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Visiting Sir Aston Webb's Terracotta Building, Overlooking Soho Square, London, England: The French Protestant Church

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An imposing frontage

[NB: Among the many notable buildings which are the subject of these hubpages, these may include religious buildings, described as churches, etc.; these descriptions centre on the buildings' architectural and historical interest. This visit occurred a number of years ago.]

Overlooking Soho Square, London, is a fine piece of architectural heritage designed by Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), also known for his work on Buckingham Palace, and numerous other, distinguished structures (1). Here, at Soho Square, this building, the French Protestant Church, dating as a congregation from 1550 in the reign of Edward VI, is an ornate, terracotta structure, completed in 1893.

Features of the building include Syrian (or Romanesque) window arching at the ground floor, upper storey bay windows and ornate terracotta facing. A small, octagonal tower, with cupola, adds to the sense of height at the building's frontage facing Soho Square. Over the front entrance, ornate carvings, dating from 1950, depict historical scenes. An inscription says: "To the glory of God & in grateful memory of King Edward VI who by his charter of 1550 granted asylum to the Huguenots from France".

The interior of the building contains a small museum area.

Historically, the congregation began in 1550 when French Protestant exiles in London were granted a permanent place to hold Reformed services in their language. Within a few years, the fortunes of those who shared their convictions waned temporarily, with many sanguinary events occurring during the reign of Queen Mary 1, until 1558, which marked the ascension of Queen Elizabeth 1, and the Protestant Succession. For the next, several centuries, the French Protestant Church in London, was thus a meeting venue for French Protestant residents and visitors, and others. In fact, in the late 17th century, there were no less than 23 other French Protestant churches in London alone (2). In the late 19th century, a decision was taken to commission Sir Aston Webb to design the present structure in Soho Square, used by the current congregation.

Past individuals associated with the congregation have included minister Frank Christol (1884-1979), who served in that capacity from 1928 until 1952; he also served as chaplain to French exiles after the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940; he became a commissioned officer of the Free French Forces (French: Forces françaises libres) under General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), and was a regular broadcaster during World War Two on BBC airwaves.

January 26, 2021


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(1) Other works by architect Sir Aston Webb include: the main frontage of Buckingham Palace, London; parts of the Victoria Memorial, London; the main building of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Government Buildings in Dublin, Ireland; Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth; the Aston Webb Building at Birmingham University; and many others.

(2) This situation was far from unique; in The Netherlands, for example, many French Protestant churches survived for centuries, often referred to as Walloon churches. In 1985, the Museum of London, at The Barbican, held an exhibition dedicated to Huguenot — or French Protestant — heritage in England.

Some sourcing: Wikimedia

 Tympanum installed at the French Protestant Church of London for its 400th anniversary in 1950

Tympanum installed at the French Protestant Church of London for its 400th anniversary in 1950

Also worth seeing

Also in Soho Square are various, notable structures; these include: the Italianate St. Patrick's Church, by John Kelly, also completed in 1893, and known for its extensive catacombs, has a noted musical tradition and is a regular venue for concerts; a statue of King Charles 1, in whose reign the Square was created, sculpted by Caius Gabriel Cibber from Denmark, dates from 1681; a number of the sought after properties on the Square are identified with companies prominent in the film industry; the wider neighbourhood is strongly linked with the retail and entertainment industries.

London has such huge numbers of visitor attractions that only a small fraction of the principal ones will be mentioned; these include: Trafalgar Square; the Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster; Westminster Abbey (where Queen Elizabeth II was crowned and where Prince William and Kate Middleton were married); St. Paul's Cathedral; the Royal Albert Hall; and so many others.

How to get there

United Airlines flies from New York Newark Airport to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Underground and train services link Heathrow Airport with Central London. Soho Square is easily accessible via Tottenham Court Road Underground Station (Central and Northern Lines). Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

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