Image: Ching Court, Seven Dials.
From the website of St Giles-in-the-Fields, 60 St Giles High Street, London WC2:
“St Giles has long been, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, a place of ‘entrance and exit’, whether for those arriving in the capital for the great medieval fairs of the city of London, for the condemned men and women making their way west to their executions at Tyburn or, more prosaically, for the thousands of tourists who will soon pour into London from the new Crossrail station beneath St Giles Circus. Its position at one of the great crossroads of London has given St Giles much of its character and indelibly shaped its history.
There has been a house of prayer on the site since 1101, when Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, founded a leper hospital here. At this time, St Giles stood outside the city of London with the lepers isolated from the population as a whole; the chapel probably became the church of a small village, which serviced the hospital.
Leprosy died out in England in the course of the Middles Ages, and when Henry VIII dissolved all religious houses in England [Plan of site on p. 59 of Parton’s History of St Giles] the hospital was dissolved and its site and endowments confiscated by the Crown. The hospital chapel became a parish church in 1542 and the area surrounding it became the parish burial ground. The parish was large, stretching from Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the east to what is now Charing Cross Road in the west, to Seven Dials in the south, and including all of Bloomsbury. This was when the words ”in-the-fields” were added to its name.
The hospital’s other buildings and the rest of the site were given by Henry VIII to Lord Lisle, subsequently Duke of Northumberland, and Protector of Edward VI. A village developed around the church and some monastic buildings were turned into cottages. In the 1550s the population of the area was about 350. From about 1600 St Giles began to be developed as a wealthy suburb and in 1628 the church was rebuilt in the latest and most elaborate style, with contributions from the wealthy residents of the parish.
In 1844-7 major clearance of slums began with the construction of New Oxford Street through the middle of the Rookery, but this merely increase overcrowding in the surviving buildings. From 1851 sewers began to be laid in the area, and the water supply was improved. However, major concentrations of very poor housing remained, and poverty intensified in the Seven Dials district, to the south of the Churchyard. There were always many breweries and workshops in the parish, and from the 1870s, they began to take over the overcrowded houses in the Rookery, and the population of the area began to decline.
Yet the parish was also home for a time to leading lights in the romantic movement – indeed the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were baptised in the font. The nineteenth century also saw regular alterations to the fabric and furnishings of the church. The pulpit was moved at least five times between 1807 and 1896 and stained glass was placed in all the windows. Meanwhile the distinguished architects Sir Arthur Blomfield and Wiliam Butterfield made alterations to the interior in 1875 and 1896, including the introduction of the checkered black and white tiles seen in the church today.
The St Giles area suffered substantial bomb damage during the Blitz, but the church itself escaped severe damage, which merely removed most of the Victorian stained glass and caused some damage to the roof. In the aftermath of the war, the church underwent a major restoration in 1952-3 described by John Betjeman as ‘One of the most successful post-war church restorations,’ (‘The Spectator, 9th March 1956).
Since the 1950s the area has undergone enormous and sustained redevelopment, with the loss of small shops and houses in St Giles’ High Street and the construction of the massive St Giles Court, Centrepoint tower and Central St Giles developments. The parish also experienced a dramatic change of use, becoming primarily a business and leisure destination, instead of a residential community.
The resident population of the area fell dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century to around 4,000 in 2001. However, many people have been drawn to this area for work, leisure and education. In the 1960s Denmark Street became known as a centre of the British music industry while the north of the parish became part of the thriving educational community centred on the University of London.”