St Augustine's Tower is the oldest Santa's grotto in Hackney
PUBLISHED: 15:38 08 December 2016 | UPDATED: 08:43 13 December 2016
St Augustine's Tower is the only grotto in Hackney over 500 years old. Emma Bartholomew hears from Laurie Elks about its history as a social, sacred and political landmark.
St Augustine’s Tower is Hackney’s oldest building and all that remains of the old church of St Augustine.
It was built at the end of the 13th century, when Hackney was a village separated by fields from the City of London, where the Hackney Brook sparkled and watercress grew.
Originally its clock’s chiming was the only way to tell the time in the village.
Most people who pass it on their way down the Narrow Way will not realise the rugged medieval monument’s historic and architectural importance.
The iconic tower is Grade I-listed which means it is in the top 2 per cent of buildings listed nationally, and is on Hackney’s coat of arms.
But it’s only by chance that it survived.
The rest of the original parish church was demolished and the materials sold off in 1798 when it became redundant after the present day St John-at-Hackney – where Robbie Williams performs next week – was built.
At that time London had started to expand and the population of Hackney grew too, and wealthy city types built fine houses all along Mare Street and Lower Clapton Road.
Laurie Elks, from the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust – which now manages the building – explains the parish fathers of St John-at-Hackney wanted the new church to be big, but also wanted it cheap. That, ultimately, saved the ancient tower.
Laurie told the Gazette: “In a modern-sounding story, they were over-optimistic about the construction costs – £10,000 paid for the church, but not for a tower. So the old tower was left standing to house the church bells.
“By 1854, when the parish had strengthened the foundations at St John at-Hackney and built a tower, the bells could finally be moved – but by then the Victorian enthusiasm for medievalism and all things Gothic was getting into full swing. And so the tower was left to stand.”
The tower has four floors connected by a spiral stone staircase, and its upper floors each contain part of the workings of the remarkable clock, which dates back to the late 16th or early 17th century.
It had been manually wound for more than 400 years, although recently auto-winding has been installed to protect the mechanism.
The pendulum case is on the first floor, the bell room is on the third, and the clock faces are at second floor level, connected to each other and to the clock mechanism by a steel spindle.
The tower’s “chequered history” has included spells as a tool shed, a mortuary and a period of neglect by Hackney Council which bought it from the church in 1929.
In 1990 Hackney Historic Buildings Trust (HHBT) took responsibility for it, and was handed a Heritage Lottery grant to make it more accessible to visitors.
They throw open its doors on the last Sunday of the month from 2pm to 4.30pm, except in December when Santa is in residence.
HHBT wants to encourage all children in Hackney to visit the tower, to see how it can help us understand the past – so Santa will be there from 11am to 4,30pm on Saturday and the one after. There is a free gift for every kid thanks to sponsorship from Hackney Walk.
This story has been amended to correct the dates of Santa’s grotto visit, which were originally listed as two Sundays instead of two Saturdays. The Gazette apologises for any confusion arising from this error.