All Souls, Langham Place

8 December 1940
By Ronan Thomas

All Souls, Langham Place, a distinctive Anglican church commissioned by George IV, designed by Regency architect John Nash and opened in 1824, was damaged by Luftwaffe bombing at 10pm on 8 December, 1940. A parachute mine detonated on Portland Place W1, killing a police constable and damaging the Langham Hotel and nearby BBC Broadcasting House. All Souls was caught in the blast radius: the roof of the Church was wrecked and its clock tower and Gothic-style spire mutilated. No casualties were reported although the Verger and his wife – Mr and Mrs Deham - were badly shaken.

Writing to his congregation in the All Souls’ Monthly Notes for March 1941, the Rector, Reverend H.Earnshaw Smith, detailed the damage. Doors and windows had been blown in. The whole roof was hit by blast and fell, bringing down the ceiling. The galleries were weakened by debris; the north side of the Church was subsequently boarded up. The Choir stalls were smashed along with many pews and a number of rafters and beams were broken in half. The organ was filled with plaster. The Church spire had lost its point and was “badly shaken and twisted: 30 feet of it is now dangerous”. The spire's apex was later removed, leaving an unsightly stump for the rest of the war. 

All Souls’ portico roof was also declared unsafe, although the Church’s large showcase Victorian landscape painting, ‘Ecce Homo - Behold the Man’, by Richard Westall, escaped destruction. Shrapnel marks still visible on the Church’s portico and fine exterior honey-coloured Bath stone columns bear witness to this and other blast effects suffered in the immediate vicinity during the Blitz. The next day, ARP and repair teams assessed the damage. A report received by the St Marylebone ARP Report Centre at 7.53pm, 9 December 1940 noted: “Ceiling is down. All doors and windows broken. Centre filled with rubbish. Walls standing apparently undamaged but not yet surveyed”.

After the ARP permitted access on 9 December, Church staff began the laborious task of clearing carpets out from under piles of plaster and debris. Emergency repairs were made over the next week. The south side of the Church was fitted with weather-proof linen coverings. Reporters from the ‘The Evening News’  tabloid subsequently arrived to photograph the Rector leading the clean-up effort. As the repairs continued, the Rev Earnshaw Smith wrote of All Souls’ fortitude: ‘Hitler can destroy our ancient buildings, but he cannot destroy the faith that built them’ (Monthly Notes, March 1941).

Over the next year, All Souls' scars were painfully evident to passers-by on Langham Place. MP and BBC Governor Harold Nicolson observed that after a night raid: "the stump of the spire of Langham Place Church is outlined against pink smoke" (diary entry 16 April 1941). The unstable church roof provided the greatest worry for All Souls’ staff. On 20 May 1941, a St Marylebone ARP message warned that debris was falling from the Church into Langham Place. Wardens requested additional barriers to fence off the site. With the roof in danger of collapse from fresh air raids and the effects of weather, the building was rendered unusable for worship. The congregation relocated to neighbouring St Peter’s, Vere Street. All Souls remained under repair for the next decade. The first temporary roof covering was replaced by the War Damage Commission in 1941 and the remains of the Church’s plaster ceilings were finally removed.

At Christmas 1941, the Rector informed his congregation that repairs had cost over £1000 and that a further £300 was needed. An appeal was launched in 1945. The spire was finally topped off and restored to its pre-war glory. In 1951, All Souls reopened for worship and today remains a thriving Anglican community at the heart of the West End of London.

Photo:The damaged spire of All Souls, Langham Place

The damaged spire of All Souls, Langham Place

Copyright All Souls, Langham Place

Photo:Interior Bomb Damage to All Souls

Interior Bomb Damage to All Souls

Copyright All Souls Langham Place

Photo:St Marylebone ARP Message, All Souls, Langham Place, 1941

St Marylebone ARP Message, All Souls, Langham Place, 1941

Copyright Westminster City Archives

All Souls, Langham Place, W1

This page was added by Ronan Thomas on 02/09/2010.

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