**"When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch...'**
Apparently the rhyme originally referred to 'Fleetditch' and the bells were those of St Brides. Why it changed appears to be unknown.
The suburb of Shoreditch seems to have begun in late Saxon times, at the junction of two Roman roads leading to Bishopsgate. The earliest known reference is to 'Soerditch' in the mid twelfth century, and this may have meant a sewer.
Originally a medieval foundation, probably associated with a nearby Priory, St Leonards Church grew up in an area that was to become famous for being the birthplace of the English theatre. It was close enough to the City for easy access, but outside the jurisdiction of the pious aldermen and sheriffs who viewed such displays of public entertainment with suspicion. Similar developments were taking place south of the Thames at Southwark. After the Priory had been dissolved, the first playhouse since Roman times was constructed in its grounds during 1576 by James Burbage. It was known simply as 'The Theatre', a name now used to describe all playhouses. Two years later, a rival was opened along the same road. This was known as 'The Curtain', possibly because it stood in the shadow of the Priory's curtain wall. Not as successful, this was eventually purchased by Burbage and his two sons, Richard and Cuthbert. When the lease for the land on which The Theatre stood expired and renewal was refused, the enterprising Burbage brothers dismantled their building and carried it to Southwark,where it was rebuilt as 'The Globe'. The Curtain continued into the 1640's, when it fell victim to Puritanism.
Stow wrote about St Leonards in his Survey, listing members of the noble Houses of Westmoreland and Rutland who had been buried in the church. He also commented upon an example of ecclesiastic greed: '...of late one vicar there, for covetousness of the brass, which he converted into coined silver, plucked up many plates fixed on the graves, and left no memory of such as had been buried underneath them, a great injury to both the living and the dead, forbidden by public proclamation, in the reign of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth, but not forborne by many, that either of a preposterous zeal or of a greedy mind spare not to satisfy themselves by so wicked a means.
Although St Pauls Covent Garden is proud to call itself the Actors' Church, St Leonards is the original, due to its connection with the two earliest theatres. The first known entertainer to be buried in the churchyard was Will Somers, court jester to Henry VIII, and he was followed by many of Shakespeare's friends, business partners and fellow actors. When Richard Burbage, the greatest tragedian of his age and the first to play Hamlet, was laid here in 1619 his gravestone carried a simple but fitting two word epitaph: 'Exit Burbage'.
By the eighteenth century, the old medieval church was delapidated and a replacement was needed. The Palladian style was all the rage and the architect, George Dance the Elder (creator of the Mansion House), designed a church similar to that which was being erected by Flitcroft at St Giles In The Field: a large brown-brick building with a splendid porticoed front and a tall, dominating steeple.
During its construction, the Church became the site of the first strike in the building trade. This came about because local builders refused to work for the low wages that were being offered, so Irish workers were brought in from outside the parish. This led to anti-Irish riots, and the militia had to be called out to disperse a mob of about 4,000. The new Palladian church was finally completed in 1740, looking pretty much as it does today. In 1817 it became the first church to be lit with gaslight, and in 1824 a local worthy named James Parkinson was interred in the yard. He was a doctor who was born, baptised, married and worked his entire life in the parish, and his name survives to this day because of his 'Treatise On The Shaking Palsy', an illness which is now known as Parkinson's Disease.
I found my visit to St Leonards left me with mixed feelings. It is the first Actors' Church, yet - unlike its equivalents at Southwark Cathedral and Covent Garden - it seems determined to keep its historical theatrical connections a secret. The portico and the steeple are certainly impressive to look at, especially the spire with its slender, graceful soaring into the sky, but otherwise the exterior shows no sign of the colourful and vibrant history of the area. The churchyard is mostly cleared, partly landscaped at the rear, and its one curious fixture - the Shoreditch village stocks - have now been removed elsewhere. This lethargy is not confined to the church - the sites of the Theatre and the Curtain, in nearby Curtain Road, are marked only by easily overlooked plaques unveiled in 1994 by Sir Ian McKellan.
St Leonards does possess an Actors Memorial, but sadly even this is not on prominent display. It is kept in a side room of the church, although vergers will show interested parties. It lists the men of the theatre who rest within the precints of the church: Will Somers the jester, James Burbage and his sons Richard and Cuthbert, the famed Elizabethan comedian Richard Tarlton, the actor Gabriel Spencer who died fighting a duel with Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare's business partners William Sly and Richard Cowley.
Nowadays, Shoreditch is undergoing something of a regeneration. The church was recently spruced up, new railway links are being constructed and celebrity chefs are opening restaurants in the area. Perhaps with this regeneration may come more visible recognition that the parish and its church have just as important a place in the history of acting as the South Bank and Covent Garden. I live in hope...
Author Mark McManus
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