History of the church

Travellers through Bermondsey all know St James’ Church as a landmark – by road, rail and from the air, the dragon on the steeple rides calmly amid the tower blocks and acres of housing estates.

Before 1829, when the church was consecrated, the only church in the whole of Bermondsey was the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalen, at the end of Bermondsey Street. In 1724 at the Bishop’s Visitation, it was recorded “In Bermondsey there are 9,000 people”. The only houses were along Bermondsey Wall, which was part of the only road or highway from the City out into Kent. Here wealthy merchants had magnificent houses. The first streets in our Parish were Salisbury Street and Janeway Street. Here a rich West India Merchant built a house and called it Jamaica House, after the island from which his fortune was derived. By 1710 there were enough poor people living here for it to be necessary to provide a workhouse for 50 people.

In the 18th century ropemakers settled here and in Bevington Street, Farncombe Street and New Church Street (later called Llewelyn Street) ropewalks were established and houses sprang up so that it became necessary to build a new road – Jamaica Road. Between 1825 and 1830 our end of Abbey Street and a few houses along the line of Spa Road were built. In Jamaica Road only the south side was inhabited, in large houses with a view from back windows over open country. As late as the 1870s there was a farm in Tranton Road.

The Waterloo Churches

After Waterloo in 1818 an Act of Parliament was passed to raise a million pounds as a national thank-offering for peace, and as a memorial to the soldiers who had fallen. South London secured seven of the so-called “Waterloo Churches” to be built with the money, and, through the persistence of a group of Bermondsey churchmen, the needs of our area were pressed. In 1821 they bought the land which forms our churchyard and secured a generous grant from the Commissioners of the Fund.

The Chairman of the Committee was William Nottidge, a wool-stapler; with him were two brothers, William George and Richard King Watts, tanners; John Harcourt, Thomas Keeton and Martin Carter, all builders, Robert Rich, who commanded the Bermondsey Volunteers and Dr William Harrison, one of the two Chaplains of St Saviour’s, Southwark (now Southwark Cathedral). Then came six years delay – the committee wanted a tower and a spire but there was not enough money. They devised a scheme – to build a crypt under the church in which bodies could be buried; this would provide a steady income.

On this security, the trustees received permission, by Act of Parliament, to raise £3,000. With a liberal grant on the part of the parishioners and the gift of the Commissioners, the contract (for £21,412) was signed, and the first stone was laid on February 21st 1827. Dr Sumner, Bishop of Winchester, consecrated the church on May 7th 1829. “The building will hold 2,000 persons, of whom 1,200 are accommodated in free seats”. But the spire (copied from Wren’s at St Stephen’s, Walbrook) cost £2,300 more, so in 1831 a new Act had to be passed to borrow this further sum.

James Savage, the architect, modelled the church on a Greek Temple with galleries round three sides and the organ in the west. Competent authorities declare that St James’ Church is the finest church built by the Waterloo Churches Commissioners. The lectern and pulpit were very high to keep the minister in touch with the galleries. A glorious peal of 10 bells was cast by the famous foundry of Mears of Whitechapel, from cannon left behind by Napoleon at Waterloo. A four-faced striking clock, costing £160, was put in the tower. The Organ was built by J.C. Bishop in 1829, and was described in Grove’s Dictionary of Music as “the most complete GG Pedal Organ ever made, both as to compass and stops”.

Gifts of silver Communion vessels were received from some of the original members of the Committee whose energies resulted in the building of the Church, and the Clock in the West Gallery was given by J.T. Martin.

One of the founders of the Church, John Harcourt, died in 1844, and left “£500 for the purchase of a painting of the Ascension to be placed over the Communion Table of St James’ Church, Bermondsey”. His executors made this a prize competition, which was won by John Wood, whose picture – 23 feet high and 11 feet wide – was in position by March 1846 in the East end of the church, where it may still be seen.

[The above is extracted from the History of St James Church which was prepared by Ruth Kendall and published in 1979, 150 years after the church opened. It is now out of print.]

Closure … and restoration

After the 1939-45 war, the crumbling fabric of the church was causing concern. Then the blow fell. On 17th February 1961 the insurance company refused to give cover in case of injury from falling masonry, and the church had to be closed forthwith; weddings booked for the next day had to go to St Crispin’s, and this state of things continued for more than five years. A wire fence was erected round the church and services were held regularly in the parish room in St James’ Road (now home to the Headstart project), where the east end was curtained off and provided with a holy table and a reading desk.

In spite of difficulties, numbers kept up and, in fact, grew, so that when there was a baptism or a church parade it was a case of standing-room only. Every possible means was tried to ascertain what the future was to be. In 1962 the Historic Churches Preservation Trust promised £500 towards the cost of the church restoration.

On 12th March 1963, the Parochial Church Council wrote to the bishop expressing the concern of the P.C.C. that some decision should be made as to the future of the church. He replied that he was willing to come and discuss the matter to try to come to a common mind about the church. This meeting was to be on Friday, 12th July.

There were now many suggestions as to whether the church could be demolished or whether a smaller church could be built on a nearby site. There appeared to be no alternative to demolition. But behind all our thoughts and prayers God was working his purpose out. Sir John Betjeman walked down Jamaica Road and saw the derelict church : he went to his friend Mr Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, Honorary Director of the Friends of Friendless Churches, and said that here was a friendless church that must be saved. He said “Of all the churches built in London by the Waterloo Commission, it is the finest, the most original and the most impressive”.

A letter was received from Mr Bulmer-Thomas offering to restore the church, saying that the Friends of Friendless Churches would not expect any financial help from the P.C.C. Soon we were meeting with ‘all the powers that be’ – architects, builders and, always, Mr Bulmer-Thomas. First the fabric was repaired – roof and gutters, walls and windows, scaffolding covered the spire and the dragon was repainted. Then the south aisle was redecorated and screened from the main part. At the same time an agreement was signed leasing the north aisle to the RAF/ATC Squadron as lecture rooms and training centre as from 24.6.65. This part was likewise screened from the nave – there were connecting doors on either side.

Despite this partial restoration, the structure of the church continued to be in a very poor condition, and in the 1980s a development appeal was launched, based on a three phase restoration proposal. The first two phases were principally concerned with the roof and stonework, and these have been completed. Since 1995 we have concentrated on the interior of the building.

Further stages include:

  • Redecorating, rewiring and reordering the ground floor, including new heating.
  • Upgrading the crypt into effective useable space.
  • Restoring the famous Bishop organ (for which heritage funding has been offered, and the parish is currently raising the balance).
  • Adding two further bells (to restore the ring to its original ten).
  • Restoring the churchyard (the responsibility of the London Borough of Southwark).

Article by Roger Booth