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Inventory Site Record

St Leonard's Churchyard Garden (Hackney)

Brief Description

There has been a church on this site from at least the 1140s when it was granted to the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. The current church and Clerk's House date from the 1730s. The birth of English Theatre is said to have originated in Shoreditch when James Burbage leased land in 1576 and built a theatre here, where plays could be performed since it was outside the City walls. Burbage and his sons were all buried in the churchyard, as were many literary and theatrical people and as a result St Leonard's became known as the Actors Church. The churchyard was extended a number of times and after it closed for burials was converted into a public garden in the late C19th. It was laid out with paths, areas of lawn, shrubberies and flower beds; most gravestones were cleared, although some remained along the back of the church and on the north wall of the Clerk's House. C18th cast-iron railings and wrought iron gates remained, and the stocks and whipping post under a thatched roof were in the north west corner of the site.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
St Leonard's Parish Churchyard; The Actors Church
Site location:
Calvert Avenue/Hackney Road, Shoreditch
Postcode:
E1 6JN
What 3 Words:
panic.view.curiosity
Type of site:
Public Gardens
Borough:
Hackney
Open to public?
Yes
Opening times:
unrestricted. Church usually open 12-2pm Mon-Fri
Took part in Open Garden Squares Weekend in 2015.
Special conditions:
Facilities:
Events:
Concerts in church
Public transport:
Rail/Tube (Northern): Old Street. London Overground: Shoreditch High Street. Bus: 26, 35, 47, 48, 55, 67, 78, 135, 149, 242, 243.
Research updated:
01/09/2006
Last minor changes:
19/07/2023

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.hackney.gov.uk; http://shoreditchchurch.wordpress.com/

Full Site Description

There has been a church on this site from at least the 1140s when it was granted to the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate thereafter passing into royal control, and then to St Paul's Cathedral and the Archdeacon of London. The birth of English Theatre is said to have originated in Shoreditch when in 1576 James Burbage leased land at 90 Curtain Road on the corner of New Inn Yard and built 'The Theatre', later rebuilt as The Globe by his sons Richard and Cuthbert in 1598. Plays could be performed here since it was outside the City walls, within which the City Authorities had banned dramatic performance. James (d.1597), Richard (d.1619) and Cuthbert were all buried in the churchyard. As a result St Leonard's became known as the Actors' Church. Among other literary and theatrical people buried here were Henry VIII's Jester, Will Somers; Elizabethan actor Fortunatus Green, whose father called Shakespeare an 'upstart crow'; and Elizabeth, daughter of the poet Philip Sidney and herself a poet, 'nothing inferior to her father in poesy' according to Ben Jonson. In 1913 the London Shakespeare League erected a tablet in the north wall of the church dedicated to those buried. Also buried here was Dr James Parkinson (d. 1824) who first described Parkinson's Disease, and who lived nearby at Hoxton Square (q.v.); he was also baptised and married at St Leonard's.

After the Great Fire of 1666 the old church had become dilapidated, literally disintegrating onto the worshipping congregation at times, and a new church was built in 1736-1740 to designs of George Dance the Elder. The Clerk's House was also erected c.1735. In 1817 it was the first church in London to be lit by gaslight. The bells of St Leonard's were the 'bells of Shoreditch' of the nursery rhyme, formerly 12 with a 13th donated by the Haberdashers Company in 1963. The church has been restored a number of times, in 1870 by William Butterfield, again in 1955 following bomb damage in 1944, and further restoration, including restoration of the C19th railings, began in the late 1990s.

The area of the churchyard was extended in 1671 when adjoining land on the east was granted for use as a burial ground as a result of a donation of £100 to the parish by Thomas Austin. It was further extended in 1792 taking land in Austin Street, and again in 1820 with part of the glebe on the south. The churchyard was converted into a public garden in the late C19th when gravestones were cleared although some remain lined up along the back of the church and on the north wall of the Clerk's House. The C18th cast-iron railings and wrought iron gates remained, and the stocks and whipping post under a thatched roof were in the north west corner of the site. A plaque on the railings has the words 'More Light, More Power', which was the motto of Shoreditch Borough Council and referred to its pioneering work in provision of lighting and energy. The garden was laid out with paths, areas of lawn, shrubberies and flower beds, and there are several notable planes in the west end of the site.

Sources consulted:

Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 4: North (Penguin, 1998); Arthur Mee 'The King's England: London North of the Thames except the City and Westminster' (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1972); Mervyn Blatch, 'A Guide to London's Churches' (Constable, London, 2nd ed. 1995); Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); Survey of London, vol. viii, The Parish of St Leonard Shoreditch, (London 1922); see History section on church website

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ334826 (533485,182633)
Size in hectares:
0.4
Site ownership:
LB Hackney
Site management:
Hackney Parks Service
Date(s):
1736-40; late C19th
Designer(s):
Church: George Dance the Elder; Churchyard Garden: MPGA?
Listed structures:
LBI: St Leonard's Church. LBII: Clerk's House (118 1/2 Shoreditch High Street), railings and gates to north of Clerk's House; walls, gates & railings to churchyard.
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

No
Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

No
Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:

No

Local Authority Data

The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.

On Local List:
No
In Conservation Area:
No
Tree Preservation Order:
No
Nature Conservation Area:
No
Green Belt:
No
Metropolitan Open Land:
No
Special Policy Area:
Yes - Area of Archaeological Priority
Other LA designation:
Open Space

Please note the Inventory and its content are provided for your general information only and are subject to change. It is your responsibility to check the accuracy.