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 London.

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

The 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 Tower

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.