Saturday 14 January 2012

Winston Churchill, the Iron Curtain and St Mary Aldermanbury

St Mary Aldermanbury re-erected at Westminster College (author's collection)
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."

So spoke Winston Churchill at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri on March 5th 1946. The wartime Prime Minister, by now out of office, was making his first visit to the United States since losing the Premiership at the General Election of July 1945. Since acceding to the Presidency in March 1945, following Franklin D Roosevelt's death, Truman had become a firm friend and admirer of Churchill. Following his defeat in the 1945 General Election, Churchill was invited by Truman to visit his home state of Missouri and with its British connections, Westminster College seemed the ideal venue for Britain's wartime leader, the consummate parliamentarian, to give his first major post war speech, entitled "Sinews of Peace" in which he would speak of his hopes for the future and to warn the World of the impending Cold War.

Westminster College was founded in 1849 by Presbyterians as Fulton College and given it's present name in 1851. At the time of Churchill's visit, it was not a particularly well known establishment, even within the United States. Churchill's speech expressed his fears that the Soviet Union had designs on Europe that had shattered the ideal of a free, liberated continent. Indeed, a large part of eastern Europe had merely swapped one kind of tyranny for another. Churchill feared another war, and in his speech expressed his hopes for a "fraternal association of the English speaking peoples" to work together in preventing such a war. At the time, the speech was received coolly by some but others, Truman included, embraced Churchill's proposals and within a few short years they were to become accepted American and British policy in the form of the NATO alliance which as well as the English speaking peoples, also embraced all of the non-Communist countries of Europe.

President Truman had predicted that Churchill's speech would place Fulton, Missouri and Westminster College firmly on the map and as the years went by following the speech, senior figures at Westminster College began to think of ways to commemorate both the "Sinews of Peace" speech and also the life of the man who had delivered it. In 1961, the then President of the College, Dr Robert Davidson read an article in Life Magazine about the London Blitz and how large areas of the City of London, including many historic Wren churches, were still derelict and about to be demolished for redevelopment; what Londoners used to call "bomb sites". Soon a plan began to formulate in Davidson's mind to salvage one of these churches and import it to Fulton, stone-by-stone and rebuild it as a suitable memorial to Churchill, who epitomised the spirit of the Blitz and also to the process of renewal, of rising from the ashes of destruction.

The church of St Mary the Virgin, in Aldermanbury in the City of London had been located on this site since 1148. It had been rebuilt in the fifteenth century, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt once again, this time by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677. It was one of the great architect's smaller creations; a parish church, one of whose parishioners had been the notorious 'Hanging Judge' Jeffreys, who had achieved infamy during the "Bloody Assizes" of 1685 following Monmouth's rebellion, where he handed out some three hundred death sentences and transported around eight hundred to the West Indies. Captured following the fall of King James II in 1688, he died in custody at the Tower of London and although originally interred there, his body had been moved to St Mary Aldermanbury in 1692 and buried there, as was his right as a parishioner of that church.

The churchyard also contained a memorial to John Heminges and Henry Condell, also parishioners, who were members of the 'King's Men', the company of actors to which William Shakespeare had belonged and who were both editors of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays. The church itself contained an ancient chest and also an altar piece displaying a picture of the Last Supper by Franck, which had been presented to the church in 1777.

On December 29th 1940, this church, along with thirteen other Wren churches, was destroyed in the Luftwaffe's great fire raid on the City of London, which was later dubbed "The Second Great Fire of London." In this raid, the Guildhall was destroyed, as was St Brides Fleet Street, St Lawrence Jewry, St Alban Wood Street, St Stephen Coleman Street, St Vedast alias Foster and many others as the Luftwaffe dropped 10,000 incendiary bombs onto the City and came within an ace of destroying the financial centre of the British Empire. Only bad weather back in France prevented the bombers returning for what would surely have been a devastating second wave.

On this night, the church of St Mary the Virgin was reduced to a shell. The bones of Judge Jeffreys were reduced to ashes; the ancient chest, the font and the altar piece were all destroyed. Practically the only thing to survive unscathed was the memorial to Heminges and Condell in the churchyard which is still extant to this day.

Some of these grievously damaged Wren churches like St Bride's Fleet Street were to be painstakingly rebuilt after the war, whilst others such as St Alban Wood Street and St Augustine Watling Street would survive in truncated form with just the towers surviving. Others like St Stephen Coleman Street would be lost forever, their memory surviving only in pre war photographs.

It looked as if the Church of St Mary the Virgin would join the ranks of those lost, for it lay derelict for some twenty years after the Blitz; four walls and the spire standing seemingly unloved and by the early 1960s slated for demolition, doubtless to be replaced by another faceless office development. It was at this point that Dr Davidson's plan began to come together. The scheme had Churchill's backing and before he died in 1965, he had written to Davidson stating that the plan to remove and re-dedicate the church at Fulton "symbolized the ideals of the Anglo-American association, on which rest now as before, so many of our hopes for peace and for the future of mankind."

It took four years to raise the necessary three million dollars for the project and to make the plans for the removal of the building. The actor Richard Burton was a major promoter and donor and appeared on the NBC "Tonight" show to make a direct appeal for funding. In 1965, the removal process began; some 7,000 stones were carefully numbered, denoting their exact position in the church and were transported across the Atlantic by sea and onto Fulton, Missouri by rail. Once there, they were carefully rebuilt in what was described as the biggest jigsaw puzzle in architecture. Former President Truman had turned the first shovel in the construction works in 1964, in October 1966, some 300 years after the first Great Fire of London, the foundation stone was laid and by March 1967, construction work of the exterior was complete. The interior fit out took a further two years and working from surviving pre-war photographs, a faithful reconstruction of the interior was achieved. The organ was reconstructed by Noel Mander, the noted organ builder who had served as an Auxiliary Fireman during the Blitz and who had watched the church burn on the night of the 29th December. His familiarity with the pre-war church helped ensure complete authenticity in the rebuild. The church was re-dedicated as a place of worship on May 7th 1969, the same day that the Churchill Memorial, located beneath the church was also dedicated.

Sir Winston Churchill himself did not live to see the church rebuilt and transported to its new location but he would surely have been pleased with the result. The Churchill Memorial and Museum, now augmented by "Breakthrough" a statue incorporating eight sections of the former Berlin wall, that tangible symbol of the Iron Curtain, so memorably described by Churchill at Fulton in 1946. Since Churchill's speech, many other World leaders have followed in his footsteps and spoken at Westminster College; Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and perhaps most notably Mikhail Gorbachev in 1992, when he declared the end of the Cold War, thus adding a neat symmetry to history.

This then, is the odyssey of the Church of St Mary the Virgin. When Harry S Truman predicted to Winston Churchill that his speech would place Fulton, Missouri and Westminster College on the map, it came true in a way that perhaps neither of them could have realised. Likewise, Sir Christopher Wren could never have imagined that one of his churches would be destroyed by fire raining down from the sky delivered by man made machines. Perhaps even more fantastic to him would have been the thought, that once destroyed, his church would rise again having been rebuilt piece by piece in the far off New World.

Today, the footstep of the Church of St Mary the Virgin is a Grade II Listed Building and remains as a delightfully quiet garden in the midst of the City of London, whilst the main fabric of the church fulfils its original purpose in its new location in America.

Published Sources:

Churchill - Roy Jenkins, Macmillan 2001
The Lost Treasures of London - William Kent, Phoenix House 1947
The City Ablaze - David Johnson, William Kimber 1980

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