On this day in 1650, seven barrels of gunpowder stored by the church of All Hallows by the Tower exploded, destroying fifteen houses, and killing sixty-seven people.
The church was originally built in the Saxon period, and considerably added to in the Medieval. It was undamaged in the Great Fire of 1666, thanks to the action of Admiral General Sir William Penn Senior, who ordered the blowing-up of some surrounding buildings to create a firebreak, although it nonetheless required to be rebuilt by Pearson in the late nineteenth century. It was then gutted by bombing in the Blitz of 1940-41, when “the tower of the church acted like a chimney, drawing the flames upwards and intensifying them” and “wood blazed, stones calcinated, lead poured down walls and the bells melted”, and rebuilt again by Lord Mottistone in a “happy blend” of Ancient and Neo-Perpendicular styles, and rededicated in 1957.
A fine Saxon arch of around 675, incorporating Roman tiles, survives in the nave; and two Saxon crosses, one of 900 and the other of 1000, in the crypt (the former plain and simple, and bearing a Runic inscription, and the latter beautifully and intricately carved, and bearing a symbolic depiction of Christ over beasts). Among the many surviving Medieval to post-Medieval features are: substantial sections of tiled floor; an altar table of stone from the Crusaders’ castle at Atlit below Mount Carmel in the Holy Land; a fine Flemish painted panelled altar-piece, known as the Tate Panel, dating to at least the fifteenth century; numerous sculptures, including a carved wooden one of St James of Compostela, dating to the fifteenth century, and a carved ivory one of Christ salvaged from the flagship of the Spanish Armada in 1588; numerous monuments, including the Croke chest, dating to around 1477, and brasses; and the seventeenth-century tower, from which Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of 1666 (noting in his diary entry for Wednesday 5th September, “I up to the top of Barkinge steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation I ever saw”). Also of note are the pulpit, originally from St Swithin London Stone, and dating to 1678; the exquisitely intricately carved lime-wood font-cover by Grinling Gibbons, dating to 1682; a series of ornamental sword-rests, dating to the eighteenth century; and, among the Curiosa, numerous large model ships suspended in the south aisle.
On a macabre note, the headless bodies of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, beheaded on nearby Tower Hill in 1535, and that of Archbishop William Laud, beheaded in 1645, were once temporarily buried here before being moved to their final resting places (Fisher’s and More’s in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, and Laud’s in the chapel of St John’s College, Oxford). Admiral William Penn’s son, also named William, was baptised here in 1644. Famously, he went on to found Pennsylvania in 1681.