Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Sad Little Story of ‘Poor Old Kate’


Alas, a raging flu prevents my poor brain from functioning properly and writing the promised post about Eamon Duffy’s Marking the Hours, which will have to be deferred till Saturday. Apologies.

But allow me to fill today’s slot with a sad little story: that of ‘poor Old Kate’, and her thousands of unfortunate neighbours.

Queen Matilda, wife of Stephen of Blois, established St Katharine’s by the Tower in the mid-1100s. St Katharine’s began life as a small foundation to commemorate Queen Matilda’s dead young sons. It grew into a monastery, charitable institution and hospital, built very close to the Tower of London. By the 15th century, it had become a Liberty: a bustling religious community with its own jurisdiction. (A very informative essay about the history of St Katharine’s here.)

It survived Henry VIII, the fire of 1666, and the Gordon Riots, but in 1825, St Katharine’s by the Tower was demolished to make way for St Katharine’s Dock. It wasn’t merely an architectural tragedy – the historical value of this ancient spot was incalculable – but a human one as well: over 10,000 poor people were evicted from their homes, most of them turned out on the streets without any compensation or aid.

I first became aware of the destruction of St Katharine’s by the Tower from the following letters to the editor from 1825, lamenting its fate. I thought I’d post them here, as they are such a good historical example of a very modern problem: that of the futility of resisting the ‘unfeeling and encroaching hand of Commerce’.


The first two are from The Gentleman’s Magazine (addressed to the pseudonymous editor ‘Sylvanus Urban’).


Nov. 1.

Mr. Urban,

On the 30th of October the beautiful Collegiate Church of St. Katherine by the Tower finally closed, previously to its destruction by the St. Katherine’s Dock Company. Though earnest appeals were in vain made to Parliament for its preservation, it has recently been much visited by persons of taste and high rank; and, indeed, may be said to have very strongly excited the public attention.

On the morning of the Sunday above-mentioned, the edifice was crowded by a most numerous congregation; so that many retreated from want of room. A Sermon alluding to the circumstances was delivered by the Rev. R. R. Bailey. His text was from James, iv. 13, “Go to now, ye that say, to-day or to-morrow we will go into such city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell and get gain.” The uncertainty of human projects, and the frailty of our best-formed designs, formed the theme of the discourse. The approaching destruction of the temple by “the unfeeling and encroaching hand of Commerce” was briefly, but touchingly, remembered; and many a breast among the congregation was deeply affected.

The service was concluded with a hymn sung by the “sixty poor children of the precinct”, and the melody received a great increase of interest from the reflection, that the fine-toned and celebrated organ was on the morrow to be pulled down.

Yours, &c.



Nov. 3.

Mr. Urban,

On the afternoon of Sunday last, I attended the last performance of Divine service in the devoted Church of St. Katherine by the Tower. The Clergyman who officiated made no allusion to the sacrilegious destruction of the Church, nor to the cupidity which allowed it. After the concluding Amen, the whole congregation pressed forward through the arch which once sustained the rood-loft, to the chancel, and that portion of the building soon exhibited a moveable mass of people, filling up every corner: the former sacredness of the now desecrated edifice did not prevent the expression of just feelings of indignation against the ruthless destroyers of the ill-fated building, and more particularly when the majestic organ, to be broken up on the morrow, pealed forth the anthem of God save the King. So warm were the feelings of the admirers of the old Church, that even a relic of it seemed a valuable acquisition; and some paltry modern Gothic ornaments attached to the altar-rails were eagerly snatched off by the first who could get them, and a piece of red velvet at the altar, with a tarnished glory, was pulled down and distributed among the many who sought for a remembrance of the venerated building. I then thought that the sale of the materials would produce less than the jobbers expected, and at the same time I could not help admiring the natural good sense which always marks the English character in every expression of popular feeling. Although the scene appeared somewhat to savour of disorder, no attempt was made to injure the stalls or monuments: the threadbare velvet and the painted deal ornaments of the modern altar-rails satisfied the somewhat too eager endeavours of those whose anxiety to preserve a vestige of their condemned favourite, led them somewhat beyond the strict limits of propriety. I could not help contrasting their conduct with that of the individuals who have accomplished the destruction of this sacred building. Can it be expected, I thought, that an undertaking founded in a spirit of paltry opposition, and supported by sacrilege, will answer? To one who looks on the consecration of a Church as something more than a mere form, – who regards the ceremony as a solemn dedication of a building to the Almighty, and to His use alone, – the destruction of such a building, for the purposes of speculation, is doubly execrable; – a building endeared by its venerable age, by the splendid and elegant specimens of ancient carvings and sculpture within its walls, and as preserving in its collegiate chapter a memento of times and usages long gone by and forgotten.

Your late and ever-to-be-lamented Correspondent John Carter is spared the pain of witnessing this destruction. Could he rise from his grave and behold the fine old Church destroyed, and the materials scattered about as rubbish, what pain would it give him! He once rejoiced at its preservation from an infuriated mob, excited by fanaticism, to attempt its destruction; how would he have grieved to behold its fall merely to swell the lists of the speculations, to which the present time has given birth. Painful it is to reflect that at this moment the work of destruction is going on; that a few months will behold the bones of the pious, the titled, and the more humble and numerous tenantry of the Church-yard, scattered about by the careless hands of laborers, and eventually sunk in the mud which will occupy the site, to be turned up at every repair and cleansing of the place.

When the remaining ashes of Dr. Andrew Coltée Ducarel, the late venerable Commissary of St. Katherine’s, shall be disturbed; let the Innovators tremble lest his ghost should haunt their pillows.

Turning from the Church, let us view the thickly peopled precinct surrounding it – see the poor man, the honest humble labourer, driven from his habitation to seek his lodging miles perhaps from the station of his work, toiling after a day of hard labour to reach a distant suburb, while the purchasers of the ground on which his home once stood, are eagerly grasping at profits and anticipating luxuries from their undertaking.

Happily for other buildings which we are taught to view with a sort of veneration, the publick are heartily tired of the bubbles which have been every day blown for their delusion. If the ominous word “Discount” had not dissipated the shadows which have been raised, who could say where future sets of projectors might stop? The destruction of this Church having established a precedent, we might have seen some future Company petitioning Parliament to appropriate the “building, called St. Paul’s Cathedral,” for a pawnbroker’s warehouse , or some other receptacle of lumber which they might require.

I have heard a report that every thing which can be preserved from the old Church is to be transferred to the new building intended to be erected in that fashionable area of patrician magnificence, the Regent’s-park, where a Gothic Church is to rear its head amidst those paragons of plaster in the shape of Italian palaces and Grecian villas which occupy the site of that highly-favoured spot. I can easily imagine an edifice, rich in all that comp and painted deal can make it, run up in some corner next door perhaps to a tall house in a different, but not less ludicrous, style of architecture, possessing an appearance so equivocal that it may be mistaken for a lodge or a dog-kennel, or perhaps as completely puzzling the spectators for an appropriation as that pile of absurdity in Langham-place. Now, if the Chapter have the advice of an architect of taste, they will have it still in their power in some measure to preserve their Church. There can be little doubt that the whole of the columns, arches, and other architectural details in the present building might with a little care be removed and re-constructed in the new situation. This would be some atonement for the destruction we now deplore. As soon as the works are in a state of forwardness, I will visit the site of the intended Church, and watch the proceedings, and at a future period shall have occasion again to address you.

Yours, &c.



The following is a letter to the editor of The Every-Day Book:

Oct. 29, 1825.


The ancient and beautiful collegiate church of St. Katharine finally closes tomorrow, previous to its demolition by the St. Katharine’s dock company. The destruction of an edifice of such antiquity, one of the very few that escaped the great fire of 1666, has excited much public attention. I hope, therefore, that the subject will not be lost sight of in your Every-Day Book . Numbers of the nobility and gentry, who, notwithstanding the earnest appeal was made to them, left the sacred pile to its fate, have lately visited it. In fact, for the beauty and simplicity of its architecture, it has scarcely a rival in London, excepting the Temple church: the interior is ornamented with various specimens of ancient carving; a costly monument of the duke of Exeter, and various others of an interesting kind. This interesting fabric has been sacrificed by the present chapter, consisting of the master, sir Herbert Taylor, three brethren chaplains, and three sisters, to a new dock company, who have no doubt paid them handsomely for sanctioning the pulling down of the church, the violation of the graves, and the turning of hundreds of the poor deserving people out of their homes; their plea is, that they have paid the chapter. I hope, sir, you will pardon the liberty I have taken in troubling you with these particulars; and that you will not forget poor Old Kate, deserted as she is by those whose duty it was to have supported her.

I remain,

Your obedient servant,


P.S. There is no more occasion for these docks than for one at the foot of Ludgate-hill.

And I quote from the editor’s response:

To some of the many present the building was endeared by locality, and its burial ground was sacred earth. Yet from thence the bones of their kindred were to be expelled, and the foundations of the edifice swept away. For eight centuries the site had been undisturbed, save for the reception of the departed from the world – for him whose friends claimed that there “the servant should be free from his master,” or for the opulent, who, in his end, was needy as the needy, and required only “a little, little grave.” Yet the very chambers of the dead were to be razed, and the remains of mortality dispersed, and a standing water was to be in their stead. The preacher, in sad remembrance, briefly, but strongly, touched on the coming demolition of the fane, and there were those among the congregation who deeply sorrowed. On the features of an elderly inhabitant opposite to me, there was a convulsive twitching, while, with his head thrown back, he watched the preacher’s lips, and the big tear sprung from his eyes; and the partner of his long life leaned forward and wept; the bosoms of their daughters rose and fell in grief; matrons and virgins sobbed; manly hearts were swollen, and strong men were bowed.

After the sermon “sixty poor children of the precinct,” for whose benefit it was preached – it was the last office that could be celebrated there in their behalf – sung a hymn to the magnificent organ, which, on the morrow, was to be pulled down. They choralled in tender tones –

“Great God, O! hear our humble song,

An off’ring to thy praise,

O! guard out tender youth from wrong,

And keep us in thy ways!”

These were the offspring of a neighbourhood of ill fame, whence, by liberal hands, they had been plucked and preserved as brands from the burning fire. It seemed as though they were about to be scattered from the fold wherein they had been folded and kept.

While the destruction of this edifice was contemplated, the purpose gave rise to remonstrance; but resistance was quelled by the applications, which are usually successful in such cases. “An Earnest Appeal to the Lords and Commons in Parliament, by a Clergyman,” was ineffectually printed and circulated with the hope of preventing the act. This little tract says: –

“The collegiate body to whom the church and precinct pertain, and who have not always been so insensible to the nobler principles they now abandon, owe their origin to Maud, wife of king Stephen – their present constitution to Eleanor, wife of king Henry III. – and their exemption from the general dissolution in the time of Henry VIII. to the attractions (it is said) of Anne Boleyn. The queens consort have from the first been patronesses, and on a vacancy of the crown matrimonial, the kings of England. The fabric for which, in default of its retained advocates, I have ventured now to plead, is of the age of king Edward III., lofty and well-proportioned, rich in ancient carving, adorned with effigies of a Holland, a Stafford, a Montacute, all allied to the blood royal, and in spite of successive mutilations is well able to plead for itself: surely then, for its own sake, as well as for the general interests involved in its preservation, it is not too much to ask, that it may, at least, be confronted with those who wish its destruction – that its obscure location may not cause its condemnation unseen – that no one will pass sentence who has not visited the spot, and that, having so done, he will suffer the unbiassed dictates of his own heart to decide.”


What would these writers have said, had they been able to see what was to come in the next couple of hundred years? ‘The publick’ are still ‘heartily tired of the bubbles which have been every day blown for their delusion’, but surely their wishes and opinions count for even less now. When the investors decide they want something done, they’ll get it. What has changed since 1825? Almost nothing: just that profits get bigger and bigger, and there’s less and less room to make them. The ‘hand of Commerce’ must grasp ever more tightly, in order to get its lion’s share of everything.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the blogger Medieval Bex, who has written an excellent post about St Katharine’s, and whose following words capture my sentiments perfectly:

It’s so strange that this building and its surrounding precinct, easily seen on old maps or read about in historical records, are no more. They are ghosts. And at St Katharine’s Dock only the name remains to remind us of what once was.


All pictures of St Katharine’s – before and after its destruction – are from Wikipedia Commons.

As E.I.C. wrote, parts of the building were indeed moved to the Church of St Katherine’s Hospital, a Gothic Revival church designed by Ambrose Poynter (a picture of this Regent’s Park church in its early days here). ‘That pile of absurdity in Langham-place’ probably refers to All Souls Church.

9 comments on “The Sad Little Story of ‘Poor Old Kate’

  1. Jackie
    November 21, 2013

    What a waste! To demolish such a cool historical building, and people’s homes for a dock!!!! That is a poor tradeoff. I’m glad that some parts of the old church were moved,I was going to ask if you hadn’t put the note at the end. The florid language of the letters fit the injustice of the action.
    Really liked seeing the old illustrations, especially the very first one.
    Hope your flu goes away soon!

  2. Hilary
    November 22, 2013

    Leena, what an extraordinary coincidence! I’d never ever thought about St Katharine’s or had reason to do so, nor why the dock (which is a historic landmark in its own right now) had that name and what it had replaced. But only a week ago I signed up to go to a weekend conference in a couple of weeks’ time at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in its 20th century location in Limehouse. I was intrigued by the location and found out more about its history. So I can help bring the story up to date:

  3. Christopher West
    November 25, 2013

    I am so pleased to have just found these great comments- WE ARE AT LAST DOING SOMETHING!! Today is St Katharine’s Day and we had a magnificent service at the Tower Of London yesterday. Rev Roger Hall, Chaplain of the Tower was incredibly welcoming and gave a superb sermon, explaining about St Katharine and the sadness of the ancient Hospital and Church of St Katharine being demolished and so many people having to leave St Katharine’s Precinct in 1825, to make make way for the building of the St Katharine Docks. The Hospital had been founded by Queen Matilda in 1147, so was one of the earliest in England. Many people from the Docks attended, including residents, workers, people on the boats and visitors; everyone was deeply moved and grateful for this wonderful opportunity to catch up with such important history. We continue tomorrow Monday- at 2.30 pm we will have a ceremony in the Central Basin, led by the current Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine (now at Limehouse). All are very welcome to attend.

  4. christopher west
    November 27, 2013

    I am pleased to say that our second St Katharine Day commemoration went very well- Rev Mark Aitken, current Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine at Limehouse, presented a vivid picture of St Katharine’s Precinct and Hospital at our ceremony on the site of ‘Old Kate’ here at St Katharine Docks, he then led prayers to remember the people in the old Precinct, the value of the centuries long patronage by the Queens of England and all the history that the ancient Hospital had represented. More details are available on

  5. Hilary
    December 8, 2013

    I’ve just come home from my weekend at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, and what a wonderful discovery it was! It’s a little haven of peace, hidden in a corner between two tunnels, two busy highways and the DLR. Our group heard the current master speak on the fascinating history of its survival and return to Limehouse, and plans for its present and future as a place for hospitality, worship and service in the East End.

    @christopher west – thank you for your comments. I look forward to seeing your book on the history of St Katharine Docks and the foundation that preceded it. I hope you come back here to update us when it is published.

  6. Christopher West
    April 23, 2014

    I’m delighted to say that the book is now published and on sale in various locations at St Katharine Docks.

  7. Hilary
    April 23, 2014

    Thank you! I have been looking forward to this, and will seek the book out next time I’m in London.

  8. Christopher West
    April 27, 2014

    Tickets are still available for my official book launch of The Story Of St Katharine’s- it’s on Monday 28th April at 5 p.m. on The Lady Daphne in East
    Dock. Details are on or my blog at Please come along and I’ll be pleased to sign your copy and write a personal message. St Katharine’s does live on!

  9. Pingback: Where Was Wych Street? A Vulpes Libris Random | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on November 21, 2013 by in Entries by Leena, Non-fiction: architecture, Non-fiction: history, Vulpes Randoms.



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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