Above: the church and its churchyard viewed from Bedford St.
From the church’s website:
“In 1631, Inigo Jones was commissioned by the 14th Earl of Bedford to design a square, surrounded by mansions, a church and four streets. Work on the church began in 1631, and was completed in 1633, as a cost of £4,000. The church was consecrated in 1638, and dedicated to St Paul.
People often ask why the great east door onto the piazza doesn’t open. Inigo Jones’ original intention was that this should be the main entrance with the Altar at the West End of the church. However, this went against Christian tradition where the Altar is normally placed at the east end. At the last moment therefore, the Altar was placed at the East end and Portico door is in fact a fake!
The Painter JMW Turner and WS Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), and Thomas Arne (the composer of Rule Brittania) are amongst the many famous people baptised at St Paul’s.
Among those buried at St Paul’s are Samuel Butler and the woodcarver Grinling Gibbons as was the first victim of the Great Plague of London – Margaret Ponteous on 12th April 1665.
Burials ceased in the 1850’s, when all burials in central London churches were closed by Act of Parliament. At that point, the headstones were removed, and the gardens laid out as you see them today.
In 1788, Thomas Hardwisk began a major restoration but in 1795 there was a terrible fire which destroyed much of the original structure. The Paris records were saved as was the pulpit, the work of Grinling Gibbons or one of his pupils and the church was restored largely to Jones’ original design. Further changes were undertaken by Butterfield in 1872.
St Paul’s is widely known as the Actors’ Church. The connection with the theatre began as early as 1662 with the establishment of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and was further assured in 1723 with the opening of the Covent Garden Theatre – now The Royal Opera House. Those two theatres became the starting place for ‘the west end’ theatre, and both were, and are, in our Parish.
On 9th May 1662, Samuel Pepys notes in his diary that the first “Italian puppet play” took place under the Portico of the church which marks the start of “Punch and Judy” as we know it – today, we continue to host and international Punch and Judy festival each May.
Memorials in the church are dedicated to many famous theatrical personalities, including Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Gracie Fields, Vivien Leigh, Ivor Novello and Richard Bekensale. The ashes of Ellen Terry and Dame Edith Evans rest at St Paul’s.
George Bernard Shaw also set the opening scene of Pygmalion – the play that formed the basis for My Fair Lady – under the Portico. In 2016, in association with Emma Brunjes Productions and Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, we were proud to present the 60th anniversary concert performance of My Fair Lady in homage. There is a memorial plaque to Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist and playwright of My Fair Lady, unveiled by his widow, Liz Robertson.
Today, we continue our traditions with the theatre by having an in-house professional theatre company Iris Theatre who put on productions throughout the year. We support other theatre companies by hosting their productions and stage many theatrical events such as West End Bake Off and an annual fundraising gala for TheatreMAD.”