St George’s German Lutheran Church

1763, German Lutheran Church

St George's German Lutheran Church
Contributed by Survey of London on July 31, 2020

St George’s German Lutheran Church on the north side of what was Little Alie Street is the oldest surviving German church in Britain. It opened in 1763, and has changed remarkably little since. As has been said, ‘the inside keeps the feeling of the eighteenth century in a way that few English churches do’.1

German immigration to London, much of it by Protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution, had been significant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and there were several German churches in London by 1700.2 Through the first half of the eighteenth century membership of London’s German Lutheran churches doubled to about 4,000. Some of this increase can be attributed to the continuing immigration of those seeking religious asylum, and the arrival of the Hanoverian Court had an additional impact. However, economic migration was the main basis for the establishment of a German settlement in Whitechapel. Much of the refining of Caribbean sugar imports 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 the sugar-baking industry that was substantially based in Whitechapel. By the 1760s there were numerous sugarhouses in the vicinity of Alie Street. Immigrant German sugar merchants, craftsmen and labourers held on to the secrets of their trade, giving it continuity and concentration in a district remote from existing German churches in the City and Westminster.

Foundation and construction of the church

The lease of the Alie Street site was purchased for £500 on 9 September 1762 and the new church was consecrated on 19 May 1763. The principal founder was Dietrich Beckmann, a wealthy sugar refiner, who gave £650, much the largest single benefaction towards the total of _£_1,802 10 9 that was raised for purchasing the lease and building the church. Beckmann (_c._1702–1766) was the uncle of the first pastor, Dr Gustav Anton Wachsel (_c._1737–1799). 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.3

Joel Johnson built the church. He was paid _£_1,132 in 1763, which with the lease accounted for virtually all the funds then raised. Johnson (1720–1799) was a successful local carpenter who had made himself a contracting builder with a large workshop at Gower’s Yard. He had probably been responsible for the Presbyterian Chapel of 1746–7 at the west end of Great Alie Street. At the same time he worked with Isaac Ware on the London Infirmary on Prescot Street, and in the late 1750s he was involved in the building of the London Hospital to Boulton Mainwaring’s designs. 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 to Mainwaring’s designs. 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 for Alie Street’s German church. It cannot, however, be ruled out that Johnson was working under another designer, perhaps Mainwaring again.4

Johnson & Co. were paid another £_494 3_s. 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 painting 159 numbers on them. Kneller was also paid for painting two boards, certainly those still in place bearing the Ten Commandments in German. Kneller, not evidently related to Sir Godfrey (Gottfried) Kneller, the German-born Court painter, was apprenticed in London to Gerald Strong and granted his freedom through the Painter-Stainers’ Company in 1732. Others who received payments in 1764 included Paul Morthurst, a carpenter and joiner, Thomas Palmer, a plasterer, and Sanders Olliver, a mason.5 All the building tradesmen, except perhaps Kneller, appear to have been English. Accordingly, in its original architectural forms and constructional details, both outside and in, the church is not evidently German. The timing of the 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 of a first-floor vestry-block window, along with the names of vestrymen, Beckmanns and Wachsels to the fore. This window faces a courtyard that until 1855 was a burial ground, the land immediately east of the church having always pertained to it.

The front of the church to Alie Street has handsome sub-Palladian proportional dignity, even though since 1934 it has lacked its crowning features, a clock that was at the centre of the pediment, a bell turret above, and a large weathervane in the shape of St George and the dragon. In its original form this elevation bears out a link with St John Wapping. 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 central lunette below may once have been glazed, though an organ soon blocked it. Its present lettering, ‘Deutsche Lutherische St Georg’s Kirche Begründet 1762’ in Gothic script, is a renewal of an earlier inscription. The other elevations of St George’s are plain. East of the church on Alie Street was Wachsel’s substantial three-storey pastor’s house, replaced by a school building in 1877.

Church interior

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 line three sides of the building. With a simple Protestant layout, the most has been made of limited space. There is no central aisle, and more of the building’s width is galleried than is not.

Past this density the eye is drawn to the north (liturgically east) wall and its essentially original ensemble of pulpit, commandment boards and royal arms. The central pulpit stands above and immediately behind a railed altar, in an arrangement that 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.6 The pulpit, raised to allow the pastor to address the galleries as directly as the rest of the congregation, 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 east, but to start with it would have seemed less hemmed in, apparently floating above the altar against the panelled back wall. The altar dais was originally relatively small, three steps up, with a black-and- white pattern marble floor. Originally the turned-baluster communion rails were on the outer edge of a large second step that was wide enough for the pastor to walk round.

In a prominent position above the pulpit are the splendid gilt Royal Arms of King George III, in the form that they took up to 1801, 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 noted not only that King George was the Elector of Hanover, but also that, however genuine and general loyalty might have been, there was opposition from a majority of the congregation to Beckmann and Wachsel’s preference for use of the English language. Through these Arms the founder and pastor may have been making a point. Flanking the tester are the sumptuously framed commandment boards, their gilt texts in German, exquisitely lettered by Kneller in 1763–4.

The entrance vestibules both retain original staircases, with closed strings and turned column-on-vase balusters, solid joinery if somewhat old-fashioned in the 1760s. A blocked doorway under the south-east staircase originally led directly into the pastor’s house. Panelling along the side walls, which breaks before the north bay, in line with external seams in the brickwork, and steps down at the same point in the galleries, indicate the late change of plan that extended the church northwards in 1763–4. Above a restored ceiling there is a timber king-post truss roof that is essentially that built in the 1760s. The roof space also retains fittings for the support of a central chandelier, long gone and of which no depictions are known. The first-floor committee room in the vestry block retains its eighteenth-century plain panelled walls, cornice and fireplace surround.

Late Georgian conflicts and alterations

Beckmann died in 1766, leaving the church a further £_500. On the north wall near the reader’s stairs there is a commemorative tablet in English, to him, his sons and his wife, and there is also a floor slab in front of the sanctuary; he is said to have been buried under the communion table. Despite having been enlarged during construction the church was soon found to be too small to meet early demand. There was overcrowding in 1768, many worshippers being forced to stand at the back. Another legacy of Beckmann’s was disagreement between his nephew, Wachsel, and another nephew, Nicholas Beckmann, who had the support of other vestrymen. This dispute about authority led to a violent confrontation in the church on 3 December 1767. Wachsel saw his opponents off, but from 1770 found himself embroiled in a wider and long- lasting _Parteienkrieg, as it was called, that extended to liturgy and the nature of music in the church, as well as to the question of whether services should be held in English or in German. In spite of his theological roots in German Pietism, which had moved away from complex church music, Wachsel introduced hymns, first in German then in English, and then sermons in English. Next he discharged a German choir and introduced ‘violins, trumpets, bassoons, and kettledrums’. The musical performances were said to have been accompanied by the eating of ‘Apples, Oranges, Nuts etc as in a Theatre’. The church allegedly ‘became a place of Assignation for persons of all descriptions a receptacle for Pickpockets and obtained the name of the Saint George Playhouse Goodman’s Fields’.7

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 1799.8 Wachsel has a humble plaque on the east wall, its inscription in English. Early alterations to the fittings at the north end of the church may have to do with this power struggle. In 1784 a payment was made towards ‘a Cloth Communion Table’,9 seemingly identifiable as the canvas reredos, a surprising survival, that is gilded with vine leaves and the text of John 14.6, in German within a laurel wreath. At some point after this reredos was installed and before 1802, possibly in the late 1790s, the already small railed sanctuary was made smaller. The communion rails were moved marginally in on all three sides, and the dais was enlarged with a timber extension to meet the rails. This brought communicants closer to the altar, but accommodated fewer. This might be explained through Pietism, which would have stressed preaching and personal devotion while de-emphasising weekly communion, or it might have been simple pragmatism. It may be relevant that in 1796 £_55 2_s. 6_d._ was spent on ‘repairing and fitting up the chapel, parsonage and other appurtenances’.10

At the other end of the church there were two small curved-front upper galleries, possibly for children or a children’s choir, on columns to either side of a small organ. It is possible that these were always present, but given the blocked lunette it is likely that they were an early change, perhaps from the late 1760s when there was great demand for seating, or from 1778–9 when small sums were spent repairing the church. The account of the Parteienkrieg indicates that there was an organ by 1786. An organ was explicitly present in 1802 when reader’s and clerk’s desks were fixed immediately west of the pulpit. The reader’s desk, at least, was being relocated. Its previous mobility is evident in the survival of casters on the bases of its corner posts.11

Benefaction boards at the south end of each outer row of pews commemorate many gifts to the church, including a _£_50 donation from King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1842. Through the long pastorate of Wachsel’s successor, the Rev. Dr Christian E. A. Schwabe, from 1799 to 1843, during which services were in German, the German community in Whitechapel continued to grow, and other German churches were established near by. A German Catholic church with its origins in Wapping in 1808 moved to its present location on Mulberry Street and Adler Street in 1861 where the Church of St Boniface continues. St Paul’s German Protestant Reformed Church opened on Hooper Square in 1819. This congregation, its church rebuilt on Goulston Street in 1887 and destroyed in 1941, was thereafter merged into that of St George’s.

Restoration of the church in 1855

A framed tablet under St George’s west gallery, put up in 1856 and made by a Mr Cook for £_5 14_s., has a painted inscription that 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 18_s. 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 who was of Huguenot descent.

The restoration of 1855 arose from the renewal of a sixty-one-year lease that had been acquired in 1802. 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’. 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’.12

The works had been supervised by J. Cumber, who was also surveyor to the Phoenix Fire Office,and £_540 was paid to the builders, William Hill and J. Keddell. In all £_771 was spent on the restoration of the church, which included complete refenestration and redecoration.13

Cast-iron framed side-wall and south gallery windows with red and blue margin glazing replaced original leaded-light windows. In addition James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars were paid _£_53 for two stained-glass windows that were designed by George Rees. These were a Crucifixion and an Ascension that originally flanked the commandment boards at the north end of the church. In 1912 the Ascension was destroyed and the Crucifixion was moved to the south wall, reorganised to fit into a three-light opening. There it retains borders of stamped jewel work that are the first recorded instance of a technique that became a Powell speciality.14

The redecoration of 1855 included the marbling of the columns, 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 north-west 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. The clerk’s desk was removed, its lectern being shifted to the east side, seemingly for the sake of visual symmetry. The stairs to the reader’s desk thus had to be remade, and it appears that the cheek-pieces and balustrade of those leading to the pulpit were also similarly remade. On the south-west gallery staircase Greek-key-pattern linoleum may also survive from 1855 as may self-closing mechanisms on the vestibule doors leading into the church. Finally, the vestry block’s winder staircase, previously timber framed, was enclosed in brick.15

Given the extent and considerable expense of this restoration it is notable 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, but 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.16

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 the conservatism of the 1850s perhaps reflected a conscious desire to steer away from any kind of liturgical innovation, especially any that might be connected to Anglicanism.

The church from 1855 to 1930

There was little physical change to the church through the rest of the nineteenth century. The organ in the south gallery was replaced in 1885­­–6, the new instrument also displacing the upper galleries in works supervised by E. A. Gruning, the German architect of the church’s new schools (see below). Made by E. F. Walcker, then of Ludwigsburg, for _£_353, this organ survives, in an enlarged form following repairs carried out by the same firm in 1937. It was restored by Bishop & Son in 2003–4.17

The giving up of the upper galleries and the earlier removal of a pew behind the southernmost columns suggest declining attendances in the late nineteenth century. From the 1860s the local sugar industry saw dramatic decline, and many of those who could afford to do so moved away from Whitechapel. However, London’s German population as a whole almost doubled in the half century to 1911. Whitechapel’s German residents were now occupied across a range of trades. From 1891 to 1914 Pastor Georg Mätzold (1862–1930) rebuilt the congregation and 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 130.18

Repairs undertaken in 1910 under the supervision of Frederick Rings, another German architect, by G. J. Howick, a Catford builder, included the replacement of the vestry windows with ‘“Stumpfs” Reform Sash Windows’, made to the patented designs of Abdey, Hasserodt and Co., ‘builders of portable houses’.19  In 1912 a fire in the building adjoining to the north led to the replacement of the Powell windows with stained glass by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, again depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension. Other acquisitions from this period were 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). Kaiser Wilhelm II donated a bible in 1913.20

The First World War was a difficult time for Whitechapel’s Deutsche Kolonie. Many of the congregation’s members 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 1930.21

The church after 1930

Part of Mätzold’s caution through the insecure 1920s had been the deferral of necessary maintenance. His successor, Dr Julius Rieger, from Berlin, was obliged to undertake an extensive programme of repair work 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. The formation of this room involved the loss of two large pews and circulation space as the panelling on the inner sides of the two entrance passages was extended northwards as far as the southern pair of columns. The eighteenth-century panelled partition that encloses the north side of the committee room has been turned around to present 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.22

In 1934 W. Horace Chapman, architect, conducted investigations of the roof and turret that discovered rot and woodworm. On the instructions of F. W. Charles Barker, Whitechapel’s District Surveyor, the bell turret and the coved ceiling were dismantled by J. Jennings & Son Ltd.23

By this time Rieger had more to worry about than woodworm. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 presented expatriate Germans with dilemmas. Rieger was an associate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), a young but eminent theologian and opponent of National Socialism, who served from 1933 to 1935 in London as pastor to German congregations in 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 Second World 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. The church escaped significant bomb damage and was kept full into the 1950s, London’s German community having then been reinforced by a 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, but 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.24

St George’s Church was facing an insecure future. The Historic Chapels Trust, established in 1993 to protect disused non-Anglican places of worship, took it into care in 1996, and an extensive restoration programme costing _£_866,000 was carried out in 2003–4. This 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. Thomas Ford & Partners (Daniel Golberg and Brian Lofthouse) were the architects, and the building contractors were Kingswood Construction. The work included the reinstatement of a coved ceiling, like that removed in 1934. Reinstatement of the tower was also considered, but grant support for that was not forthcoming.25

The Historic Chapels Trust used the vestry as an office from 2005 and established a local committee for St George’s that arranged concerts, lectures and other activities in the building. The former congregation has had leave to use the church for occasional services of worship. Since 2018 the Churches Conservation Trust has supported the Historic Chapel Trust’s continuance.26

  1. Elizabeth and Wayland Young, Old London Churches, 1956, p.295. This account is closely derived from Peter Guillery, ‘St George’s German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel’, Georgian Group Journal, vol.14, 2004, pp.89–103, which was based on an account of the church prepared by English Heritage for the Historic Chapels Trust for use as a guide to the building. 

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

  3. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), TH/8662/3, ff.1-2; TH/8662/56 

  4. Waltham Forest Archives, Acc.10199: THLHLA, TH/8662/3, ff.1-2: H.M. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600–1840, 1995 (3rd edn), p.548 

  5. THLHLA, TH/8662/3, ff.3–4 and 6: London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), CLC/L/PA/MS05668: The National Archives (TNA), PROB11/594/269: Ancestry: J. Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait, 1983, pp.60,182 

  6. Nigel Yates, Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900, 1991 (2000 edn), p.27 

  7. THLHLA, TH/8662/56; TH/8662/3, f.3: TNA, PROB11/921/158: Philip Broadhead, ‘Contesting Authority and Assimilation within Lutheran Churches in Eighteenth-Century London’, London Journal, vol.40/1, 2015, pp.1–20 

  8. THLHLA, TH/8662/4 

  9. THLHLA, TH/8662/3, f.26v 

  10. THLHLA, TH/8662/4; TH/8662/279; TH/8662/244 

  11. THLHLA, TH 8662/3, ff.20v,21v; TH/8662/241; TH/8662/244 

  12. THLHLA, TH/8662/7 

  13. THLHLA, TH/8662/419, items 24 and 27: Architect’s Directory, 1868 

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

  15. THLHLA, TH/8662/419, item 27; TH/8662/244 

  16. Yates, Buildings, Faith and Worship, p.26 

  17. THLHLA, TH/8662/34 and 241: HCT, report by and information from John H. Bowles 

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

  19. THLHLA, TH/8662/9; TH/8662/23, item 12: LMA, District Surveyors Returns (DSR): Post Office Directories 

  20. THLHLA, TH/8662/23, items 26,34–49: Information from George Little 

  21. Der Londoner Bote, Sept. 1962, pp.5–15 

  22. THLHLA, TH/8662/229–30; TH/8662/241 and 244 

  23. HCT,Deutsche Lutherische St. Georgs-Kirche, fund-raising leaflet, April 1934: DSR 

  24. THLHLA, TH/8662/231; TH/8662/234: parish-life-in-london-and-an-east-end-church-library.html 

  25. Church Building, May–June 1999, pp.44–5: Jennifer Freeman, Daniel Golberg and Brian Lofthouse, ‘Conserve, Restore, Repair’, Church Building, vol.82, July/Aug. 2003, pp.16–19 

  26. Information kindly supplied by Steve Pilcher: /historic-chapels-trust-continue-be-supported-churches-conservation-trust 

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

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

St George's German Lutheran Church, plan as built in 1762–6, drawing by Helen Jones based on a measured survey by Andrew Donald
Contributed by Survey of London