John Thaw Memorial Bench

The Society is delighted to have been instrumental in the sponsorship of a bench at St. Paul’s Actors’ Church in Covent Garden, London, to celebrate the life of John Thaw.

The bench was dedicated by Colin Dexter at a special ceremony on 
Saturday 21st March 2009

List of Bench Subscribers

Les Ayres
Sue Benwell
Lynda Blackwell
Stephen Blackwell
Dorothy Brookfield
Mark Bumford
Christine Burke
Patrick Campbell
Andrew Clabburn
Tim Coghlan
M. A. Connaughton
Jacqueline Dawson
Seamus Devlin
Colin Dexter OBE
Mary Exton
Cynthia A. Fellencer
Lisa Lotte Frederiksen
Hazel Goodwin
Aaron Gregson
Sheila Hancock
R. Hanmer
Iola Harding
Roberta Harding
Jeanne A. Harvey
John Herron
Wendy Irwin
David Knight
Sandra Knight
Sara Line
Maggie Maclean
Janet Owen
Francis Price
Antony J. Richards
L. M. Rossell
J. B. Rossell
Jennifer Smith
Iain C. Smith
Janet Steele
Carole A. Tennant
John Tennant
Timothy Watson
Lynn S. Williams

Transcript from the Souvenir Dedication Programme

In 1631, Francis Russell, Earl of Bedford, commissioned Inigo Jones to design a Square, surrounded by noble mansions, with a chapel, and four streets to converge in it.

He designed an Italian style Piazza, but the whole plan was never completed. The Russell family funds were running low, and the story goes that the Earl sent for Inigo to discuss the building of the chapel on the Western side. He told him that it must not cost too much – “In short,” he said, “I would have it not much better than a barn.” “Well then,” said Inigo, “You shall have the handsomest barn in England!”

Work on the building of the church began in 1631, with the impressive Tuscan Portico facing eastwards on to the Piazza. However, the Bishop of London, William Laud, insisted that the altar should be against the east wall, so the Portico was never used, two small doors being substituted on either side of it. The main entrance was by the west door, opening on to the graveyard, and leading to a country lane, now Bedford Street.

The church was completed in 1633, at a cost to the Russells of £4,400, and consecrated for divine worship five years later. By 1645, the Bedford Development had become so populous, and so many streets were being built that, despite protests from the incumbent of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Covent Garden was made a separate parish and Inigo Jones’ church was dedicated to St. Paul.

The very first victim of the Great Plague, one Margaret Ponteous, a doctor’s daughter, was buried in the churchyard at St. Paul’s on the 12th April 1665. The church register gave no clue to the start of the worst plague in London’s history.

In 1788, the architect Thomas Hardwick began a major restoration, which included facing the interior with stone. In 1795 there was a disastrous fire at the church, when the roof, painted ceiling, and parts of the walls were destroyed – caused by plumbers doing some trifling work in the bell-tower and leaving their fire unguarded during their mid-day break. The parish records were fortunately saved, as was the pulpit that had been the work of Grinling Gibbons – or one of his pupils.

When plans were made for re-building, many people, including Horace Walpole, thought the original had been too plain and should be more decorative. Nevertheless, Thomas Hardwick faithfully preserved Inigo Jones’ original simplicity.

The organ was built by Henry Bevington in 1861, incorporating part of the case which had been designed by Hardwick in 1795, and possibly with parts of William Gray’s earlier organ.

In 1871 William Butterfield was commissioned to carry out some alterations – he removed the galleries, raised the channel floor and re-arranged the furniture. At this time the east doors were blocked up.

Many famous names have been connected with St. Paul’s – John Wesley preached here, J. M. W. Turner and W. S. Gilbert were baptised here, and those buried here include Sir Peter Lely, Samuel Butler, William Wycherly, Grinling Gibbons, Thomas Arne, and Thomas Rowlandson. The ashes of Ellen Terry and Edith Evans repose here also.

The theatrical connection began as early as 1663 with the establishment of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and was further assured in 1723 by the opening of the Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House). It is still `The Actors’ Church,’ the Actors’ Church Union has its offices here, and so the inner walls and in the garden can be seen memorial plaques to famous personalities in the world of the performing arts.

Today it still stands as the parish church for the Parish of Covent Garden – which was enlarged in 1986 to incorporate the Parishes of Holy Trinity, Kingsway and St. John, Drury Lane.

One of the greatest things this Church can, and, does offer is a place of calm amidst the tumult of Central London. It is an opportunity used by many for private prayer and meditation. Worship is the purpose of the church – to respond to God’s love – through architecture, music, words and all the arts. It is truly a living church, and today John Thaw joins the permanent congregation of the many famous actors who are remembered here.

John Thaw came from a working class background, having been born in Longsight, Manchester to parents John and Dorothy. He had a younger brother called Ray. John grew up in the Burnage area of the city and attended Ducie Technical High School for Boys. At the age of 17 he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where he was a contemporary of Tom Courtenay.

Soon after leaving RADA he made his stage début in A Shred of Evidence at the Liverpool Playhouse and was awarded a contract with the theatre. Film and television work followed but John will perhaps be best remembered for two roles: the hard-bitten Flying Squad detective Jack Regan in the Thames Television/ITV series (and two films) The Sweeney (1975 – 1978), which established him as a major star in the United Kingdom, and as the quietly-spoken, introspective but well educated and bitter detective Inspector Morse (1987 – 2000) for which he won two BAFTA awards. He was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1994.

In 1964, Thaw married Sally Alexander, but they divorced four years later. He married actress Sheila Hancock in 1973 and remained with her until his death in 2002. Thaw had two daughters: Abigail Thaw from his first marriage, and Joanna Thaw from his second. He also adopted Sheila Hancock’s daughter Melanie from her first marriage. John was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June 2001 and despite chemotherapy died eight months later, on 21st February 2002, seven weeks after his 60th birthday, having suffered a sudden setback the previous day. 

For more information you might like to visit member Candice Powdrill’s website dedicated to John Thaw.

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