South London Memories: St Antholin’s Spire in Forest Hill restored to its former glory

A church spire which sits in the middle of a housing estate is being restored to its former glory.

Heritage of London Trust is teaming up with site leaseholders, L&Q to restore St Antholin’s Spire in Round Hill, Forest Hill, designed by one of England’s most famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

Four people from London Stone Conservation are working on the project which will take a month to complete.

HOLT and L&Q are contributing more than £13,000 to the restoration.

Stonemasons reconstructing the scrolls

Director of Heritage of London Trust, Nicola Stacey, said: “The spire had had some really severe weathering in the past, and possibly actually had been sand-blasted, so it was in a really bad state.

“The weathervane was very unstable and the stone volutes [scrolls] were completely decayed.

“It was clear if we didn’t do anything about them now they wouldn’t survive.

“It’s been great to change that story and rebuild them completely, making them stronger so they’ll have a long life ahead.

“We can’t wait to see the regilded weathervane back in place in a few weeks’ time.”

As part of the project, HOLT invited schoolchildren to come and take a look at the site.

Children learning all about the spire

They learnt about Sir Christopher Wren, who was a major contributor to the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in 1666, and Robert Harrild, the philanthropist responsible for bringing the spire to Forest Hill in 1829.

They also learned about the history and design of the spire and got up close to discover how it was made.

One of the schoolchildren said: “I enjoyed drawing our very own spires and learning that Christopher Wren built 51 spires. The spire is a thing of architectural beauty.”

And one resident said: “I’ve heard people talk about how amazing it is to have a piece of world famous architecture in front of our doors.”

Pressed to in-spire iconic monuments

The spire is 154ft tall and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

It was originally on top of St Antholin’s Church in the City of London. But in 1829, the upper part of the spire was damaged in a storm.

It was rescued and sold for £5 to one of St Antholin’s churchwardens, Robert Harrild, who moved it south of the river.

The two men who played an intrinsic part in the inception and survival of St Antholin’s Church, and the standalone spire, both led inspiring lives.

Robert Harrild (1780-1853) was a printing pioneer born in Bermondsey who developed a form of printing machinery, using rollers rather than hand held leather balls to apply the ink.

It began in 1809 when Harrild started making printers’ materials and working as a printers engineer.

At the time, the blocks of type used in printing were inked using ink pads, applied by hand.

Harrild improved the process by introducing ‘composition rollers’, which sped up printing.

He introduced the rollers at his London factories in Farringdon Road, and as printers and compositors from all over England came to see the invention, his new method quickly became better known and adopted throughout the industry.

Sir Christopher Wren; Printing Press designed by Robert Harrild. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. 

Harrild’s rollers vastly increased newspaper production, and by 1825 they had been installed in most Fleet Street offices. It is the same method used by the South London Press throughout its history, stretching back to 1865.

All of this made Harrild a very wealthy man. Harrid came to be considered one of the heads of the printing trade, and was known for his energetic character and philanthropic work.

The restoration of the St Antholin’s Church spire was one example of how he made good use of that energy.

Harrild bought Round Hill House in Forest Hill and had the St Antholin’s Church spire transported by horse and cart, stone by stone, to be re-erected on a brick plinth in his garden.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) had played a leading hand in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in 1666, specifically with the reconstruction of 52 churches in the city.

His biggest achievement by far was by far his involvement in the construction of St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1710.

His association with it spans his entire architectural career, including the 36 years between the start of the new building and the declaration by Parliament of its completion in 1711.

The domed rotunda over the altar was famous for surviving numerous Nazi bombing raids during the Blitz.

Greenwich Hospital designed by Sir Christopher Wren

The design of the cathedral has influenced architecture domestically and internationally.

Wren is known for designing other buildings as well, such as the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and the south front of Hampton Court Palace. One of his designs is the journalists’ church, St Bride’s, in Fleet Street.

His ability was undeniable and could arguably have stemmed from the privileged upbringing he was afforded.

Wren’s father was Christopher Wren the Elder, who at one stage was the Dean of Windsor.

London prides itself on its spectacular panoramic views, and St Paul’s with its distinctive dome roof, can claim to be a part of that.

The building’s conservator, Florian Kirchertz, said: “The Wren spire has always been exposed to the power of nature.

“The uppermost elements are particularly vulnerable to temperature fluctuations, water and wind from all sides.

“For example, the decorative limestone carved capital were found to be in dire need of intervention – the hanging volutes had suffered from heavy erosion, leaving them extremely vulnerable to structural failure.

“To prevent this loss of material, the decayed volutes were slowly and systematically built up with a strong conservation mortar.

“This mortar is a match in colour and composition to the Portland limestone, and will have the dual purpose of helping to maintain the visual aspect of the decorative stone artefact, as well as to
provide the limestone with some enhanced stability.

“This sympathetic intervention will help to maintain the structural integrity of the spire for the future.”

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