Georgian churches were disliked by the Victorians, who criticized them for being, at best, frivolously theatrical showpieces, or, more often, dismally plain brick boxes. Such contradictory charges actually correspond to the two important phases of church-building of the period, both initiated by Parliament. The 1711 Act for Building Fifty New Churches produced remarkably expressive and powerful buildings in the London area, notably by Hawksmoor, Archer and Gibbs. On the contrary, the Act of 1818, passed for a similar purpose, produced mostly cheap, and fairly undistinguished churches, even when well-known architects designed them.

Few churches had been erected for some time after Wren’s St Paul ’s Cathedral and new City churches were completed. But in 1711 the ascendancy of the Tories and the High Church induced Parliament to pass an Act allowing the building of new churches in those parts of London where there was no adequate provision. Only about a dozen churches were built under the Act, largely because of the change of Parliamentary majority. But they were architecturally remarkable — most being the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor, with Thomas Archer, James Gibbs and John James only designing one or two each. As in the case of Wren’s City churches, they were financed by the coal-tax raised in London.

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Although there were individual variations in their planning, the churches mostly followed the pattern established by Wren for Protestant churches, providing bright, comfortable buildings, with large windows and galleries on each side, and giving pride of place to the pulpit. As far as architectural style was concerned, Gothic was completely abandoned in favour of various forms of what we now call baroque, but spires remained prominent.

Outside London, only a very few architecturally significant churches were erected during the course of the 18th century in the larger towns. St Philip’s Church at Birmingham, consecrated in 1715, had a distinctly Italianate charm, reflecting Thomas Archer’s stay in Italy in the 1690s. It was only much later that three attractive circular churches, apparently inspired by a rejected design of Gibbs, were erected: St. Paul’s, Liverpool, by T. Lightoler (1769), St. Chad’s, Shrewsbury, by G. Steuart (1792) and All Saints, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by D. Stephenson (1796). Elsewhere, older churches were simply repaired. The relative inertia of the Church of England, combined with the long sway of the Whig party may account for the lack of interest in new church-building. But it is clear that the crowds of migrants settling in the booming industrial towns of the Midlands and North from the mid-century found little encouragement to worship in their new, often churchless, urban surroundings.

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It was only after Waterloo that a second campaign of Anglican church-building was launched by Parliament, precisely to cater for the newly urbanized population, and perhaps in answer to the vitality of Methodism and other dissenting denominations. The 1818 ’Million Act’ (thus called because of the sum to be spent) concerned London as well as other parts of the country. Unfortunately the resulting buildings were not very satisfactory, aesthetically speaking. In John Summerson’s words, “there is a peculiar drabness about them, a slackness in proportions, a lack of vitality, as if their designers had driven themselves to a task for which they had no heart” (Architecture in Britain 1530-1830). This is all the more surprising as some gifted architects such as John Nash, John Soane and Robert Smirke were involved in the design of some of these churches. The late Georgian age is certainly more remarkable for the first examples of ecclesiastical Gothic revival, with St Mary’s, Bath (1820) by John Pinch and St Luke’s, Chelsea (1824), the first of a series of neo-Gothic churches built in London by James Savage.

The forest of church spires in the City was an inspiration for painters such as Canaletto and Girtin.


  • DOWNES, Kerry. Hawksmoor. London: Thames & Hudson, 1969.
  • STILLMAN, Damie. English Neo-classical Architecture. London: Zwemmer, 1988, vol. II, ch 11.
  • SUMMERSON, John. Architecture in Britain 1530-1830. [1953] Yale U.P. 1998.