St. John’s Church Bexley was founded as a proprietary chapel of St. Mary’s, Bexley in 1878.
The original parish of St. Mary’s contained the hamlets of Blendon, Bridgen, Upton and Hurst and had a population nearing 4000 that was increasing rapidly. St. Mary’s Church, even with restoration and some re-pewing could only provide seating for a maximum congregation of 400. It was therefore deemed necessary to have another church to cater for the spiritual needs of the ever-growing population.
As growth at the western end of Bexley village around Parkhurst and Upton Roads had seen much new housing and at Park Wood, where several houses had been erected, a Church at this end of Bexley village near Bexley Station, was an obvious choice.
Sunday worship had been held for some time at Bridgen Road School for the convenience of the inhabitants of the Hamlets of Bridgen, Blendon, Upton and Parkhurst; the distance to St. Mary’s being much further. In those days, of course; Bexley did not have the A.2 road passing through. The A.2 was opened in 1926.
In 1866 with the coming of the railway, Bexley was fast becoming a residential district for people working in London with middle class housing being built first along Parkhill Road in the late 1860’s then Parkhurst and surrounds in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Prior to this the area was mainly agricultural.
The committee responsible for building the new church obtained a gift of a site and a promise of a donation of £2,000 from the University of Oxford. The site was to be on the rising ground, at the western end of Bexley Village. The University owned the land upon which the church now stands. The committee had collected altogether £2,055 9s plus the sum of £2,134, 3s. in contributions received at the laying of the foundation stone.
The association with Oxford University derives from a benefaction from William Camden, the antiquary and historian in 1622. He conveyed to the University from the Manor of Bexley £140 per annum, to provide the stipend of a History Lecturer; this post is now the Camden Professorship of Ancient History.
St. John’s Church without a spire. Photograph 1885
A contract was made with Naylor and Son the builders to complete the building work; (exclusive of the tower and spire) by March 1882, for the sum of £4,734. To this was added the fees of the architect and clerk of the works with the cost of fencing (estimated at £500), the total cost being £5,200. The tower and spire were estimated to cost about £1,600. The spire however was added in 1890 and the clock also installed in 1890. The architect commissioned was George Low FRIBA.
Subscriptions and pledges were made by many of the residents in the neighbouring parishes and it was known that many gave liberally at the ceremony on 23rd March 1881 at which Mrs Arbuthnot of Bridgen Place laid the foundation stone.
On 23rd June 1882, His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Campbell Tait, came to Bexley and consecrated St. John’s Church. A stone set in the base of the Tower, next to the Tower door, records the event; along with the names of the Building Committee and Mrs Arbuthnot, of Bridgen Place.
St. John’s as it was then, was a daughter church to St. Mary’s. Both churches are now in the Diocese of Rochester, but were originally in the Diocese of Canterbury until 1905.
St. John’s was built in the Victorian Gothic style and is a Grade II listed building. The walls of the church are built of Kentish Ragstone with Bath Stone details. The Spire is of Bath Stone and is 155 feet high with the weathervane topping at 161 feet in height. The whole length of the church is 108 feet long and 55 feet wide. The Nave is just less than 71 feet long. The Chancel is 35 feet long and 22 feet in width. The internal walls are plastered. The Church consists of a nave of five bays, aisles, chancel with the vestry to the south of this and the tower to the north, the base of which forms the organ chamber.
The pulpit is made of Caen stone with Marble shafts and was installed in 1892 by Jones & Willis. This replaced the original wooden one; which had lasted only ten years.
To the right of the Chancel steps, stands the imposing brass lectern in the traditional form of an eagle with outstretched wings (the symbol of St. John the Evangelist).
Sited above the Lectern, during services is the Hymn and Psalms Board. This is inscribed, to the memory of Mary M. Ansorge 1st March 1938.
The Rood Screen separating the Chancel from the Nave was installed in 1883, a gift from one of the parishioners. It is of wrought iron with fleur-de-lis motif plus scrollwork. The walls of the Chancel mirror the fleur-de-lis with stencil design in the William Morris style. Just below the ceiling are two sculptured bosses each side of the Chancel depicting Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and immediately behind the screen are two carved cherubs, one each side.
On the north side of the Sanctuary is a litany desk, given as a gift in memory of Winifred Frances Fisher who died 14th April 1882 aged 17, as a lasting memorial of her affection for the Church and congregation of St. John’s.
The Reredos screen at the back of the altar depicts The Last Supper and was erected in 1893.
The Roof supports above the Nave are beautifully crafted in the Victorian style and just below the main beams are two rows of clerestory windows to provide light for this vaulted space. Gas lighting was only installed in 1912 and electric lighting in 1927.
The tower and spire were completed in 1890 after the original estimate put forward by George Naylor, was exceeded in 1886. The spire is a true landmark and can be seen for miles around.
Gillett & Co installed the four-faced hourly chiming clock in 1891 at the cost of £150, the criterion being that there should be a public clock at this end of the village that could be seen from Bexley Railway Station. There is only one other clock like St. John’s; this is in a church at Chartham a few miles from Chilham, in Kent.
In November 1989 the clock stopped for the first time in 99 years! The clock in those days had to be wound by hand. One of the weights, there are two weighing an 1/8th of a ton each, came crashing down from inside the steeple. A local G.P., Dr. Bill Goulstone, who had been winding the clock weekly for the previous twenty years, was winding the clock at the time with a helper. This caused considerable damage to the bell chamber and the clock housing. Subsequently it was decided to fit an electric winding mechanism. The original works were preserved. The new mechanism was installed in December 1989 by the firm who originally installed the clock in 1890. The £3,000 required was raised by appeal.
When it was wound by hand, the strike took 160 turns and the clock 40 turns, using a metal handle to lift the weights. Electric lighting was only fitted up the spiral stairway and clock room at this time in 1989. It must have been unnerving to climb the spiral staircase and wind the clock in the gloom.
The clock movement is the same type as that of Big Ben, invented by Lord Grimthorpe in 1854 and subsequently used in many public clocks. The pendulum weighs half a ton. In 2001, Gillett & Johnson serviced the clock and some parts were restored. Other essential modifications were also completed.
There are two stone gargoyles in front of the rood screen. The one above the pulpit depicts fruit and the one on the opposite wall by the vestry, hops. Two other gargoyles are situated on the walls, either side of the West Door. The north wall gargoyle depicts a grape vine and opposite, orchard fruit. Above the rood screen on either side are two other wall embellishments depicting fruit and vines.
The land below St. John’s, now known as “The Golden Acre” (originally Fair Field) was once a Market Garden with glasshouses. Neighbouring farms also grew hops. The last local Oast houses were demolished at Penfold Lane in 1950.
The organ is a Henry “Father” Willis and was built and installed in 1887. It is a two manual and pedals Pipe Organ, with Tracker action.
After examination in 1938, Mr. Whiteley, Organ Builder of Chislehurst reported that the bellows could fail at any time. Subsequently the installation of an electric blower was advised and completed later that year. The Church Magazine records a cost of £100. The organ was again refurbished in 1962. On the wall next to the Organ are two brasses in Memory of Charles Grey, Organist of St. Mary’s and St. John’s 1884-1923 and to the Memory of Ronald Charles James Allen, Organist/Choirmaster 1961-1993.
52 years later in 2014 the organ had to be refurbished again. Henry Willis and Sons Ltd of Liverpool who service the organ regularly were commissioned to carry out the work. The organ was dismantled and taken to Willis's workshop in Liverpool. Following a complete overhaul and retune lasting seventeen weeks the organ was reinstalled into St. Johns. The cost of this project was £40,000.
Stain Glass Windows
Only the Rogers Memorial Windows above the West Door escaped damage from enemy action during the Second World War. All the others had to be replaced. This was completed in 1950. The Brighton firm of Barton, Kinder and Alderson, were commissioned to do the work and the windows are a combination of the work of, Claude Kinder, James Blackford and Tom Dixon. Claude Kinder was a designer who sadly died in 1949, but James Blackfords drawings and Tom Dixon’s wonderful painting techniques are there to see in all their glory.
The Children’s Corner windows were replaced in 1949 and are designed by James Blackford. The west wall windows being of a contemporary theme rather than traditional, note the boy wearing short trousers. The inscription reads “To the Glory of God”- these were erected to the memory of Thomas Wheeler MRCS and his wife Frances Elizabeth. They were originally presented by their son Ernest and were destroyed in a German Air Raid in 1944 and later restored by their Grandson, Ernest Bostock Wheeler in 1949. The north wall window depicts St. Christopher inscribed “To the Glory of God and in profound Thankfulness-22nd July 1916”. This window was presented by Mary and Ernest Wheeler 1949.
Further along the North Wall the second window depicts, The Magi and Nativity and are the original Victorian stain glass. The other two windows along the North aisle were unable to be restored and were replaced with plain glass.
The Chancel has five main windows, depict scenes from St. Johns Gospel; the two on the left side are scenes before the Crucifixion and the two on the right, scenes after. From left to right they are:- Christ calling the Apostles, inscribed “follow me”, the second is the Garden of Gethsemane inscribed “ not as I will but as thou wilt”, the centre window depicts the Crucifixion with the inscription “woman behold thy son” . Window four shows the Empty Tomb inscribed “and he saw and believed” the last of these windows depicts the Draught of fishes and is inscribed; “It is the Lord”. Above each of these windows are smaller windows within which are related symbols. From left to right is a book, The Word of God, next is the Bitter or Communion Cup. Above the centre is The Crown of Thorns, the fourth is a Crown representing the Crown of Life and the last is a Wheat Sheaf representing the Bread of Life.
Along the south aisle from left to right is window two, “I am the light of the world” attributed to James Blackford, window three is the most recent stain glass window installed in 1991. “For God so loved the world” by artist Nicola Kantorwicz, which was donated by Ethel Pearce, widow of Charles Pearce. It is based on the features of a sundial; Charles Pearce having had a life long fascination with sundials.
Next to the altar rail in the Lady Chapel is window five depicting Jesus and Saints and inscribed “The gift of the children of the Parish, ye shall be witness unto me”. Behind the altar in the Lady Chapel are two windows indicating the Annunciation and birth of Christ. The Annunciation by Gabriel, to Mary of the Incarnation of Christ. Above these windows is the small window depicting an Angel with staff and scroll. These windows are the original Victorian glass saved and restored after WWII blast damage.
Rogers Memorial Windows
Above the West Door are depicted the four Evangelist windows of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These windows were the gift of Lady Hargreaves Rogers, widow of Sir Robert Hargreaves Rogers and cost £500 in 1926. The centre circle window above these windows features the Rogers Family Coat of Arms. Sir Robert Hargreaves Rogers was Sheriff of London 1896-7. He was a wealthy industrialist. He had Marle House built for him in 1891, on the site of the original Marle House, a timber framed eighteenth century farmhouse which stood opposite St. John’s in Parkhill Road. This latter Marle House was demolished in 1962.
James Robert Blackford lived in the Parish at 84 Dorchester Ave with his Estonian wife and six children, the youngest daughter Edna was baptized at St. Johns in 1949. He and Tom Dixon left BKA Studios in Brighton to work in the U.S.A. in the early 1950’s, at the Jacoby Studios in St. Louis. James Blackford returned to this country in 1968. He died in 1973.
The font is octagonal, with quatre-foil decoration and is made of Bath stone. It was built with the Church. A small portable font occasionally used for baptism; this was donated by Mrs. Jean Antenbring in 1998 in Memory of Norman Antenbring 1917-1996; a Lay Reader at St. John’s since 1938. There is also a baptismal mother of pearl shell used during baptisms, which was dedicated by four little girls of the Parish Easter 1888.
Throughout the Church are a number of Wall Plaques- one situated on the North wall is dedicated to Mrs. E. Clements in 1913. On the South wall there are two: - one dedicated to George Steel in 1923 who had been a founder member of the Building Committee. The second plaque is a wooden one, dedicated to Mary & Ethel Ansorge erected in 1944.
There are two other small plaques; one on the right hand side of the Lady Chapel is dedicated to the memory of Jean Johnson who died in 1983. She was the wife of the then vicar Rev’d K. Johnson. The other plaque is sited in the left hand corner of the Children’s Corner is in memory of Jane Margaret Bates (a step daughter of Rev Johnson), who died age 15 in 1986. She had suffered Downs Syndrome.
In 1931 a further gift of additional land from Oxford University was given next to the church to facilitate the building of a vicarage. The vicarage was completed in 1932.
Freemantle Hall in Bexley village was often hired when the occasion demanded until 1926, when the original Hall was erected as a temporary Hall behind the church. This old wooden hall lasted until 1952, when it fell into disrepair. This hall had done yeoman service throughout the War years when the main church was out of commission from enemy action. It was used for the Scouts and other groups, until it was demolished in the 1970’s.
A second Hall was built in 1955 and lasted until 1992.
The present Hall, designed by R. Molyneux RIBA was built in 1998.
In 1935 at the West End of the North aisle the pews were removed to create the Children’s Corner.
Creation of the Parish of St. John the Evangelist. Bexley
1936 was a significant year for St. John’s Church. Due to the result of much population growth.The Bishop of Rochester decided that St. John’s should become a separate Parish. Thus the Parish of St. John the Evangelist was instituted.
The church is at the eastern end of the Parish. The railway formed the southern parish boundary, Penhill Road and Danson Road the western boundary with the northern boundary being Bean and Alers Roads, Mount and Upton roads through to Hartford Road, Parkhurst Road; Salisbury Road completed the circle. The population within this Parish was, 11,000 that year. It was also recorded that the church could seat 554 people at this time. Also in 1936 St. John’s spire was inspected, as bits were falling off and a recommendation was put forward that fencing be raised to keep people away from this end of the church. The spire repairs were completed, the clock re-gilded and the weather vane repainted.
In 1937 St. James Church was built at the junction of Penhill Road and Bladindon Drive at Blendon and was consecrated by the Bishop of Rochester. St. James, then became the daughter church of St. John’s just as St. John’s had been previously to St. Mary’s. At this time the services at Bridgen School Chapel ceased.
World War II
During the dark days of World War II the area around St. John’s suffered damage from enemy action. Various types of bombs fell around the area. Many fell in Park Wood, but on 12th October 1940 the roof was badly damaged over the vestry and north and south aisles. Temporary repairs were made to prevent further water damage to walls and floor.
1944 was another bad year for St. John’s. First there was an interregnum, and then the Bishop of Rochester dismissed the incoming Vicar after only a few weeks in situ. It was decided that another vicar be appointed. He was the Rev. V. Nickless who had been assistant Curate at St. John’s before the war. He was unable to take up his position immediately as he was on active service in the Middle East. The Reverend D. C. Sheriff, stood in at this time.
In July 1944, a near-by high explosive shell blew out the windows in the Children’s Corner, and further damage was sustained to the fabric of the church. Water damage to walls was evident, as many of the clerestory windows were missing and it was decided to close the Church. It was also noted that the spire had been damaged and was out of line. The Old Church Hall was used during this time and the oak altar table, which now stands in the Lady Chapel, used in the Hall for services.
A celebratory service was held though, in the Church for Victory Europe Day at the end of World War II, as the Old Church Hall was not big enough.
Old Church Hall circa 1945.
St. John’s Church reopened on the 10th March, 1946 having been closed the best part of two years. The inner double doors were installed at the West door and the Inner Porch Doors also. Clifford Grant, a member of St. John’s congregation, made these.
In 1949 a wall was erected to match the Church and replace the perimeter fence. A £150 donation from Colonel Hamilton who had been a churchwarden throughout WWII, was made to commence the work. In 1952, Iron Gates were erected to replace the old wooden gates that had stood there before.
The Lady Chapel
In 1944 permission was granted for a Chapel to be created at the West End of the South aisle but was delayed at the time due to War damage. In 1985 this Chapel became the Lady Chapel and was dedicated by the Bishop of Rochester, David Say - To the Glory of God and in loving memory of Jean Johnson.
The oak altar, reredos and altar rail in the Lady Chapel, were originally in Bridgen School and were made in 1866. Bridgen School and St. Mary’s closed in 1975 and were replaced by Parkwood County Primary School in Hurst Road. In 1992 incorporating St. John’s and St. Mary’s Infants it became Old Bexley Church of England Primary School. The school was extended in 2014 and a small room for prayer was consecrated by the Bishop of Tonbridge during September 2014. The reredos from St. Johns Church Lady Chapel has been lent to the school providing continuity and a historical link back to Bridgen Chapel.
The War Memorial stands at the junction of Hurst Road and Parkhill Road on the corner of Golden Acre. Remembrance Day Services were discontinued at the Memorial in 1965 but have recommenced during the last few years. Each year’s attendance at this service has increased.
Curates in Charge 1882-1937 Prior to full Parish Status
1882 J. W. Owen 1909 T. Smylie
1883 C. M. Shaw 1910 W. Miller Brown
1884 R. H. Fair 1912 J. N. Mallison
1892 J. I. Mitchell 1915 W. Cockren
1894 H. H. Walker 1929 A.S. Harriman
1895 A. Cooper Marsden 1931 W. Tippen
1900 J. A. Eastern 1932 E. Maples Earle
1905 R. G. Monckton
1936 E. Maples Earle
1939 R. H. Soar 1980 K.W.T.W. Johnson
1944 V. Nickless 1991 J. Peal
1950 F. J. Everard Evans 2001 V. Lamont
1974 D. Noble 2009 S.I. Lamb
This Board was a gift of the Family of the Reverend F. J. Everard Evans who died 17th March 1990 and now stands in the south aisle.
The Memorial Book and Desk were placed along the North wall, in 1983.
Along with the dedication of the Lady Chapel, the Memorial Garden alongside the North wall between the Porch and the Tower base was created and dedicated, by the Bishop of Rochester, The Reverend David Say; in 1985.
1990 Creation of the Parish of St. James the Great, Blendon
St. James Parish was created from parts of the original Parishes of St. John’s, Bexley and Holy Trinity, Lamorbey. St. James being separated from St. John’s, after being its daughter church, for 54 years.
2000 The Millennium Cross, behind the altar on the Reredos, was carved from an oak felled in Northumberland. It is a Celtic style cross, modelled on the St. Aidan cross at Holy Island. This Cross is placed there after the services. It was crafted by Dennis Crowe and donated by Margaret Bearfoot.
2001 Following an inspection carried out in 1997, the stonework to the upper third of the spire down to the top of the decorated band was found to be unsound. The underlying reason: being blast damage, sustained during W.W.II, industrial pollution and weathering. A recommendation was made, that the top of the spire should be dismantled and rebuilt, at the same time the central section was checked for stability. Other defects were uncovered, pointing to a continual process of decay. Subsequently, quotations were obtained and fund raising organized through the Spire Fund appeals committee. In the sure knowledge that adequate funds were available, work commenced in April 2001. The spire was clothed in scaffolding for four months. J. W. Gray & Son Ltd of Essex carried out Restoration with the overseeing Architects, Molyneux of East Peckham, Kent.
2001 Reverend Ronni Lamont, St. John’s first Lady Incumbent.
2003 Gas fired Central heating was installed. The North and South aisle pews were removed, to accommodate the radiators.
2012 The lighting project came to a conclusion in May, with the installation of new internal lighting and external floodlighting. The cost of this was £60.199.50 and was mainly raised through charitable grants and donations. Anthony J Smith (Gloucester) Ltd completed this work in seven weeks. The old heating bars and electrical truncking which ran across the nave arches (installed in 1972) were removed, which restored the original architectural features of this fine Victorian Gothic Church.
2014 Organ. The "Father Willis" organ was dismantled and taken to Henry Willis Organ workshop (Liverpool) for complete refurbishment to be undertaken. Work to ten weeks to complete and was reinstalled in late September. Cost £46,842.00.
As a commitment to the village and the congregation, St. John’s still remains an open Church and many people pop in during its quiet hours for prayer and contemplation.
St. Johns Church, photo 1910
By Rob Soar
Copyright St. John the Evangelist, Bexley