Saint Peter’s Church was the first of Walworth’s so-called “New Churches”. The foundation stone was laid on 2nd June 1823 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The architect was Sir John Soane, who was famous as the designer of the Bank of England. When it was built many people did not like the light interior. They thought churches should be dark and gloomy. And as for the idea of placing a weather-cock on top of the steeple instead of a cross.. Well, really!
The building was completed in just under two years, and was consecrated on 28th February 1825. People had to pay for seats – anything from 5 Shillings (25p) to 22 shillings (£1.10) a year for a pew for the whole family. This was quite a lot of money then. They cost more the closer you sat to the heaters.
Working people, and the servants, were given seats upstairs, out of the way of the gentry. Two small galleries either side of the organ pipes were specially for ‘Charity Children’, whose families were very poor indeed.
By the end of the nineteenth century most people who lived in the area were poor people, living in slums. The parish priest here then, Father Horsley (they didn’t use Christian names of priests in those days, but surnames), was very concerned for the poor. The first thing he did was clear all the gravestones from the churchyard, and make it into a small park. It still is one. It caused a great fuss at the time.
Then he tried to do something about the hungry children who lived locally. He provided free lunches for children from the school, and they were served in the crypt. So they had a school meals service started in 1895 or thereabouts. Then he had the new school put up – this is now the ‘old’ part of the building at St Peter’s school, to the east of the churchyard, recently extended. He even set up a small zoo in the rectory garden – people called it the ‘Monkey Park’.
During the First World War people used the crypt as a shelter from bombs when Zeppelins came over and raided London. But there were not so many raids as in the second world war. During the Second World War there were many more raids in London. People used the crypt to shelter from the bombs at night. One night in 1940 three bombs fell on Walworth. Two hit the church, went through the roof, and then through the floor. One exploded in the crypt where people were sleeping. At least sixty-five people died, and many were injured. The other bomb did not explode. Because the crypt was so well built, the building did not collapse, or there would have been more people killed. The Bechstein piano in the church was hit by the tail-fin of the bomb, but it only knocked a chunk of wood out of the lid. It’s still used.
Nowadays the crypt is used for a number of activities, and there is a bar and a community club, The Crypt Club, in it. Both the crypt and church are in demand as locations for films and television use. The crypt was used as a night club in the Singing Detective.
The Church was re-ordered in the early 1970’s, when the Chancel was cleared of the choir stalls, paneling and pulpit installed at the end of the nineteenth century. Though the old High Altar was retained, a central altar was added. The church was redecorated in 1982, during this redecoration a new marble sanctuary floor was laid. The redecoration took place using Soanes original colours. The church was re-dedicated, after the redecoration was completed. Her Majesty the Queen Mother was in attendance for the re-dedication service.
Very little of the organ is original, having been rebuilt on several occasions. It is need of a rebuild before the end of the century, but the cost is probably beyond the purses of the congregation. Recent replacing of the copper roofing, repairs to the original gates, and replacement of the east windows after damage by vandalism, took place with considerable assistance from English Heritage, Heritage of London, and Marshall’s Charity. The PCC and congregation also raised a considerable sum towards these costs.
When the church was built, over 175 years ago, this area of London was something of an affluent area. Times have changed, and we have now been declared an Urban Priority area.