“…anchored among the red-brick Queen Anne houses of the weavers.” So John Betjeman described Christ Church, Spitalfields, in The Collins Guide to English Parish Churches.
The Grade I listed church was built following an Act of Parliament in 1711, which legislated for the building of fifty new Church of England churches on the perimeter of London, where new populations were settling. The churches were to be built with tall spires, summoning the migrants to an Anglican form of service and away from the folly of Dissenters.
Christ Church Spitalfields was built between 1714 and 1729 by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, in an area which was then dominated by Huguenots. One of the main issues of dissenting communities was that in failing to pledge loyalty to the Church of England, they thereby failed to pledge loyalty to the king. A vibrant and growing population so close to London had to be called to heel.
At first many of the Spitalfields Huguenots continued to worship in their own plain chapels, only using the ornate Christ Church as a place to formalise baptisms, marriages and burials. Over time, however, they assimilated with local Anglican families, and many began to worship in the church as well.
The land around the church is now the size of a pocket handkerchief, but it used to be far bigger. Altogether 68,000 people were buried within the church grounds. One of them was an ancestor of mine – Pierre Finet, who died in 1739, just ten years after the church was finished. 67,000 of the total were buried outside the church, but a thousand were granted a place inside the church crypt. These places were paid for, often by people who were afraid of body-snatchers.
If only Pierre Finet had been able to afford that privilege, we would now know a great deal about him. When the church was restored at the end of the twentieth century, the burial vaults in the crypt had to be cleared of its skeletons. Thanks to local interest in the church, funds were raised for an archaeological team to excavate the graves between 1984 and 1986. The remains of a thousand people were forensically analysed - archaeologists and anthropologists picked over the bones, researching the health and causes of death of this very specific local population, in what was to become a landmark study.
The results were published in 1993 by the Council for British Archaeology and can be found here:
The Spitalfields Project: Volume 1 the archaeology: across the Styx by Jez Reeve and Max Adams and The Spitalfields Project: Volume 2 the anthropology: the middling sort by Theya Molleson and Margaret Cox with A H Waldron and D K Whittaker. In 1996, a more popular account was published as Life and Death in Spitalfields 1700 to 1850 by Margaret Cox.
Sadly I don’t know what happened to Pierre Finet’s bones, or what he ate for breakfast. He was born in Amiens, France, and was probably not well off – I have no record of his occupation, but he may well have been a weaver. His grand-daughter married into a Huguenot weaving family, the Bacheliers, and they allow me to claim that gold standard in Huguenot heritage: descent from Spitalfields silk weavers.