The story of St John the Baptist Church
It all began almost 150 years ago…
This dramatic and inspiring Grade I ‘cathedral’ church is an acknowledged masterpiece by James Brooks (1825-1901), a major and prolific Victorian architect. Based on the c12th plain Cistercian model, it was developed incrementally from the mid 1870s to 1916 for a more elaborate expression of theology through ritual.
Buying the land
The site was bought from the Holland Estate in 1868 with the intention of building a daughter church in the parish of St Barnabas, Addison Road. A condition of purchase was that the new church must be built in stone, making St John’s an expensive undertaking. Today it has its own parish, one of the smallest in London, and is part of the united benefice of Holland Park.
Building St John’s church
Then, as now, the costs of building and running a church were entirely the responsibility of the congregation. Pending the necessary funds for a final stone version, a substantial wood-framed, corrugated iron church was built. It was first opened for Evensong on 27th February 1869. The St John’s we see today was constructed in stages over several years, starting at the east end and working progressively west towards Holland Road. As soon as the congregation had raised enough money for a new section, a little more of the original, temporary church was dismantled, and another part of the St John’s we see today built in its place. The stone church was begun in the 1870s and the chancel completed by 1885. Construction continued westward for a further twenty-five years and ended with the completion of the west front in 1910.
The uneven floor is a legacy of this incremental construction. Its restricted period of development, the firm hand of the first two Anglo-Catholic incumbents 1869-1916, and the generosity and dedication of the parishioners all ensured throughout a unity of concept and high quality of design and execution. For these reasons St John’s is a distinguished and integrated time-capsule of the Anglo-Catholic movement. It is regularly in use for that traditional form of worship today.
Why St John’s was awarded Grade I status
To most visitors the Grade I magnificence of St John the Baptist will come as a surprise, hemmed in as it is by brick and stucco Victorian terraces in traffic-choked Holland Road. For the architectural cognoscenti, St John’s might also come as a revelation as it has long been considered an ‘other work’ of James Brooks rather than one of his masterpieces. The reason for this is simple:
Brooks’ reputation lay in his mastery of an ecclesiastical architecture of simplicity based on line, proportion and space rather than elaboration and decoration. Brooks did not necessarily need a big budget to achieve success and this is epitomised by the austere grandeur of his better known East End brick ‘cathedrals’, such as St Columba’s in the Kingsland Road (1867-71). Brooks’ original conception at St John’s owed much to the great English Cistercian abbeys of Yorkshire (more directly, St John’s is a scaled-down version of Brooks’ unsuccessful competition entry for Liverpool Cathedral). The interior space was intended to be uncluttered by screens, statuary, ironwork etc. Decoration was to be confined to simple architectural mouldings and the pale limestone interior well lit by clear-glazed lancet windows. However the fund-raising capabilities of the congregation, and a vision of a liturgical ceremonial more elaborate than that favoured by the Cistercians, ensured that the original conception of simplicity never materialised. The exuberant church St John’s actually became earned it Grade I listed status in January 2015 - ’a building of exceptional interest’. The judgement of English Heritage reads:
“This is an outstanding building: cathedral-like in its scale and aspirations, with a particularly rich, highly accomplished and complete interior.”
Find out more
Learn more about the various parts of the building at St John’s Church: