The old church which bore the above name, was situated on the south side of the Strand, but it was destroyed, without any compensation to the parishioners, who were obliged to join themselves to the congregations of the adjoining districts. This they were compelled to do till the year 1733. The act for erecting fifty new churches having passed some years before, one was appointed for this parish, the first stone of which was laid by James Gibbs the architect, on the 25th of February, 1714. The steeple was finished on 7th September, 1717, but the church was not consecrated till the 1st of January, 1723, when it was called St. Mary-le-Strand, although from thence to the present time, it has been popularly known by the designation of the New Church. The benefice is a rectory in the gift of the bishop of Worcester. The following prefatory remarks from the writings of the architect, will very appropriately precede our description of the edifice:-- The New Church in the Strand, says he, called St. Mary-le-Strand, was the first building I was employed in after my arrival from Italy, which being situated in a very public place, the commissioners for building fifty churches (of which this is one) spared no cost to beautify it. It consists of two orders, in the upper of which the lights are placed; the wall of the lower being solid, to keep out noises from the street, is adorned with niches. There was at first no steeple designed for that church, only a small campanile, or turret for a bell, was to have been over the west end of it: but at the distance of eighty feet from the west front there was a column, two hundred and fifty feet high, intended to be erected in honour of queen Anne, on the top of which her statue was to be placed. My design for the column was approved by the commissioners, and a great quantity of stone was brought to the place for laying the foundation of it; but the thoughts of erecting that monument being laid aside upon the queen's death, I was ordered to erect a steeple instead of the campanile first proposed.
The building being then advanced twenty feet above ground, and therefore admitting of no alteration from east to west, which was only fourteen feet, I was obliged to spread it from south to north, which makes the plan oblong, which otherwise should have been square. I have given two plates of another design I made for this church, more capacious than that now built: but as it exceeded the dimensions of the ground allowed by act of parliament for that building, it was laid aside by the commissioners.Book of architecture, p. vii.
The plan of the church is a parallelogram, with a semicircular bow at the east end and a corresponding pavilion at the western one; there are no columns within the building. The walls are entirely built with Portland stone, and ornamented with a degree of profusion unknown to modern churches. The elevation is divided throughout into two stories, an expedient of the architect to give a greater height to the building, which the confined dimensions could not have allowed, had one order only been employed; this arrangement has been censured as a defect both by RalphCritical Review of Public Buildings, p. 37. and Gwynn,London and Westminster Improved, p. 46. and probably by every critical writer who may have written on this church, but in so doing, they have shown more critical nicety than either candour or judgment, for no impartial spectator can fairly come to any other conclusion, than that this is an expedient suggested and enforced by the confined site; if it has therefore destroyed the simplicity of the building, the architect is not answerable for it, as he could adopt no other mode to give a superior elevation to his structure.
The entire building stands on a plinth, which is continued throughout; in the west front a flight of steps leads to a pavilion or portico, occupying the central division of the lower story, the plan of which is a semicircle, and it is composed of four Ionic columns surmounted by the entablature of the order, and crowned by a low dome, on the vertex of which is an urn; within the portico is an arched doorway; in the lateral divisions are windows. The order of the upper story is Corinthian; in the centre is an arched window, between two pairs of engaged columns, crowned with the entablature, and surmounted by a pediment; the lateral divisions contain niches; they are finished with ballustrades and have urns at the angles; this story has also its stylobate, which, with the entablatures, are continued throughout the edifice; the angles of the building, and all the openings, being finished in antis. The steeple is a very inferior production, but Gibb's apology for its erection, already given, disarms criticism of its sting; greatly is it to be regretted that the monumental column of queen Anne was abandoned, and that the commissioners for building the church, had neither good taste nor good feeling enough to cause it to be erected. The plan of the steeple is a parallelogram, having its longest sides in a line with the western front of the church; the elevation consists of three diminishing stories, each of which has its slylobate, having a circular aperture in the dado. In the first story the opening in the stylobate is covered with a pedimental cornice sustained on consoles; the superior elevation is of the Corinthian order, and is enriched with pilasters in pairs on each side of an arched window, in the west and east fronts, and with two insulated columns in front of each of the flanks; on the cornice are urns; the second story only differs in respect of the order, which is composite. The circle in the pedestal has the clock dial inscribed on it. The third story has buttresses at the angles, and in each aspect is an arched window; the whole is finished with a high bell-shaped cupola, somewhat resembling the west towers of St. Paul's cathedral; a vane of metal is fixed on the crown. The flanks of the church are uniform, and are made respectively into seven divisions by engaged columns; in the intercolumniations of the lower story are circular niches covered with pediments resting on consoles; in the extreme divisions windows supply the place of the niches. The second story has large arched windows in the intercolumniations; above the central one is an elliptical pediment, and over two others angular ones ; on acroteria above the pediments are vases, and the upright of the Other divisions is furnished with a ballustrade with vases set upon it. The entablatures being made to break above the intercolumniations, is perhaps the most serious fault in the structure; it destroys the uniformity and fritters the design into a multitudinous assemblage of little parts.
The eastern front is strikingly beautiful; the centre is occupied by the circular chancel, to which the side divisions form very agreeable wings. The orders are here indicated by pilasters; in the lower story the chancel has three arched windows in lieu of niches, and in the upper, niches supply the place of windows; the side divisions have doorways in the lower story, and windows in the upper, corresponding in the style of their decorations with the flanks; the elevation is finished as in the other fronts. The face of the pilasters are richly carved with foliage in relief, and festoons cover the heads of the windows; the spandrils, and, indeed, every portion of the building where ornament can be applied, being profusely decorated. The area in which the church stands is enclosed with an iron railing of a massive character, on a dwarf wall; the principal gate is destroyed, and a watch-house built between the piers: the latter are square in plan, enriched with sculpture in the faces, and surmounted with urns.
The interior is injured by the additional pews which have been set up in the chancel and aisle to accommodate a larger congregation than the church was originally intended for, and the appearance, until lately, was impaired by the dirty state of the roof and ornaments, the church not having been repaired since 1803. At the west end are four columns of the Corinthian order, disposed in pairs at the sides of the entrance; they are elevated on lofty pedestals, and surmounted by an entablature, which extends from side to side of the church. Upon the cornice is a ballustrade, which forms the front to a gallery containing the organ and seats for charity children. The side walls are divided in height into two stories, the order of the lower being Corinthian, the upper composite; the lower story is divided by pilasters in pairs, situated below the piers of the windows above, the intervals being pannelled: the upper story has also pilasters on the piers of the windows. The east end has a large circular arch in the centre fronting the chancel; on each side are two Corinthian columns, corresponding in appearance with those at the western end; they are surmounted by their entablature and a pediment, in the tympanum the arms of queen Anne in relief. The body of the church is covered with a low semi-elliptical vaulted ceiling, the face of which is decorated in a style of the greatest elegance. It is divided into compartments respectively equal in breadth to the windows and their piers, and filled alternately with square and lozenge shaped pannels, most superbly enriched with mouldings, the soffits occupied by flowers; the pulpit and reading-desks are situated in the angles formed by the contraction, of the breadth of the building at the chancel; the pulpit is hexagonal, with ogee front, and sustained on a large pillar of the same form; the whole were formerly grouped against the south wall. The chancel occupies the centre of the east end, being situated in a splendid niche; the first division has an arched and pannelled ceiling, the residue is a half dome ribbed and pannelled, the soffits containing reliefs of clouds, &c.; the altar screen of oak is very plain, and no commandments are inserted on it, this being the only parochial church in London in which the omission is made. The practice of setting up these inscriptions in churches is of no further use than to injure, most seriously, in many instances, the architecture of the building, a consideration which a century ago allowed a deviation in this instance to pass unnoticed, though at the present day the practice is most pertinaciously adhered to, although a mere compliance with the letter of the canon is held sufficient, the inscriptions being, in most instances, either written in an improper place, or so painted as to be scarcely legible. On the side walls are two paintings, the subject of one being the Agony in the Garden, the other the Salutation of Our Lady, the subjects selected to allow of a resemblance in the characters, the principal figure and an angel forming the subject in each; the artist's name is inscribed in the frames,
Brown, Pinx. The chancel is rendered dark from the smallness and paucity of its original windows, and which is increased by the dead glass with common-place paintings of the chalice, &c. set up in 1820.
The font is situated in the central aisle; it is a plain circular basin of white marble, on a pillar of the same.
No monuments were allowed to be set up in the church until J. Bindley's, esq. F. S. A., which is a plain tablet. He died Sept. 11, 1818, aged 81. He was for fifty-three years a commissioner of stamps.
The whole of the interior is at the present time under repair.October, 1828.
The pannels on the walls are painted in imitation of Sienna marble, and the pilasters, &c. veined marble. The ceiling of the nave and chancel is white, with a French white ground, which has a very chaste and elegant appearance.
A most serious accident happened at this church on the proclamation of peace in 1802. Just as the heralds came abreast of this place, a stone railing which runs round the roof of the church, adorned with stone urns at equal distances, and on which a man on the outside, in the bow on the eastern end, happened to be leaning his arm upon the urn before him, fell off. Newcastle-street, the end of Holywell-street, and the southern side of the Strand, all commanded a view of the spot; and all the windows being crowded, and the attention being drawn to that quarter, several of the spectators saw the stone in the commencement of its fall, and raised a loud shriek. The church being very high, this notice excited an alarm before the stone reached the ground, and several of the people below ran from their situations, but whether into, or out of the danger, they did not know. Three young men were crushed in its fall. The one was struck upon the head, and killed upon the spot; the second so much wounded that he died on his way to the hospital; and the third died two days after. A young woman was also taken away apparently much injured, and several others were hurt; but whether by flying splinters, or the pressure of their companions, they did not know. The urn, which weighed about two hundred pounds, struck in its descent the cornice of the church, and carried part of it away; but this was the only obstruction which it met in its fall. An officer of the church went up to ascertain the man whose hand was upon the urn when it tumbled over. He had fallen back and fainted upon its giving way.. He was taken into custody; but no blame was imputable to him. The urn stood upon a socket; and the wooden pin which runs up the centre being entirely decayed, consequently broke off, with the pressure of the man's hand, as he was in the act of leaning forward. The stone broke a large flag to pieces in the area below, and sunk nearly a foot into the ground.
At the digging the foundation for the present church, the virgin earth was discovered at the depth of nineteen feet; whereby if appears that the ground in this neighbourhood originally was not much higher than the Thames, therefore this place was truly denominated the Strand, from its situation on the banks of the river.
On the south side of the Strand, and nearly opposite the church, is