There has been a church on this site from at least the 1140s when it was granted to the Priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. The current church and Clerk’s House date from the 1730s. The birth of English Theatre is said to have originated in Shoreditch when James Burbage leased land in 1576 and built a theatre here, where plays could be performed since it was outside the City walls. Burbage and his sons were all buried in the churchyard, as were many literary and theatrical people and as a result St Leonard’s became known as the Actors Church.
The churchyard was extended a number of times and after it closed for burials was converted into a public garden in the late C19th. It was laid out with paths, areas of lawn, shrubberies and flower beds; most gravestones were cleared, although some remained along the back of the church and on the north wall of the Clerk’s House. C18th cast-iron railings and wrought iron gates remained, and the stocks and whipping post under a thatched roof were in the north west corner of the site.