St Dunstan-in-the-West is an instance of an Anglo-Saxon patron saint. Dunstan lived in the 10th century and was born near Glastonbury the greatest centre of learning in the country. He aimed at every priest learning a craft, being himself a goldsmith and metalworker. By the Sees of Worcester and London he succeeded to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. The ceremony he drafted and used for the Coronation of King Edgar was used for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth 11 in the 50s.
The legend of Dunstan is that whilst working at his forge one day, the devil tempted him to leave his work; waiting until the devil came near, Dunstan seized his nose with the red-hot tongs and so sent him screaming away. The scene is depicted as a background to the painting of him in the Hall of the Goldsmiths’ Company whose patron saint he is.
Although St. Dunstan in the West was probably in existence earlier, the first time we have any reference to it is towards the end of the 12th century. Later in 1237 we learn of its assignment by Henry 111 to the custodians of a house for converted Jews, later comprised in the Liberty of the Rolls. This old Church, doubtless repaired many times, existed until towards the end of 1829.
In it Tyndale, the translator of the New Testament, preached in 1523. Dr Thomas White, the founder of Sion College, who was Vicar from 1575 until he died in 1623, was buried in the Church. His successor in the living was John Donne, the eccentric Dean of St Paul’s whose biography was written by another celebrity, one Isaac Walton, the author of The Complete Angler, wo lived a few doors down the street near Fetter Lane.
The Registers of the church record the baptism in 1593 of Thomas Wentworth, afterwards the famous Earl of Strafford, who was executed on Tower Hill in 1641.
St Dunstan’s clock was the best known in London. It was bought in 1671 to replace an older one, and was fixed in a large alcove between two giants of life size who struck the quarters and the hours upon two suspended bells. When the Church was demolished the clock and figures were bought by the Marquis of Hertford, who removed them to his new residence then being built in Regents Park, which he named St Dunstan’s.
There is little doubt that at the end of its time the old Church with its motely architecture, its shops along its front and its great dial clock formed a most picturesque feature in Fleet Street.
The present Church, consecrated in 1833, was designed by John Shaw, who a few years previously had been the architect for the new Hall of the old Christ’s Hospital in Newgate.
The Gothic style tower, with its pierced octagonal lantern, in all 130 feet high, is said to have been suggested by that of St Helen, York. It gives to the west end of Fleet Street a most graceful landmark and a happy contrast to the steeple of St Bride’s at its east end
The interior is octagonal in plan, but differs appreciably from St Bartholomew the Less, the only other octagonally designed church in the City. The placing of the altar in the north is un-common.
Thanks to the generosity of the late Viscount Rothermere the old clock and the figures of King Lud and his sons were returned St Dunstan’s Church in 1935. St Francis Gosling bought the statue of Queen Elizabeth 1, which was originally on Ludgate, and is one of the oldest statues in London, when Ludgate was taken down, and erected by him above the vestry door of old St Dunstan’s. When the Church was demolished the statue was lost sight of for a while, but was recovered later and erected in front of the new Church over the school door, in 1839.
Our old friend Pepys, the diarist, has left us an insight into his fondness for the ladies in connection with one of his visits to St Dunstan’s in 1667, where in his own words “ Being wearied turned into St Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the Minister of the place; and stood by a pretty modest maid whom I did labour to take by the hand and body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket and prick me, if I should touch her again – which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little and then withdrew. So the sermon ended, and the Church broke up, and my amours ended also” And so, also, ends my dissertation, Mr. Chairman!