St Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church, is one of the most famous non-cathedral churches in London. Its ethos as the “Church of the Ever Open Door” continues today and it is famous for its work with homeless people. The design of the church was criticised widely at the time of construction, but subsequently became extremely famous, being copied particularly widely in the United States.
The church is known for its regular lunchtime and evening concerts: many ensembles perform there, including the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, which was co-founded by Sir Neville Marriner and John Churchill, a former Master of Music at St Martin’s. There is a popular café in the crypt, where jazz concerts are held. All profits from these events go to the work of the church. The crypt is also home to the London Brass Rubbing Centre, an art gallery and a book and gift shop. A life-sized marble statue of Henry Croft, London’s first pearly king, was moved to the crypt in 2002 from its original site at St Pancras Cemetery.
The earliest extant reference to the church is from 1222. The church was rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1542 to avoid plague victims from the area having to pass through his Palace of Whitehall. At this time, it was literally “in the fields” in an isolated position between the cities of Westminster and London.
By the reign of James I the church was becoming inadequate for the congregation, due to the great increase in population in the area. In 1606 the king granted an acre of ground on the west side of St Martin’s Lane for a new churchyard, and the church was enlarged. Later in the 17th century, galleries were added, and the creation of the new parishes of St Anne, Soho and St James, Piccadilly, and the opening of a chapel in Oxenden Street relieved some of the pressure on space. A survey of 1710 found that the walls and roof were in a state of decay. In 1720, an act was passed for the rebuilding of the church allowing for a sum of up to £22,000 to be raised by a rate on the parishioners. A temporary church was erected partly on the churchyard and partly on ground in Lancaster Court. Advertisements were placed in the newspapers that bodies and monuments of those buried in the church or churchyard could be taken away for reinterment by relatives. The rebuilding commissioners selected James Gibbs to design the new church. His first suggestion was for a church with a circular nave and a domed ceiling; this was considered too expensive, and Gibbs then produced a simpler rectilinear plan, which was accepted. The foundation stone was laid on 19 March 1722, and the last stone of the spire was placed in position in December 1724. The church also had its own almshouses and pension-charity, which was established on 21 September 1886. Its 19 trustees administered almshouses for women, providing them with a weekly stipend. The almshouses were built in 1818 on part of the parish burial ground in Camden Town and St Pancras and replaced ones built in 1683.
The church is rectangular in plan, with the five-bay nave divided from the aisles by arcades of Corinthian columns. There are galleries over both aisles and at the west end. The nave ceiling is a flattened barrel vault, divided into panels by ribs. The panels are decorated with cherubs, clouds, shells, and scroll work, by Giuseppe Artari and Bagutti.
The west front of the St Martin’s has a portico with a pediment supported by a giant order of Corinthian columns. The order is continued around the church by pilasters. In designing the church, James Gibbs, the architect, was influenced by the works of Christopher Wren, but departed from Wren’s practice in his integration of the tower into the church. Rather than considering it an adjunct to the main body of the building, he constructed it within its west wall, so that it rises above the roof, immediately behind the portico. The spire of St Martin’s rises 192 feet above the level of the church floor.
In 1699 the church founded a school for poor and less fortunate boys, which later became a girls’ school. It was known as St Martin’s Middle Class School for Girls, later known as St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls. The school flourished in what was a populous, fast-growing parish. It was relocated to its present Lambeth site in 1928.