Crafting St Paul’s: A historic delivery

Today at the Cathedral View More
8:00am Holy Communion
10:00am Choral Mattins
11:15am Sung Eucharist
3:00pm Choral Evensong
4:30pm Sunday Organ Recital
5:30pm Eucharist
6:00pm Cathedral closes

Crafting St Paul’s: A historic delivery

It is the afternoon of Friday the 11th August 1972, and the Thames sailing barge ‘May’ – one of the last of her kind in operation – is carrying a very special 50-ton consignment of limestone up the river on the final leg of its journey from the Isle of Portland. Having docked at Sunlight Wharf at 3.30pm, the stone is unloaded onto a horse-drawn cart and slowly transported across Upper Thames Street and up Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral. Any observer of this scene might feel they were stepping back in time or onto a film set (that is, I suppose, if it weren’t for the major thoroughfare that is Upper Thames Street that now lies between Cathedral and river). In fact, this event was deliberately intended to recreate the journey of Christopher Wren’s chosen stone from its south-coast quarry to the top of Ludgate Hill throughout the construction of the Cathedral between 1667 and 1708.

The transportation of the stone by river had a whiff of nostalgia about it, as well as being eminently practical. The route taken by the stone was the same as that used by Wren, and the river has been and remains to this day the most efficient way of transporting material for city construction. But there was another significant factor that impacted the planning of this operation. The 50-ton load was part of a greater consignment of 800 tons destined for the Cathedral and it was – quite remarkably – the remainder of Wren’s original lot prepared in 1698. Cut and shaped in place at the quarry and carved with Wren’s mark – an upturned wineglass – it was clearly identifiable as part of his allocation. It had lain untouched and unused for over 250 years with the successors of the original Wiltshire firm who supplied the stone, before it made its final journey to its intended home in 1972.

This discovery and delivery was a welcomed one at the time. In the 1970s the Cathedral was looking to undertake major essential repair and restoration work to the exterior of Wren’s building, and plenty of Wren’s stone of choice was required to do this. This proved slightly problematic as the stone was becoming scarcer, and demand for it was high where it was used, such as at Westminster Abbey, who were the other main buyers competing with St Paul’s. The discovery of the stone, and the offer of it as a gift to the Cathedral, was a great help, and the transportation, organized by the then Surveyor to the Fabric, Bernard Fielden, provided a useful PR event for the ongoing ‘Save St Paul’s Appeal’, which sought to raise 1.4 million pounds of funds for the restoration work. The entry in the Minutes of the meeting of the Cathedral Chapter on 5 July 1972 notes “Stone Transportation Operation: [Chapter] agreed to approve the Surveyor’s arrangements for the delivery on 11 August by Thames Barge. PR consultants to be alerted about publicity.”

LEP Transport, the firm named after its founding partners of 1910 - Longstaff, Ehrenberg and Pollack - were tasked with the carriage and unloading of the stone into Sunlight Wharf. This story came to our attention recently when I was contacted by a former employee of LEP Transport seeking further information about the transport. He recalled that there was a dock strike in place at the time, and the labour force, who broke strike to carry out the work, donated their wages to the St Paul’s Appeal. One of the workers – a gentleman aptly bearing the name of Christopher Wren - was entrusted with handing over the cheque from LEP. Our enquirer shared an LEP news item recording the event, which was also well-reported by The Times. Unfortunately, we’ve not yet found any photographs of the stone-laden wagon on its way up the hill!

The remarkable similarity of the 1972 delivery with Wren’s original operation could not be achieved today, due as it was to a configuration of the waterfront that was to be rapidly consigned to history itself within 15 years. The wharf used by Wren – the aptly-named Paul’s Wharf - was reserved by Dean Sancroft and Christopher Wren in 1671 for use during the Cathedral’s construction. Dating back to Roman times, Paul’s Wharf was one of the oldest wharfs on the Thames (John Schofield, The Medieval Port of London). In 1972, Sunlight Wharf boasted the last remaining waterfront crane on the Thames, and was owned and operated by LEP, who also had their head office on the waterfront at Sunlight Wharf from 1922 until 1986 when the wharf building was demolished to make way for new construction. The crane itself, the main concession to modernity for our stone delivery, was dismantled in 1982 ahead of the construction of the City of London School. The whole area south of St Benet’s Welsh Church, where once Paul’s Wharf (and a great many others) used to be is now the school which occupies the entire site. If you stand on the Millennium Bridge facing St Paul’s and look down at the waterfront to your right and left, you’re looking at the area where Sunlight Wharf and Paul’s Wharf operated.

This was an event of quite some significance in the history of the Cathedral building, seeing as it did the arrival of the last of the stone purchased by Wren after a 250-year interval. Despite this, however, the event is not one that is readily remembered, appearing to have dropped out of the Cathedral’s recent memory - partly because staff and clergy of that period have now retired, and there has been little record of the event retained in the Cathedral Archive. And yet looking back on it now, it seems quite a historic event which serves to link the Wren period with our own, bringing alive a little bit more of the Cathedral’s remarkable history. 

For this reason, we are very grateful to have been informed about it, and to be able to take the opportunity of London Craft Week to share the story more widely, partly in the hope that perhaps it may elicit further memories or records from others who were there, and help us add to our collective memory of the event.

Vanessa Bell
Cathedral Archivist