A record of over one and a half centuries of architectural history, the RIBA’s Periodicals Collection holds news from a century ago reporting about the serious structural problems at St Paul’s Cathedral…

St Paul's Cathedral

Image (enlarge): St Paul’s Cathedral, City of London, seen from the steeple of St Martin Ludgate, 1896
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Image from RIBApix

…perhaps no greater feat has ever been achieved by man than the building of St Paul’s dome; but Wren, through lack of knowledge of design, inadvertently left too small a margin of safety in his supports.
Architects’ and Builders’ Journal
, 9 July 1913, vol. 38, p.27

In July 1913, the major architectural journals were reporting about the possibility that the dome of St Paul’s could collapse due to subsidence and the weakness of the supporting piers. The dome was sinking and its lean to the south-west had increased noticeably. On the 2nd July the Architects’ and Builders’ Journal (former name of today’s Architects’ Journal) reported that the piers were no longer solid due to the settlement, since Wren’s time, of the poor-quality rubble inside, which included the “remains of the previous cathedral. Among them was a portion of a Roman column” (1).

By the 4th, the Building News revealed that cracks had appeared in the piers, and that the ground beneath the cathedral had been seriously disturbed by the construction of sewers nearby and the existence of deep basements of neighbouring buildings. Architect Thomas G. Jackson mentions the possibility that vibrations from traffic may also be a culprit. In the Building News he states there was only one way to save St Paul’s: “my opinion is that the only hope is to bind the construction so firmly together as to make it a homogeneous fabric.” (2)

St Paul's Cathedral

Image (enlarge): St Paul’s Cathedral, City of London, seen from a bombsite near the junction of Bread Street and Cheapside, 1940s.
Photographer: Dell & Wainwright
© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Image from RIBApix

“We hope that whatever is necessary to ensure the stability of the structure will be done without hesitation or consideration of cost.”
Builder, 4 July 1913, vol.105, p.3

Elsewhere, 22 out of the 32 buttresses – a structural element not normally used in classical architecture, which Wren consequently received some criticism for – were also damaged. Iron was used extensively by Wren to hold the cathedral’s stonework in place. In the clock tower, rust had taken hold and expanded the iron dowels, cracking the stones they were meant to hold together. But repairs had already begun. The iron was being replaced and new stone put in, and liquid cement poured into the cracks of the buttresses (3).

The cathedral survived the Blitz, despite direct hits. A hundred years ago this month, the well-publicised concerns about the stability of St Paul’s led to remedial action which continued right up to the 1930s. The fabric of the building was thus strengthened before World War II and this action contributed to its miraculous and symbolic survival during the dark years ahead.

References

  1. Architects’ and Builders’ Journal, 2 July 1913, vol.38, p.19
  2. Building News, 4 July 1913, vol.105, p.8
  3. Architects’ and Builders’ Journal, 2 July 1913, vol.38, p.19

 

Images

The two images of Wren’s masterpiece are from the collections of the RIBA. See more of St Paul’s Cathedral and other architectural images on RIBApix.

 

About Wilson Yau
I work for the British Architectural Library at the RIBA as part of a team to share news, images and information online about the activities of the Library and the fascinating items we have in our architectural collections – it contains over four million items, so there's plenty to see! If you’re curious about what we do at the Library and with the collections, or want to discover the latest about our education programmes, public events and exhibitions at the RIBA, please visit www.architecture.com

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