When plans for the Bishop of London’s grand new estate were originally drawn up in 1804, it included provision for a new church. In 1826 the ‘good curate of Paddington’, the Reverend Dr Crane, applied to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for financial assistance and with the approval of plans by Samuel Pepys Cockerell. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners granted the new parish £6000 towards the £11,020 (roughly £1.2 million today) needed to build what was meant to be the Connaught Chapel. The remaining £5,020 was to be raised through voluntary donations of local residents.
All this was for naught as shortly after work had begun Cockerell died and with him his plans (copies are still in the Victoria and Albert Museum). The Commissioners for Building New Churches then asked Rev Dr Crane’s son-in-law, Charles Fowler (1792 - 1867) to draw up new plans which he did expeditiously by 1829. Fowler was a founder-member of the Institute of British Architects. His most famous building is probably the neo-Classical Covent Garden Market which helped to elevate that area from a seedy place full of taverns, theatres, coffee-houses and brothels to a respectable residential and shopping location. His plan for St John’s -- a 13th Century style Gothic church -- was much less expensive than Cockerell’s, at £8,592 (£860,000 today).
It took three years to build and on the 26th January 1832 the Lord Bishop of London, the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Charles James Blomfield, consecrated St John’s Chapel, also known as the Connaught Chapel. It was designed to seat 1500, with 700 free seats and the rest rented – the pews in all churches used to be rented for annual charges. The total pew rentals in St John’s, which were paid to the wardens to cover expenses, were valued at £681 a year.
For the first 27 years the chapel was led by the Reverend James Shergold Boone, who was succeeded by the Reverend Dr Edward Meyrick Goulburn, DD. In 1859 the Vicar of Paddington died and the chapelry of St John’s became a new parish.
By 1840 the population of Tyburnia had swelled again and a new parish, St James’s, Sussex Gardens, was established. John Goldicutt and George Gutch designed the new church which was completed in 1843. In 1845, St James’s became the Parish Church of Paddington, as St Mary’s on Paddington Green was in a poor state of repair. Also in 1848 another new chapelry, All Saints, Norfolk Square was set up. Today Edna House, a block of sheltered flats, is on the site.
A final division of the chapelry took place in 1864 when St Michael’s, Star Street became a parish in its own right. The vicar was a popular speaker and it had a first-class choir, so it was able to build up a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition. Unfortunately, a firebomb fell in the organ loft during the Second World War and in order to save the neighbouring houses, the church was allowed to burn. When All Saints' Norfolk Square was closed in 1919 and the building sold to the National Association of the Deaf and Dumb the parishes were were combined at St. Michaels'. After the bombing the congregation returned to worship at All Saints' until in was demolished in 1961 and the parish was finally reunited with St John’s in 1964.
The church as we know it today is not the one we would have seen in 1832 or even at the turn of the 20th Century. The interior was darker; it was lit with candles, then gas lamps, and finally electric lighting in the late 1800s. There was a triforium, or balcony over each of the side aisles as well as over the entrance. Between the wooden pews, there was a row of paired chairs going down the nave leading up to the chancel. St John’s had a capacity of 2,200 people with 1,500 subscription seats and 700 free seats in the triforium. The pulpit, with its spiral staircase, was in front of the left row of pews attached to the rood screen, now at the entrance of the church. The baptismal font was located at the northwest corner. The high altar, from St Michael’s Star Street was originally in the north transept in front of the organ, which was The Lady Chapel until the reordering in 2011.
After the Second World War the parish and the church fell on hard times when the area became less desirable and people moved to the suburbs. The church was even occasionally closed between 1962 and 1965 when Captain the Rev Cuthbert Scott arrived.
A former naval officer, in his forties Scott followed his vocation and trained to be a priest. Joe Parham in The Independent (6 March, 2007), wrote “Scott had the ability to draw on the hugely diverse talents in the parish. He persuaded George Martin to sort out the eccentric acoustics in the vast Gothic church. Walter Graebner, London MD of Time-Life, launched the parish magazine, Saints & Angels News, produced by a leading graphic designer, and made it the ecclesiastical answer to Private Eye. The cover price was 6d but it went free to 3,000 homes, subsidised by real advertising. Rolex watches took a full page, as did Benson & Hedges. Mike d'Abo of Manfred Mann fame posed on one front cover, and wrote a hymn. Cicely Saunders was planning the first hospice. Richard Branson launched his empire from the crypt of the church and great artists and musicians competed to exhibit and perform there, including Marian Bohusz-Szyszko (later Saunders's husband), Halima Nalecz and Joseph Cooper.” Horseman’s Sunday was initiated by Rev Scott and Ross Nye in 1967 and is still one of the highlights on St John’s calendar.
Since this revitalisation St John’s has moved from strength to strength, though there is always much work to be done. In 2011 the old Victorian heating system was replaced and the pine pews (which came from America) were sold or auctioned off to raise funds for the beautiful new floor. The rood screen was relocated to the area behind the seating to create a narthex. Additional changes include the installation of toilets on the south side of the porch, while a much-needed kitchen was re-fitted on the north side.
St John’s has long had a strong association with music in London. It employs eight choral scholars and an organ scholar per year, drawn from the best London conservatories. This year we have students from the Royal Academy, the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich. St John’s excellent reputation draws on music from opera, the choral tradition, spirituals, musical theatre and song from all over the world to reflect our international and diverse community. We frequently invite instrumentalists, both students and professionals, especially for carol services, which are some of the most creative and musically advanced services in the country.
- 1826 Application to build chapel made to Ecclesiastical Commissioners
- 1829 Charles Fowler’s first design
- 26th January 1832 Bishop of London consecrates St John’s Chapel (aka Connaught Chapel)
- 1839-49 Felix Mendelssohn’s last tour of London, may have played organ at St John’s
- 1859 Vicar of Paddington dies. St John’s becomes a new parish.
- 1865 New organ built
- 1866 Old organ sold to St Mary the Virgin, Ilkeston
- 1868 Incumbent of St John’s now called a Vicar
- 1874-4 Legacy from Sir Andrew Lusk pays for Choir screen
- 1882 Pulpit given by ladies of congregation
- 1962-65 St John's goes through hard times, being occassionally closed
- 1964 St John’s and St Michael’s merge
- 1965 Captain the Rev Cuthbert Scott arrives
- 1967 The first Horseman's Sunday
- 2011 Re-ordering including heating and new flooring