The building of the current church
At about 4.00am on 29 November 1710, as a result of a severe storm, the roof of the church collapsed, one of the supporting piers having been weakened by the numerous excavations undertaken for burial purposes; the tower, however, remained undamaged.
The parishioners petitioned Parliament for £6,000 towards the rebuilding of the church. As a result it was expressly provided in the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1711 that one of the 50 new churches proposed to be built in the Cities of London and Westminster and their suburbs should be in the parish of Greenwich. All this building was to be financed by a continuation of the Coal Tax, which had been raised to pay for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666.
Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, and the Clerk of the Works at Greenwich Hospital for 40 years, was commissioned to design the new church. English Baroque style was practically the creation of the Office of Works in the years after the Restoration; and the building of the new churches gave Hawksmoor his greatest opportunity. The Commissioners gave the architect a free hand, which enabled him to express his ideas about the management of space.
In the interior of St Alfege church, the length is one and one-third times its breadth, and its height is roughly one half of the breadth. The galleries divide the interior and create aisles; they also punctuate, as it were, the space and increase the effectiveness of the whole design.
The Church itself was erected between 1712 and 1714 but consecration was delayed until 29 September 1718. The delay was partly due to the fact that the parishioners took exception to the Church Commissioners' direction that a ‘seat of distinction’ should be provided for the use of the Royal Family. However, after a lapse of six months, the parishioners ‘became convinced of their error, and were under the necessity of petitioning the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others the Commissioners, requesting, with the most profound humility, that they would be pleased to proceed with the building, and every impediment to the erection of a seat should be removed’ (from An Account of the Legacies, Gifts, Rents, Fees etc appertaining to the Church and Poor of the Parish of St Alphege [sic] Greenwich by John Kimbell, September 1816). The Royal Pew was installed in the West gallery.
Hawksmoor's design included a tower but Queen Anne's Commissioners were running short of money, and several petitions by the parishioners were necessary before the Commissioners reluctantly agreed to the economic recasing of the old tower to the design of John James of Greenwich. The tower was completed in 1730; Hawksmoor transferred his design for the tower to St Anne's, Limehouse.
The elaborate columns and cornices are the original Hawksmoor design. The main pilasters at the east end and the apse were originally painted by Sir James Thornhill who was also responsible for the work on the more famous Painted Hall of the neighbouring Royal Naval College.
One of the glories of the Hawksmoor design was the oval ceiling which was suspended from the tie-beams without additional support from the floor. At the time of its construction it was the largest unsupported ceiling in Europe.
The design and carving of the pulpit and the Corinthian capitals on these pillars are attributed to Grinling Gibbons.
The wrought-iron work of the altar rails and of the gallery rails to the north and south of the altar are original. The designs are attributed to Jean Tijou who Hawksmoor had met in connection with the great gates and screen for St Paul's Cathedral; unfortunately, the name of the smith who actually executed the work is unknown.
The Benefaction Boards north and south of the chancel on the east wall were first installed in the medieval church in 1707, three years before the fatal storm of 1710. They were transferred to the present church in 1718 and were hung on the staircases to the galleries. Their siting ensured their preservation in 1941. They can almost be said to sum up in themselves the post-Reformation history of the church. The first entry on the south board records the establishment of Queen Elizabeth's College by William Lambard; this was the first public charity to be founded in England after the Reformation. The College was rebuilt in 1817 and still stands on the original site opposite the subsequently erected railway station. In 1613 is recorded the foundation of Trinity Hospital by the Rt Hon Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton. The Hospital still flourishes on the riverfront just east of the Royal Naval College and provides for a Warden and over fifty residents. The name of John Roan appears in 1643 when he bequeathed his estate to teach and clothe poor boys; his school was rebuilt in 1926 on a site at the top of Maze Hill overlooking Greenwich Park. The foundation of the Royal Hospital by King William III and Queen Mary is recorded in 1694. On the opposite board, the most notable entries are those in the years 1809/1815 when the Jubilee Almshouses were founded and endowed to commemorate the fiftieth year of the reign of King George III. These Almshouses in Greenwich High Road were rebuilt in 1974.