St Dunstan-in-the-West

The church of St Dunstan-in-the-West is at 186a, Fleet Street. It is of mediaeval origin, though the present building was constructed in the 1830s to the designs of John Shaw (see post of 9/5/19). When he died in 1833, his son John completed the work.

The poet John Donne held the benefice here from 1624-31 while he was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. The communion rail is a survivor of the old church, having been carved by Grinling Gibbons during Donne’s incumbency. A fragment of the old churchyard remains between Clifford’s Inn and Bream’s Buildings.

The chiming clock on the facade was installed on the previous church in 1671, perhaps to celebrate its escape from the Great Fire. It was the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. In 1828, when the mediaeval church was demolished, the clock was removed by art collector Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford, to his mansion in Regent’s Park, which became known as St Dunstan’s. During World War I, the House was lent as a hostel for soldiers with sight loss, and the new charity took the name “St Dunstan’s”. It was renamed “Blind Veterans UK” in 2012.

(Through the British and Foreign Blind Association, Cyril Arthur Pearson published his Pearson’s Easy Dictionary in Braille form in 1912. Later completely blind, Pearson was made president of the National Institution for the Blind in 1914, raising its income from £8,000 to £360,000 in only eight years. On 29 January 1915, he founded The Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Care Committee (later renamed St Dunstan’s and now known as Blind Veterans UK), for soldiers blinded by gas attack or trauma during the First World War. Its goal, radical for the times, was to provide vocational training rather than charity for invalided servicemen, and thus to enable them to carry out independent and productive lives. Not only were blinded soldiers trained in work such as basket weaving or massage, but also in social skills such as dancing, braille reading or sports to give them back self-confidence. Upon releasing them, they were gifted little tokens of independence such as braille watches. This was especially important considering the fact that many blinded soldiers were young men, who would have to live with their disability for decades to come.

Pearson’s dedication to this work led to his receiving a baronetcy on 12 July 1916, whereupon he took the title Pearson, 1st Baronet of St Dunstan’s, London. He received the GBE in 1917.)

The clock was returned by the 1st Viscount Rothermere in 1935, to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V.

The church shares its building with the Romanian Orthodox community. The iconostasis which closes off the chapel to the left of the main altar came from Antim Monastery in Bucharest, and was dedicated in 1966.

From the church’s website, you can link to a short introductory video by Michael Palin.

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