Arts & Culture History

The Popular Church

  • April 22, 2022
  • 3 min read
The Popular Church

by Sophie Pretorius

James Brooks was known for his creation of what Pevsner called a ‘new type of urban church’. His High Church Gothic Revivalism found interesting expression in the East End, where his distinctive and austere miracles in muscular red brick, stand as bastions of High Anglo-Catholic ceremony on a budget. St Chad, Haggerston (1867–69) is an excellent example of his popular churches. Tall clerestories are supported without a single buttress.

Brooks’ churches were constructed with the idea in mind of getting as many people, from poor and deprived areas, into a building as possible: using space and proportion (instead of precious materials) to communicate divinity and inspire awe. Brooks’s sense of mission as a committed High Churchman, can be felt in the dignity and practicality of these buildings. He even found the funding for these churches himself. They are and were, in general, very well-liked.

St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road, in contrast, has had no expense spared, and, although difficult to see, given that the church is hemmed in by its surrounding buildings, possesses buttresses galore. The difference in style to Brooks’ East End churches is marked. St John’s is almost cathedral-like, based on the 12th century plain Cistercian model, and upon Brooks’ much larger, unsuccessful competition entry for Liverpool Cathedral. It was built in sections, with the temporary edifice of corrugated iron constructed for the worshippers, slowly replaced by stone from East to West, as the funds were raised. This accounts for the very uneven floor, as well as for the unusually high quality of the workmanship, which would not have been affordable in one fell swoop at the time.

This slowly-slowly approach explains the length of the building time (1872-1916), it also accounts for the deviations from Brooks’ original design: the congregation favoured a more elaborate, Cistercian liturgical ceremony, and thus as the church was built, Brooks’ initial vision of simplicity faded. Brooks then died, inconveniently, in the middle of construction (1901) which necessitated the church being completed by John Standen Adkins, his assistant, who made further deviations from Brooks’ original drawings.

The resulting church, however, was and is popular. The very committed congregation, whose parish, the United Benefice of Holland Park (which includes St George’s Church, Campden Hill), is one of the smallest in London, still funds the expensive upkeep of the now Grade 1 listed building. The interior is friendly and beautiful. There are some fine pieces of statue carved in Corsham stone by J.E. Taylerson, as well ornate stained-glass windows by Percy Bacon & Bros. The rederos in the Lady Chapel (Adkins, 1907) is of particularly admirable quality and is sensitively lit: a simultaneously peaceful and awe-inspiring place for solitary thought. There are eight polychromatic wooden angels placed down the nave, carver unknown, which serve as charming and poetic supports for lights.

The service is Anglo-Catholic, with bells and smells, and they have an interesting programme of visiting speakers, and a mass in song, later in the day on Sundays. The United Benefice of Holland Park has a YouTube channel, which has an endearing selection of amateur footage of services and meditations, which gives you a small taste of the service, should you be thinking of visiting.

There are very few architects whose buildings are universally admired with such fervour. Brooks (and in this case, Adkins too) deserve their reputations. St John the Baptist Church is exactly the sort of church that the lapsed among us might picture in our mind’s eye when contemplating a return.

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Sophie Pretorius

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