History of St. Augustine's Tower
The tower is all that remains of the old church
of St. Augustine, which was built at the end of the thirteenth century
when Hackney was a village separated by fields from the City of
During the 17th century the dedication changed
to St. John. Why the change of name? The Knights Templar, a military
order, were important landowners in Hackney, and probably gave the
land on which the church was built. They were influenced by the
writings of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. After the order was
suppressed in 1308, their estates passed to another military religious
order, the Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of St. John, and this
led to the church being renamed St. John-at-Hackney. In turn, the
Order of the Knights of St. John was dissolved during the Reformation,
and its property in Hackney passed to other owners.
The Tower and Church
plan shows the church of St. Augustine in the 17th century, with
the tower at the west corner of the church. During the 16th and
17th centuries, the church was extended by the addition of the Rowe
chapel at the south side of the chancel, and the vestry at the other.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the congregation grew considerably,
and the church became more crowded. Galleries were added in the
mid-17th century, and there were other piecemeal additions to increase
the seating capacity during the 18th century. Although the seating
had been increased to 1,000 by 1789, this was still insufficient
for the large congregation, and the Vestry secured an Act to rebuild
in 1790. An Act was required to increase the church rate as a way
of financing the new building. The rate in Hackney was increased
to 3d in the pound, leading to protests from some ratepayers.
The new church of St. John-at-Hackney
(which is the one we know today), designed by James Spiller, was
begun in 1791 and completed in 1797. It was built without a steeple.
One was eventually completed in 1814, but the bells stayed in St.
Augustine's Tower for another forty years because the new steeple
was not strong enough to bear their weight. The bells were finally
moved to the new church after it was underpinned in 1854.
Next to the old church was
the Church House, also known as Urswick's House. This was demolished
in 1797 and replaced by the first Hackney Town Hall in 1802, later
the HSBC Bank. To the south of the Church House stood the 'cage',
a strong wooden cell for the temporary detention of prisoners, and
just beyond the lych gate stood the whipping post.
Once the new church was built,
the old church became redundant, and was demolished in 1798 when
the materials were sold off. The tower should have been demolished
as well, but was left standing to house the bells. It was reported
that the demolition was too tough a job for the contractor and 'happily
no one pressed him to fulfil his contract'.
Restoration of St. Augustine's
In 1929, Hackney Council bought the tower from
the church to save it from demolition. Since then, some maintenance
work has been carried out: in 1933, the battlements were repaired
and some of the stone facings were replaced. In 1983, the tower
was renovated under the Urban Programme Environment Project's 'Facelift'
scheme. More recently, the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust, with
support from the Heritage of London Trust, Hackney Council and the
EC, has been able to restore the clock and make the interior of
the building safe. In 2005, major restoration works financed by
the HLF and LB Hackney were undertaken to install a permanent exhibition,
and open the roof to the public.
For further information, please contact The Hackney
Historic Buildings Trust on 020 8986 0029.