St George’s German Lutheran Church

1763, German Lutheran Church

Contributed by English Heritage

St George’s German Lutheran Church is the oldest surviving German church in Britain. It opened in 1763, and has changed remarkably little since. German immigration to London, much of it by Protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution, had been significant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were several German churches in London by 1700, but these have all now gone.1 Through the first half of the eighteenth century membership of London’s German Lutheran churches doubled to about 4,000. Some of this rise can be attributed to the continuing immigration of those seeking religious asylum, and the additional impact of the arrival of the Hanoverian Court should not be forgotten. However, it was economic migration that was the main basis for the establishment of a German settlement in Whitechapel. Sugar refining in London had been in German hands from its introduction in the mid seventeenth century, expertise in processes previously established in the Hanseatic towns being deployed to build up a substantial sugar-baking industry in Whitechapel and other eastern districts close to the Port of London, into which huge quantities of sugar were being imported from the West Indies. The immigrant German sugar merchants, craftsmen and workers naturally held on to the secrets of their trade, giving it continuity and concentration in these east London locales that were remote from the existing German churches in the City of London and Westminster. By the 1760s there were numerous sugarhouses in the immediate vicinity of Alie Street.2

  1. Johann Gottlieb Burckhardt, Kirchen-Geschichte der deutschen Gemeinden in London (Tübingen, 1798); G. J. R. Cienciala, From many nations: A history of Lutheranism in the United Kingdom (London, 1975).  

  2. Bryan Mawer, ‘Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers Database’, at 

Foundation and Construction
Contributed by English Heritage

The lease of the ‘Little Alie Street’ site was purchased for £500 on 9 September 1762 and the new church was consecrated on 19 May 1763. The principal founder of the church was Dederich Beckmann (c.1702-66), a wealthy sugar refiner, who gave the substantial sum of £650, much the largest single benefaction towards the total of £1802 10s 9d that was raised for purchasing the lease and building the church.1 Beckmann was the father-in-law of the first pastor, Dr Gustavus Anthony Wachsel (c.1735-99). The early congregation was essentially made up of the area’s German sugar bakers and their families, alongside some refugees escaping war in the German provinces.

The church was built by Joel Johnson and Company, which firm was paid £1132 in 1763. The lease aside, this accounted for virtually all the funds that had by then been raised.2 Johnson (1720-99) was a successful local carpenter who had made himself a contracting builder. In 1747 he had worked on a Baptist meeting house further west on Alie Street, and in 1754 he built himself a large workshop near Whitechapel parish church, the site of which on Whitechapel Road is now Altab Ali Park. From 1755-9 Johnson worked under the architect Boulton Mainwaring in the building of the London Hospital further east along Whitechapel Road. He was also said, in an obituary that credited him with ‘many chapels’, to have been the architect of the church of St John, Wapping, in 1756, a building with striking similarities to St George’s. However, it is possible that there too he was working under Mainwaring, who gave evidence about the state of the old Wapping church where Johnson did not. Indeed, Johnson himself related that he began ‘to strike into the business of an architect’ only in 1762. The absence of any record of payment to any other surveyor or architect at St George’s leads to the surmise that this is what he was doing at Alie Street. It cannot, however, be ruled out that Johnson’s firm was working under another designer, perhaps Mainwaring again. Johnson’s wife and infant son died in 1763-4 and he left the conduct of business to a partner, a Mr Langley, ‘troubling myself very little with the carpenters’ business’.3

Johnson & Co. were paid another £494 3s in 1764-5, which probably related to an early extension of the church and the addition of the vestry block. Seams in the brickwork of the east and west walls show that the church was initially intended to be one bay shorter, and that during construction it was enlarged to the north. In keeping with this vaults do not extend under the north end of the church. It is also evident that the extension came during rather than either before or after the fitting out of the interior. Already in May 1763, when the church was consecrated, Thomas Johnson was being paid for a marble slab, probably the floor of the altar dais that survives, and a mahogany frame to a communion table. The box pews, which also survive, were evidently in by February 1764 when Errick Kneller was paid for the painting on them of 159 numbers. Kneller was also paid for painting two boards, presumably those still in place bearing the Ten Commandments in German. Others who received payments in 1764 included Paul Morthurst, carpenter and joiner, Thomas Palmer, plasterer, and Sanders Olliver, mason.4 It is notable that all these building tradesmen, except perhaps Kneller, appear to have been English. In its original architectural forms and constructional details, both outside and in, the church is not evidently German. The timing of all these payments suggests that the main body of the church went up in 1762-3, the north extension following in 1763-4, with the two-storey vestry block to the north-east being added in 1765-6, all complete by 21 August 1766 which date appears on the brick apron to a first-floor window of the vestry block.

  1. Tower Hamlets Local History Library (hereafter THLHL), TH/8662/3, St George’s German Lutheran Church, Financial Summaries 1763-95, ff 1-2.  

  2. Ibid.  

  3. Johnson’s manuscript memoirs are held in the London Borough of Waltham Forest Archives, Acc. 10199. See also Howard M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 (3rd edn, London, 1995), p. 548. Personal communication with Sir Howard sharing his further interpretation of Johnson’s achievements and memoirs.  

  4. THLHL, TH/8662/3, ff. 3-4 and 6. Errick Kneller was not, it seems, a descendant of the German-born Court painter, Sir Godfrey (Gottfried) Kneller (1646-1723). Trained in London, Errick was granted his freedom through the Painter-Stainer’s Company in 1732 having been the ‘servant’ (apprentice) of Gerald Strong. This means that he was born c.1711, perhaps earlier, but not later. When Sir Godfrey died in 1723 he had neither sons nor nephews, leaving his estate to his wife Lady Susanna, and then to his grandson, Godfrey Kneller Huckle, not yet then 21, provided the latter used the surname Kneller. Sir Godfrey’s brother, Andrew Kneller, had daughters (Guildhall Library, MS 5668, Painter-Stainer’s Company Freedom Admissions Register, 1658-1820; The National Archives, PROB 11/594, will of Sir Godfrey Kneller, 6 Dec. 1723; J. Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait (Oxford, 1983), pp. 60 and 182). 

Late Georgian Conflicts and Alterations
Contributed by English Heritage

Despite having been enlarged during construction the church was soon found to be too small to meet early demand. In 1764 Pastor Wachsel was instrumental in securing temporary asylum for 600 Würzburger and Palatine emigrants who had been abandoned en route for America, finding them accommodation in London until they could be redirected to South Carolina.1 Whether or not this was a factor, there was overcrowding in 1768, many worshippers being forced to stand at the back.2 Beckmann, who is said to have been buried in a vault under the communion table, had left the church a further £500 when he died in 1766.3 Another legacy was discord between his son-in-law, Wachsel, and the other vestrymen. This led to a riot in the church on 3 December 1767. There were deep disagreements about the management and use of the church. This dispute, or Parteienkrieg as it was called, extended to liturgy, the nature of music in the church and the question of whether services should be held in English or in German. Wachsel introduced German hymns, then English hymns, and then sermons in English. Next he discharged the German choir and introduced ‘violins, trumpets, bassoons, and kettledrums’, this in spite of having his theological roots in German Pietism, which had moved away from complex church music. As if this was not bad enough the musical performances were said, with indignation, to have been accompanied by the eating of ‘apples, oranges, nuts, etc, as in a Theatre’. The church allegedly ‘become a place of Assignation for Persons of all descriptions, a receptacle for Pickpockets, and obtained the name of the Saint George Playhouse’.4 Amid fights and death threats a congregation that had been more than 400 had fallen to 130 by 1777. Despite an overwhelming vote for his dismissal in 1778 Wachsel held on to his post by going to law. Acrimony rumbled on. Having desisted for a time, Wachsel reintroduced music in 1786. At this point he was accused of violently assaulting the bellows blower. Another judicial intervention in 1789 ruled that Wachsel had misused the building, but arguments about the use of English continued up until his death in 1799.5

Early alterations to the fittings at the north (liturgical east) end of the church may have to do with this power struggle. In 1784 a payment was made towards ‘a Cloth Communion Table’, perhaps the canvas reredos that carries the text of John 14.6.6 That this is in German is perhaps significant. At some point after the reredos was introduced and before 1802 the railed sanctuary was made smaller, bringing communicants closer to the altar, but accommodating fewer. This may be explained through Pietism, which would have stressed preaching and personal devotion, while de-emphasising weekly communion. On the other hand, perhaps it was a pragmatic or ergonomic change, or even a matter of making space for the kettledrums. At the other end of the church two small curved-front upper galleries, possibly for children or a children’s choir, were put up on columns to either side of a small organ. This could have been a very early change, from the late 1760s when there was great demand for seating. The account of the dispute reveals that there was a bellows blower by 1786, and the organ was certainly present by 1802, by when there may have been renewed demand for seats. The previously mobile reader’s desk had been fixed to the north wall by this later date. In 1796 £55 2s 6 was spent on ‘repairing and fitting up the chapel, parsonage and other appurtenances’.7

The land immediately to the east of the church has always pertained to it. Much of it was a burial ground in the Georgian period, though there were perhaps always other buildings along the Alie Street frontage. A substantial three-storey eighteenth-century house immediately to the east was the pastor’s house. Beyond, a much narrower clerk’s house was repaired or rebuilt in 1805 when a single-storey school replaced stable and coach-house buildings further east, perhaps to designs by Samuel Page (1771-1852), a surveyor who drew a plan of the site in 1802 when deliberations about the future of the adjoining ground were underway. The foundation had included ‘German and English Schools’ from 1765, but it is unclear where the earlier school was accommodated. These ancillary buildings appear in a watercolour view of the Alie Street frontage in 1821 that is kept in the vestry.8

Wachsel’s successor, Dr C. E. A. Schwabe, was responsible for the school building of 1805. Schwabe was also the chaplain to the Duchess of Kent, Queen Victoria’s mother, who was the patron of the schools and who is said to have worshipped regularly at St George’s. Through his 44-year pastorate the German community in Whitechapel continued to grow, and other churches came into being. From 1809 there was a German Catholic church, dedicated to St Boniface. Rebuilt in 1958-60 this continues on Adler Street, nearby to the east. In 1819 St Paul’s German Protestant Reformed Church opened on Hooper Square, just to the south, the congregation having its origins among late seventeenth-century Calvinist refugees from the Palatinate. The church was rebuilt on Goulston Street in 1887 and destroyed in 1941, the congregation then moving to St George’s.

  1. E. Alfred Jones, The Old Silver Sacramental Vessels of Foreign Protestant Churches in England (London, 1908), p. 34.  

  2. THLHL, TH/8662/3.  

  3. THLHL, TH 8662/3, f. 3; National Archives, PROB 11/921 for Beckmann’s will.  

  4. THLHL, TH 8662/56, ‘Statement of Facts on behalf of Elders and Vestrymen of German Lutheran Chapel’, n.d., with letter from the church committee to the parish about the judicial ruling, 25 July 1789.  

  5. TH 8662/4, St George’s German Lutheran Church, Minutes and Proceedings at Vestry Meetings, 1796-9.  

  6. THLHL, TH 8662/3, f. 26v.  

  7. THLHL, TH 8662/3, ff. 20v, 21v; TH/8662/4; TH/8662/241, plan and section of 1885; TH 8662/244, lease of 30 January 1802 with plan by Samuel Page, surveyor; TH/8662/279, St George’s German Lutheran Church, expenditure book, 1796-1826.  

  8. THLHL, TH/8662/4a, St George’s German Lutheran Church, Minutes and Proceedings at Vestry Meetings, 1799-1815; THLHL, TH/8662/244; ‘A Front View of the St George’s German Church, Minister’s House and School in Little Alie Street, Goodman’s Fields’, watercolour of 1821 in former committee room over vestry. 

Restoration in 1855
Contributed by English Heritage

A painted tablet under St George’s west gallery, put up in 1856 and made by a Mr Cook for £5 14s,1 explains in German changes that had then taken place. Translated it relates: ‘1 SAM 7.12/ Hitherto hath the Lord helped us/In the year 1855/through voluntary contributions from the members of this parish and German and English friends the sum of £2465 18s was collected in a few weeks and administered by John Davis as Treasurer. With this sum the church was completely renovated and beautified, the foundations for the capital assets of the parish lain, and the continuance of this place secured for many years.’ This happened under the leadership of Dr Louis Cappel (1817-1882), pastor from 1843 to 1882, who had come from Worms and was of Huguenot descent.

The restoration arose from a need to renew the 61-year lease that had been acquired in 1802. The appeal for money was launched on 7 June 1855, with the statement that ‘It is a long time since any repairs have been done to the building; and in order to put it into proper condition, an outlay of £300 or £400 will be required.’2 The successful fund-raising was broadly based, seemingly drawing primarily on Whitechapel’s still strong sugar-baking German community. It remained the case that ‘the Elders and Wardens of the Church consist almost exclusively of the Boilers, Engineers and superior workers in the Sugar Refineries.’3 Mid nineteenth-century attendances were said to be about 400 to 500, of which about 250 paid pew rents. A sub-committee of five led by Cappel managed the restoration; three of the others – Martin Brünjes, William Prieggen and Claus Bohling - were local sugar refiners. The church was closed for the building works during July and August 1855. Costs escalated and legal difficulties held up renewal of the lease; it was September 1856 before the congregation was asked ‘to bear testimony to the present condition of the building and the propriety of its decoration.’4 The works had been supervised by J. Cumber, who was also surveyor to the Phoenix Fire Office,5 and £540 was paid to the builders, William Hill and J. Keddell. In all £771 was spent on restoring the church. This included replacement of all the original leaded-light windows, and top-to-bottom redecoration, including refurbishment of the pews and the marbling of the columns.6 James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars were paid £53 for two stained-glass windows, a Crucifixion that is now in the south wall, and an answering Ascension that has been lost. These originally flanked the Commandment Boards at the north end of the church.7

Given the considerable expense of this restoration it is interesting that the interior was not more substantially altered, particularly when the generally radical and doctrinaire character of mid nineteenth-century English church restorations is recalled. Box-pew seating was reviled by the contemporary Anglo-Catholic revival. It is important in this context to note that there is no reason to suppose ecclesiological influence in a German Lutheran church. Indeed, there was no Catholic revival in Lutheranism until the early twentieth century, and iconoclastic attitudes persisted through the nineteenth century.8 Lutheranism aside conservatism in church liturgy and architecture is entirely to be expected in an enclosed immigrant group like the Whitechapel German community. After the late eighteenth-century Parteienkrieg over the introduction of Anglican style worship it may not be unreasonable to see the conservatism of the 1850s as being more than just old- fashioned. Perhaps it reflected a conscious desire to steer away from any kind of liturgical innovation, especially as might be connected to Anglicanism.

  1. THLHL, TH/8662/7, St George’s German Lutheran Church, Minutes and Proceedings at Vestry Meetings, 1851-69.  

  2. Ibid.  

  3. Ibid.  

  4. Ibid.  

  5. THLHL, TH 8662/419, item 24, letter from J. Cumber to the Church Committee, 17 Sept. 1855; Architect’s Directory, 1868.  

  6. THLHL, TH 8662/419, item 27, ‘Specification of works proposed, etc., June 1855.’  

  7. Historic Chapels Trust files (hereafter HCT), report on the stained- glass windows by Dr Michael Kerney.  

  8. Nigel Yates, Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900 (Oxford, 1991, revd 2000), p. 26. 

The Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
Contributed by English Heritage

There was little physical change to the church through the rest of the nineteenth century. In 1859 an infant school was built on what had been the burial ground east of the church. This was a gift of W. H. Göschen, a banker who was the son of Goethe’s publisher, and the father of G. J. Goschen, who became an eminent politician as a Liberal MP for the City of London and the first Viscount Goschen. Then in 1877 the whole frontage east of the church was redeveloped as large new junior schools, with E. A. Gruning, himself an immigrant German, being the architect.

The organ in the south gallery of the church was replaced in 1885-6, the new instrument also displacing the late-Georgian upper galleries in works supervised by Gruning. Made by E. F. Walcker, then of Ludwigsburg, for £353, this organ survives in an enlarged form following repairs that included a new console, carried out by the same firm in 1937. It was restored by Bishop & Son in 2003-4. Space for enlargement within its case was gained by moving the wooden pedal pipes from inside to against the south-west window, and by removing part of the foot-blowing mechanism, of a type rare in Britain, the remains of which survive disconnected on the east side of the case. Several parts from the original console survive on the gallery.1 The loss of the upper galleries and the earlier removal of a pew behind the southernmost columns suggest declining attendances in the late nineteenth century. By the 1880s the local sugar industry had dwindled from 30 establishments to three, and those who could afford to do so moved away from Whitechapel, a part of the East End that had become notoriously rough. London’s German population as a whole rose from 16,082 in 1861 to 27,290 in 1911, the East End remaining a focus for settlement, if only because most immigrants arrived in the docks. Whitechapel’s German community shifted gradually from dependence on sugar baking to a range of other and more standard trades, becoming known for its butchers, bakers and domestic servants. From 1891 to 1914 Pastor Georg Mätzold (1862-1930) rebuilt the parish, religion being, as ever, paramount in cultural continuity for new immigrants. In the years up to 1914 St George’s was said to be the most active German parish in Britain, with average congregations of about 130.2

Repairs undertaken in 1910 under the supervision of Frederick Rings, another German architect, included the replacement of the vestry windows with those now in place. These are ‘“Stumpfs” Reform Sash Windows’, made to the patented designs of Abdey, Hasserodt and Co., ‘builders of portable houses’.3 The deliberate employment of German architects and contractors through this period is distinct from practice at both earlier and later times. In 1912 there was a fire in the building adjoining to the north. The Powell windows were damaged, and the Ascension presumably destroyed. They gave way to the present Heaton, Butler and Bayne windows, the Crucifixion of 1855 being moved to its current south-wall location, rearranged to fit in a three-light opening.4 Other acquisitions from this period that are still in the possession of the church include a silver orb with an engraving of the façade of the church, a brass cross and candlesticks for the altar, probably designed by Alexander Koch (1848-1911), and a bible donated by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913.

The war years of 1914-18 were a difficult time for the parish. Among the English there was enormous anti-German sentiment, often unthinking, though its local intensity is more readily understood when Zeppelin raids on the East End are recalled. Many in the congregation returned to Germany in 1914, and others were interned. Mätzold stayed and continued services in the church, also taking on a pastoral role in internment camps. Continuity broke down in 1917 when the school was forced to close and Mätzold was expelled from the country. He was unable to return until 1920, from which date he quietly held together a much-diminished congregation until his death in 1930.5

  1. THLHL, TH 8662/34 and 241; HCT, report by and information from John H. Bowles.  

  2. Der Londoner Bote, Sept. 1962, pp. 3-9; Panikos Panayi, ‘The Settlement of Germans in Britain during the Nineteenth Century’,  

  3. THLHL, TH 8662/9, Vestry Minutes, June to Oct. 1910; TH 8662/23, item 12, letter from Abdey, Hasserodt & Co., 19 Sept. 1910; Post Office Directory, 1911.  

  4. THLHL, TH 8662/23, item 26, 34-49, correspondence, etc., 1912.  

  5. Der Londoner Bote, Sept. 1962, pp. 5-15. 

From 1930 to 2004
Contributed by English Heritage

Part of Mätzold’s caution through the insecure 1920s had been the deferral of necessary repairs. It was not long before his successor, Dr Julius Rieger, from Berlin, was obliged to deal with this problem. An extensive programme of repair work was begun in 1931, moving gradually as funds became available. Rieger took an early opportunity to pay tribute to his predecessor. The south end of the church under the gallery was re-organised in 1932 to create a committee room that was inaugurated and remains known as the Mätzoldzimmer. In 1934 W. Horace Chapman, architect, conducted investigations of the roof and turret that discovered rot and woodworm. On the instructions of the District Surveyor the bell turret and the coved ceiling were dismantled.1

By this time Rieger had more to worry about than woodworm. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 presented expatriate Germans with difficult questions. Rieger was an associate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), the leading theologian and opponent of National Socialism, who spent the years 1933 to 1935 serving as pastor to London German congregations in nearby St Paul Goulston Street and in the German Evangelical Church in Sydenham. Rieger’s parish became a relief centre, providing a base for advice and shelter for German and Jewish refugees, particularly children, also sending off references for travel to England. During the 1939-45 war German churches in Britain were not generally persecuted as they had been in 1914-18. It is nonetheless notable that at St George’s services continued uninterrupted right through the war. Whitechapel was not only heavily bombed; it was also the heart of London’s Jewish community. The church, which escaped any significant bomb damage,2 was kept full into the 1950s, London’s German community having been reinforced by the new wave of refugees. Rieger’s successor in 1953 was Pastor Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s student, friend and biographer. His mentor had been hanged in April 1945 at Flossenburg concentration camp.

Attendance at St George’s declined in the later decades of the twentieth century. In 1970 plans were drawn up by J. Antony Lewis, architect, proposing a major re-ordering that would have removed the pews and all but the west gallery.3 Mercifully this was not carried through. In 1996, when there were only about twenty left attending regularly, Pastor Volkmar Latossek led the congregation into a merger with that of St Mary’s German Lutheran Church, Bloomsbury. The church no longer being used for regular worship, its important library, the core of which was Pastor Wachsel’s private collection, was transferred from its home in the Alie Street vestry to the British Library, where it remains intact, incorporating some rare, indeed unique, German publications, and serving as a valuable record of German community life in London over more than 200 years.4 The church archives were deposited at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library. Having a fine musical tradition the church also amassed and retains an interesting collection of Protestant church sheet music.

To secure its future St George’s Church was taken into care by the Historic Chapels Trust in 1999, and an extensive restoration programme costing £900,000 was carried out between June 2003 and July 2004.5 This work, which included reinstatement of a ceiling like that removed in 1934, was supported by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, St Paul’s German Evangelical Reformed Church Trust and other private donations. Architects to the scheme were Daniel Golberg and Brian Lofthouse of Thomas Ford & Partners and the building contractors were Kingswood Construction. Reinstatement of the tower was considered, but grant support for that work was not forthcoming. The former congregation has an agreement with the Trust to use the church for occasional services of worship. HCT has established a local committee for St George’s that will be arranging concerts, lectures and other suitable activities in the building. The Chairman of the local committee is George Little.6

  1. Deutsche Lutherische St. Georgs-Kirche, fund-raising leaflet, April 1934; THLHL, TH 8662/229 and 230, correspondence etc, 1931-3.  

  2. THLHL, TH 8662/231, war damage file, 1941.  

  3. THLHL, TH 8662/234, scheme for re-ordering, March 1970.  

  4. ‘St George’s Lutheran Church Library’, at  

  5. HCT; Church Building, May-June 1999, pp. 44-5.  

  6. Jennifer Freeman, Daniel Golberg and Brian Lofthouse, ‘Conserve, Restore, Repair’, Church Building (82), July/Aug. 2003, pp. 16-19. 

Archives of St George's German Lutheran Church
Contributed by mbarrhamilton

The extensive archives of this church are held at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Contributed by English Heritage

Little has been taken away from the interior of the church that was built in the 1760s. The furnishings are remarkably unchanged. Box pews still fill the floor, and the galleries that stand on eight Tuscan timber columns still loom overhead round three sides of the building. This is a simple Protestant layout, and a church in which the most has been made of limited space, to pack as many people in as possible. There is no central aisle and more of the building’s width is galleried than is not.

Looking past the density of the fitted joinery, perhaps seated in one of the pews, the eye is drawn to the north (liturgically east) wall and its essentially original ensemble of pulpit, Commandment Boards and Royal Arms. The central raised pulpit stands above and immediately behind a railed altar, in an arrangement that may seem compressed to English eyes, but which is typically Lutheran. To emphasise the interdependent centrality of preaching and sacrament in its worship Lutheranism tended to favour bringing the altar and the pulpit as close together as possible, often with the altar raised on a dais, as it is here.1 The pulpit’s position allowed the pastor to address the galleries as directly as the rest of the congregation. It comprises a shaped desk with a backboard and a large tented canopy or tester, atop which there flies a dove. It has always been approached by the stairs to its right (east), but to start with it would have seemed less hemmed in, and more as if floating above the altar against the panelled back wall. The visual relationship of the pulpit and altar changed when the painted canvas reredos was introduced, perhaps in 1784. Gilded with vine leaves and the text of John 14.6 in German within a laurel wreath, this is a precious survival. Some time soon after this was done, and before 1802, the already small railed sanctuary in front of the pulpit was slightly reduced in size, the communion rails with their turned balusters being moved marginally in on all three sides, enabling communicants to come closer to the altar. The altar table was always three steps up, but it was originally on a relatively small dais with a black-and- white pattern marble floor, with the rails on the outer edge of a larger second step that was wide enough for the pastor to walk round it inside the rails. The reorganisation enlarged the dais, placing the rails outside a timber extension. Another early alteration, possibly of c.1796-9 and again certainly from before 1802, was the fixing of reader’s and clerk’s desks immediately to the left (west) of the pulpit. The reader’s desk, perhaps also the clerk’s desk, was being relocated. It had been mobile previously, and it still has casters on the bases of its corner posts, seen during restoration work but once again hidden from view. The clerk’s desk was removed in 1855, its lectern being shifted to the other side, seemingly just for the sake of visual symmetry. The stairs to the reader’s desk had to be remade at this point, and it appears that the cheekpieces and balustrade of those leading to the pulpit were also similarly remade.2

In a prominent position above all this are the splendid gilt Royal Arms of King George III, in the form that they took up to 1801, and presumably work of the 1760s. Unique in a German church in England, these Arms seem to be a clear assertion of loyalty to the Crown on the part of Whitechapel’s German community. However, it should be recalled not only that King George was the Elector of Hanover, but also that, however genuine and general loyalty might have been, it veiled opposition on the part of the great majority of the congregation to the use of the English language. It has to be wondered whether through these Arms Beckmann and Wachsel were making a point. Flanking the tester are the sumptuously framed Commandment Boards, gilt texts in German, exquisitely lettered, probably by Errick Kneller in 1763-4. Outside these there are stained-glass windows depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension, made in 1912 by Heaton, Butler and Bayne.

Considered more closely the joinery of the body of the church does betray some small changes. Panelling along the sidewalls breaks before the north bay, in line with external seams in the brickwork, and steps down at the same point in the galleries, indications of the late change of plan that extended the church northwards in 1763-4. The restoration of 1855 included the graining and re- numbering of the pews, replacement of some top rails in mahogany, the removal of lamp or sconce holders (leaving mortices that can be seen to have been filled), and the removal of latch and lock plates. A large pew to the northwest was divided, cut down in height, cut back and carefully repaired so as to leave little trace of alteration. The enduring numbering of the pews and the survival of the church archives make it possible to trace who sat where in the church.

Under the south gallery is the committee room that was formed in 1932, known as the Mätzoldzimmer in honour of the pastor who died in 1930, memorialised on a wooden board. The creation of this room involved the loss of two large pews and circulation space.3 The panelling on the inner sides of the two entrance passages was extended northwards as far as the southern pair of columns, as is evident in construction breaks in both the panelling and its cornices. The eighteenth-century panelled partition that encloses the north side of the committee room has been turned around; it presents its fair raised-and-fielded face to the room rather than to the church. Pews on the other side of the columns were taken out, to create a narrow passage between the committee room and the remaining pews. Another more southerly pew had already been removed. Lighting the committee room from the south wall is the Powell & Sons Crucifixion window of 1855, as reorganised when it was moved from the north wall in 1912. The window was designed by George Rees and the borders of stamped jewel work are the first recorded instance of a technique that became a Powell speciality.4 The cast-iron framed side wall and south gallery windows with red and blue margin glazing were installed in 1855.

The entrance vestibules both retain their original staircases, with closed strings and turned column-on-vase balusters, solid joinery that in the 1760s was ‘old fashioned’ in terms of London’s more style-conscious West End practice, but still entirely usual in east London. Upper winders have been replaced with straight treads, probably in 1885-6 when the organ was replaced.5 The Greek-key-pattern linoleum on the south-west staircase may also survive from the works of 1855; it is an early example of the use of this kind of flooring. The vestibule doors leading into the church retain early self-closing mechanisms. A blocked doorway under the southeast staircase originally led directly into the pastor’s house. It is worth going up to the galleries, to see the organ, more eighteenth-century seating, and the whole church from a different perspective. Behind the gallery pews at the north end curtains kept out draughts from the northern staircases. Above the recently reinstated coved ceiling, and not visible to the visitor, there is a timber king-post truss roof that is essentially as built in the 1760s. The roof space also retains fittings for the support of an early central chandelier, long gone and of which no depictions have come to light.

Many monuments and memorials can be seen around the church. On the north wall near the reader’s stairs there is a tablet to the principal founder, Dederich Beckmann, his sons and his wife. Given the Parteienkrieg controversy that followed his death it is no surprise that this is in English, and that his sons’ names were Anglicised to William and Henry. There is also a floor slab to the Beckmanns in front of the sanctuary. Under the east gallery an oval tablet commemorates Dr Louis Cappel, the pastor through much of the Victorian period. Further round on the east wall there is a relatively humble plaque to Dr Gustavus Anthony Wachsel, the controversial first pastor, inevitably in English. On the west wall a framed panel commemorates the restoration of 1855 and there is a tablet in the form of a scroll to Dr C. E. A. Schwabe, the second pastor, both in German. At the south end of each outer row of pews there are sets of benefaction boards. These commemorate many gifts to the church, including a £50 donation from King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1842.

A doorway near the northeast corner of the church leads into the vestry. It is worth a look at the patent grooved counterweight sash windows of 1910 and, climbing the winder staircase that was timber framed until 1855, the first- floor committee room retains its original plain panelled walls, cornice and fireplace surround.6

  1. Yates, op. cit., p. 27.  

  2. THLHL, TH 8662/419, item 27; TH/8662/244.  

  3. THLHL, TH/8662/241 and 244.  

  4. HCT, report by Dr Michael Kerney.  

  5. THLHL, TH 8662/241.  

  6. THLHL, TH/8662/244; TH 8662/419, item 27. 

Contributed by English Heritage

The south front of the church to Alie Street has handsome eighteenth-century proportional dignity even though since 1934 it has lacked its crowning features, the clock that was at the centre of the pediment, the bell turret above and the large weathervane in the shape of St George and the dragon. The central lunette may once have been glazed, though an organ soon blocked it. The lettering, ‘Deutsche Lutherische St Georg’s Kirche Begründet 1762’ in Gothic script, is a renewal of an earlier inscription. The original form of this elevation, which can be seen in photographs, corroborates the link with St John Wapping, whether it was Joel Johnson, Boulton Mainwaring or both who were responsible for the designs. The two uppermost stages of the former turret were smaller versions of the upper stages at Wapping, and both churches had identical eyebrow cornices over their clocks. The other elevations of St George’s are quite plain.

A door at the foot of the vestry staircase leads to a small courtyard that until 1855 was the chapel’s cemetery. From here looking back at the vestry it can be seen that the red-brick apron to the first-floor committee-room window is inscribed with the names of vestrymen, the Wachsels and the Beckmans to the fore, and the date 21 August 1766. Enclosing the other sides of the courtyard are the former infants’ school of 1859 to the east, and the plain back elevation of the rather larger red-brick former junior schools which front onto Alie Street, and which have been converted into flats.

Memories of working at St George’s German Lutheran Church
Contributed by Survey of London on July 3, 2018

Contribution by Steve Pilcher.

I had the pleasure and privilege to work as Deputy Director in the Historic Chapels Trust’s office at St George’s German Lutheran Church from 2004 to 2016.

Walking down from Aldgate East tube station, amongst the hubbub of 21st century life and rapid change on nearby building sites, St George’s is an oasis of calm. Stepping through the door, you instantly realise you have, in effect, stepped back into a ‘time warp’.  The interior has changed little in over 250 years. The wooden box pews fill the church and lead the eye to the pulpit with the Royal coat of arms perched above, a rarity in a non-conformist place of worship.

The Historic Chapels Trust oversaw the restoration of the church, at a cost of £866,000, the work was completed in 2004.  One of my first jobs was to help organise the opening ceremony, where the  Duke of Gloucester was the guest of honour. Inevitably this involved me opening up early for a visit by ‘Special Branch’ and a top to bottom search of the church with sniffer dogs.

My role when working in the office at the church involved liaising with architects, builders and volunteers at the other 19 buildings in HCT’s care to help co-ordinate the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings and encourage events to take place. One of the joys of working at St George’s was making time to talk to visitors and learn about their interest in the church. Sometimes visitors would have travelled from as far away as the USA etc. One particular gentleman regularly visited every two to three years from Australia – as one of his ancestors had been married in the church in the 19thcentury and his name was on the benefaction boards.

The church stands witness to the wisdom and courage of the local east London German community who in the 1930’s supported the then pastor, Julius Rieger, to help people who were fleeing persecution in the post 1933 Nazi controlled Germany.  One day the son of Pastor Busing paid a visit.  Pastor Busing had ‘spoken out’ against Hitler and needed to leave Germany. Julius Rieger had offered him the post of Curate at St George’s in the late 1930’s so that Busing and his fiancee (who was half Jewish) could find a safe haven from persecution in Nazi Germany. Pastor Busing had emigrated to Canada after WWII and his son had come over from Canada to retrace his father’s footsteps and left a copy of a book, written by his mother, detailing the escape to London in the 1930’s and the help given to her and her husband by Pastor Rieger and the congregation.   St George’s also had a connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and scholar who is commemorated in a statue above the entrance door at Westminster Abbey.  Bonhoeffer had been a pastor at St Paul’s church in nearby Goulston Street between 1933-35 and he and Rieger had worked together in the project to help people fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany.

Work in the office at St George’s could have its interesting and amusing episodes, especially from a practical point of view.  Back in 2011 we found ourselves beset by some embarrassing problems with the drainage system. After a heavy downpour we found that the kitchen area was getting flooded by the drains ‘backing up’ into the small rear courtyard. On one particular occasion, I and another colleague ended up forming a ‘ human bucket chain’ through the church, to bale out water from the rear yard, to avoid it flooding into the church.  After months of ‘badgering’ Thames Water, they finally investigated the problem and to our surprise and horror it was established that another utility company, when changing their pipework in front of the church, had severed the waste water pipe and not reconnected it.  Thames Water had to close the street for nearly a week and dug a large hole in order to reconnect. The moral of this tale is always to watch what is going on in any holes being dug outside your property and ask what is going on!

The church was taken on by the Historic Chapels Trust as unfortunately the congregation had declined in number to around 20 people by the 1990’s and it was not longer economically viable as a congregation and no other congregation wanted to use the church due to the inflexible layout of the fixed wooden box pews that are such an important part of the church’s history and character. HCT have been supported by an active group of local friends, led by Sigrun Shahin, a member of the former congregation.  The local friends group have since 2004 organised an interesting programme of talks, concerts and exhibitions – the highlight for me being the annual Christmas Carols concert – which has over the years attracted up to 100 people to the building and the event has always ended with a carol in German – in tribute to all those from a German background who had worshipped at the church.  I always found it particularly moving when it ended with a rendition of ‘Stille nacht’.

Bollards on Alie Street, 1984
Contributed by Survey of London on June 2, 2017

This photograph by Jean Thomas, bollard enthusiast, was taken in 1984 and is now in Tower Hamlets Archives. It is looking east along Alie Street and was taken outside the side door of The Dispensary on Leman Street, with the church door visible on the left and the 1970s NatWest data centre (dem. 2011) visible on the right. The bollards are still there.

St George's German Lutheran Church and school beyond in the 1920s
Contributed by Historic England

Facade, August 2017
Contributed by Derek Kendall

St George's German Church, Minister's House and School, Alie Street, in 1821 (based on a painting by Dolfer)
Contributed by Helen Jones