This week I made the trip down to London with the goal of exploring Hoxton – to discover the area in which our James lived. My first destination: St Leonard’s church.
My first impressions of St Leonard’s church was it’s grandeur. The front reached up into the blue morning sky on four massive pillars, leading up to a bell tower that I had seen from several blocks away. Difficult to miss. The pavement stones at the bottom of the steps leading up to the main entrance belied the age and history of the building. Inside the entrance, you enter a small foyer leading to two doors that open into the nave of the church. As I entered the church, I felt like an Elvis fan visiting Graceland but with the (faceless) ghost of James walking beside me.
This building was a centre piece in James’s life. This is where he was baptised, married and buried. Most of his family were also buried here. He would have made readings to the congregation. In fact, he was probably here every Sunday of his life. I couldn’t help but imagine each aspect of this as I stood in the foyer peering in.
The nave is made impressive by the galeries circling it. This structure was torn out by the Victorians in 1870, but replaced in its original form and colour in the 1990s. It gives St Leonard’s a Louisiana gospel church-kind of feel, but at the same time could easily I envisage the working class of Hoxton crammed up there each Sunday, while James and his family sat below.
I was extremely grateful to be met in the nave by Rev. Paul Turp, the vicar of St Leonard’s. He is a wealth of information about all things St Leonard’s and our James. He gave me a quick tour, explained how things would have been in the time of James and (bless him) had answers for all my silly questions.
‘Where would James have sat?’
The family would have had a box of pews towards the front, close to the pulpit which would have been in the in the centre of the cross making up the nave.
‘Would James have simply walked across from Hoxton Square each Sunday?’ (it’s only a few hundred meters)
No, he probably had a horse and carriage. The vicar, who lived on Hoxton Square would have taken a horse and carriage. The servants would have walked.
(Servants. Here is a part of James’s life I had not considered)
The vicar shows me the plaque dedicated to James Parkinson, under the galleries. It is larger than I imagined. There is also a plaque on the other side of the church – towards the back – dedicated to William Shakespeare (the other major historical figure associated with the church).
Rev. Turp explained in an email before my visit that to their great frustration they do not know where James is buried. They believe his coffin lies under the nave, along with a few hundred other, placed there by the local authority in the early 20th century. They plan to raise funds to excavate the crypt as part of a larger restoration project.
The church is in need of a fresh coat of paint, but it would be a very worthy act of conservation. St Leonard’s is one of the oldest buildings in Shoreditch (designed by George Dance the Elder – a favourite pupil of Christopher Wren – it was opened in August 1740).
I was very pleased with my visit to St Leonard’s. Having visited the church, the world of James Parkinson feels more real. Rather than simply words in a history book.