edward IV to the Collegiate Church of St George, Windsor, who retained it until the church was demolished in 1842. It is clear from wills of the 15th century that St Benet Fink had at least one chantry priest, whose stipend was paid by the benefaction of a person who had left money specifically so that Masses could be said for the repose of their soul in perpetuity. With the reformation, and the abolition of chantries and chantry priests, this role ceased to be necessary and the priest would have been relieved of his duties, either expected to find someone to present him to an incumbency of a church, or to seek alternative employment in the secular sphere.

Contemporary records tell that there were about 300 communicants living in the parish, which means that there were 300 people who would have been eligible to receive the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass: this made the parish very small, when you consider that the population of the present parish of St Benet Fink is between eight and nine thousand souls.

Of the architecture of the church built by Robert Finke only that it was rectangular is known, and, like 88 other churches in London, St Benet Fink’s was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Many of the churches that were destroyed were not rebuilt, as there were a very large number of churches in a small geographical area, and their small parishes were amalgamated with those of surviving churches, or of those churches that were rebuilt. It is interesting, given the small size of the parish and population, that St Benet Fink was rebuilt. This is perhaps due to the £1000 donation given by George Holman, a Roman Catholic, to rebuild the church. In return for his generosity, he was given two pews in church and a place in the vault. As with many of the churches in the City of London, the architect chosen was Sir Christopher Wren, whose St Paul’s Cathedral stands as a testament to his ability as an architect, craftsman and mathematician. The rebuilding was completed in 1675, at the total cost of £4129.

After the Fire, the City appropriated the northwest corner of the church site for the widening of Threadneedle Street, leaving Wren with an irregular site on which to build. He solved this problem by building a decagonal church, on top of which sat a dome with a lantern, supported from within by six arches. The church had two aisles spanned by entablatures supporting barrel vaults. It is possible that Wren drew his inspiration from Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale in Rome. The walls were built from brick and rubble and faced with Portland Stone. The tower was built at the west end of the church: it had a square dome, surmounted by a bell cage, and, uniquely for a Wren church, a ball and cross instead of a vane. The backs of houses in Sweetings Rents – a lane demolished in the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange – were partly built over the churchyard, and these were supported by pillars forming a colonnade. A picture of the City church of St Benet Fink can be seen hanging by the door of the present church under the bell tower. There are a few snippets of interesting history associated with St Benet Fink in the City. Richard Baxter, the Puritan Divine and hymn writer was married in the pre-Fire church in 1662. The parish registers record the death of the churchwarden, Thomas Sharrow, in 1673, who had fallen into a vault in Paternoster Row, and lain undiscovered for 11 days; the parish priest of the time recorded ‘Let all who read this take heed of drink.’

In 1838, the Royal Exchange, which had also been rebuilt after the Great Fire, burnt down. In order to improve the site of the Exchange, the Corporation of London petitioned Parliament for permission to demolish the tower of St Benet Fink and appropriate its churchyard, as well as demolish the nearby St Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange. More than twenty City churches were to be demolished over the next century but in 1840 the demolition was enough of a novelty to elicit protests from John Carlos, editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine and the parish. The Bishop of London, however, supported the Corporation as there were many other churches in the immediate neighbourhood.St Benet Fink exterior

The first stage of demolition was carried out in 1842. A new entrance was made in the west wall of the truncated church. This proved unsatisfactory, and the Corporation petitioned Parliament for another Act to demolish the rest of the church. This was granted and the church was knocked down in 1846.

The parish was combined with that of St Peter le Poer and proceeds of the sale of the site were used to build St Benet Fink, Tottenham. Sale of the furnishings realised only £15 5s. The paintings of Moses and Aaron that formed part of the altarpiece are now in the chapel of Emanuel School, Battersea.

The church of St Peter-le-Poer was demolished in turn, and the funds used to build the church of the same name in Friern Barnet. The proceeds of the demolition of St Batholomew-by-the-Exchange were used to build the church of St Bartholomew, Stamford Hill. It is interesting to note that all three of these churches were rebuilt with funds from their namesakes in the City and all have, to this day, an Anglo-Catholic ethos and tradition, begun by the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians of the 19th century, one of whose number was John Henry Newman.

In 1904, a mission to this district was established and a Tin Tabernacle opened in Granger Road, dedicated to St Luke, in 1905, while funds were raised to build a permanent building. The current church was built during 1911 and 1912, and at it’s consecration on May 15th 1912, the Bishop of London referred to it as ‘the little Cathedral’; given it’s light and airy interior, reminiscent of gothic cathedral architecture, it’s easy to see why. The architect was J. S. Alder, and St Benet’s is said to be his most complete and unaltered church. The spire houses a single bell, as was common architectural practice at the beginning of the last century; the building has a grade II listing. The symbols in the windows are the symbols of the saints and martyrs of Christian antiquity.

One of the most important features of the church is the organ, which was originally in the church of St Peter-le-Poer in the City of London. It is a fine instrument, originally constructed in the late 18th century by Green; it was then modified by the great organ builder ‘Father’ Willis, and has remained unaltered since then. The oak-boarded barrel roof of the church produces an excellent acoustic, so we are able to have regular organ recitals, as well as professional choirs to enhance our worship.