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A Room With A View

Who lives in the tallest house in the City of London? The answer to that is I don’t know, but it matters little who lives there, the more interesting part is where is it and why. Let’s just rewind. We’re looking for the tallest house, not loft apartment, penthouse or block of flats but a house as defined “a single building for human habitation, especially one that consists of a ground floor and one or more upper storeys.” The answer is that there are three contenders, but the outright winner is here.

Now known as 5 Lambeth Hill, but previously as St Mary Somerset. Standing at just under 115 feet tall. The two other contenders are St Alban Wood Street, 92 feet and Christ Church, Greyfriars, although this stands at 160 feet only the bottom two floors are inhabited. London prior to 1666 had 14 churches named after the Virgin Mary, six of which were rebuilt after the Great Fire all with their own descriptors to identify them by, as in “Somerset”. The derivation of “Somerset” is uncertain. It has been linked to a Ralph de Somery, who is mentioned in contemporary records, I don’t find this particularly convincing, so we’ll go with Summer’s Hithe, a small landing place on the Thames which would have been closer back then and was referred to as Sumner’s Het in medieval times, the corruption being easy to see, or hear.

So, the first church on the site gets a mention in records from the 1190s. Unfortunately I can’t find any pictorial records from then until 1666, so have no idea what the church that burnt down looked like. The present church was erected in its place by Sir Christopher Wren, work started in 1686 but was halted in 1688 due to James II being deposed by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, and was eventually finished in 1695. It was one of the last churches to be rebuilt, and was somewhat unkindly known as “the runt of Wrens Litter” and described as a “sad little barn of a church” By the 1850s the City of London was becoming depopulated and church congregations were in decline. The Government found a way of cashing in by selling off ecclesiastical and burial land for industrial use by means of The Union of Benefices Act of 1860. The church was knocked down and the land including the graveyard sold for warehousing, leaving the tower to stand alone.

The tower would probably have met the same fate if it hadn’t been rescued by the Victorian architect Ewan Christian who is more famous for designing the National Portrait Gallery.The restored church has a curious little piece of stone carving half way up its south facing side, and I’m indebted to an article by Ian McDowell who points out the figure of a screaming head. Ian’s take on this is that it is Christians’ nod to all the souls once buried in St Mary’s graveyard who’s eternal rest was disturbed by the building of the warehouses.

Christians’ restoration was completed in 1895 and the tower stood unaltered for nearly 120 years gaining Grade I listed status on 4 January 1950. Work started on converting its interior to residential use in 2014 by the architects Pilbrow & Partners. The design which won architectural prizes on its completion utilises the whole of the towers main structure.

And as to the resident of this lofty property, well the word “Russian Oligarch” is mentioned in hushed tones, but I’ve also heard that the most loathsome of city dwellers a “Banker” could be in residence, if so the screaming face may well have contorted just a little bit more.

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