Churches and chapels: Introduction

Survey of London: Volume 42, Kensington Square To Earl's Court. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1986.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


'Churches and chapels: Introduction', in Survey of London: Volume 42, Kensington Square To Earl's Court, ed. Hermione Hobhouse( London, 1986), British History Online [accessed 25 July 2024].

'Churches and chapels: Introduction', in Survey of London: Volume 42, Kensington Square To Earl's Court. Edited by Hermione Hobhouse( London, 1986), British History Online, accessed July 25, 2024,

"Churches and chapels: Introduction". Survey of London: Volume 42, Kensington Square To Earl's Court. Ed. Hermione Hobhouse(London, 1986), , British History Online. Web. 25 July 2024.

In this section

CHAPTER XXIII - Churches and Chapels

'That we live in a Church-building age is made manifest in the foregoing pages.' So wrote the Reverend William Pepperell in 1872, concluding his unique collection of articles on Kensington's churches, published as The Church Index. 'Of the fifty-three Churches and Chapels in Kensington, fifteen have been erected and opened within the last five years; sixteen others within ten years; and in all within the past twenty years there have been no less than forty-three erections… A half a million of money is represented in these structures, by far the larger half of which has been raised and expended within the last decade. Whatever the verdict of posterity may be upon these buildings from an artistic point of view, it will not hesitate to accord the high merit of distinguished energy and liberality. As to Architecture, some few of these erections embody and will hand down to future times examples of the improved taste of our day; but for the most part they have been erected under pressure of urgent necessity, arising from the rapid and overwhelming outflow of population towards the western suburbs. The question has been all along how places could be erected with sufficient speed to save new communities from habitual forgetfulness of the Sabbath and public worship for the mere want of places in which to assemble. Never has been in the past, never probably will be in the time to come, an extensive suburban area like this so rapidly covered with habitations of men and all the concomitants of our social life.' (fn. 1)

This burst of church-building on the part of Anglicans, Catholics and Nonconformists alike calls for some general commentary. The introduction which follows concentrates upon churches covered in detail in this volume or its predecessor (volume XLI), but some mention is made of churches described in previous volumes of the Survey of London on Kensington (volumes XXXVII and XXXVIII).

Anglican Church-Building in Southern Kensington

Until the 1820s the spiritual and secular boundaries of Kensington were the same. The affairs of the parish centred upon St. Mary Abbots in Kensington Church Street, at the heart of the old village. When from the 1760s London began to encroach upon Kensington and extra church accommodation was required, the first expedient was the traditional Georgian one of the 'proprietary chapel', promoted by private developers without expense to the parish. The Brompton Chapel (1768–9), built in Montpelier Street at the eastern edge of the parish, was a commercial enterprise charging pew-rents, promoted by a building tradesman and two clergymen to enhance the development of Brompton Row along the north side of Brompton Road. The original 'Morning Minister', Richard Harrison, enjoyed some reputation as a preacher—an important qualification since there were rival proprietary chapels nearby in adjoining parishes. The Brompton Chapel changed hands several times, and much of its congregation was generally extra-parochial. In 1871 there was an average Sunday attendance of 400–500 and a capacity of 800; pew-rents and quarterly collections were the sole source of income for the minister, who soon afterwards got into financial difficulties. (fn. 2)

By this time such chapels had long gone out of favour and other methods of 'church extension' were preferred. Government-backed church-building enjoyed a strong lease of life between 1818 and 1830, the period of the 'Commissioners' Churches'. They were built partly to accommodate the growing population and partly to exercise 'social control'. In Kensington there were few discontented poor, but the campaign did coincide with a renewal of the building activity which was slowly to make the parish part of London, and the Vestry successfully obtained substantial 'grant aid'. Holy Trinity, Brompton, and St. Barnabas's, Addison Road, were the results. (fn. 3) Church-building at this period was not unlike public housing at a later period. The government gave conditional grants, the Vestry found the balance of cost (often on loan), and pew-rents were fixed so that the churches could become self-supporting and influence the tone of the neighbourhood. The Commissioners also gave grants towards some of Kensington's early-Victorian churches, but their role after 1830 by and large was unimportant.

C. J. Blomfield, Bishop of London between 1828 and 1856, was most responsible for imposing upon Victorian London the pattern of small, subdivided ecclesiastical parishes 'of manageable size, each with its church, its pastor, its schools, its local charities'. As the force behind the new Ecclesiastical Commissioners and the founder in 1836 of the Metropolis Churches Fund, Blomfield began a campaign of energetic, 'private-enterprise' churchbuilding directed notably towards the East End. 'The duty of contributing to this object is especially incumbent upon all those persons who are the proprietors of lands and houses in the metropolis', wrote Blomfield. (fn. 4) Kensington was strongly influenced by his policies after John Sinclair (1797–1875) became Vicar of St. Mary Abbots in 1842. Sinclair was one of a new breed of Victorian ecclesiastical administrators. He came to London in 1839 to manage the National Society, the Anglican school-building organization. He was quickly taken up by Blomfield, made his chaplain, then became Vicar of Kensington and latterly Archdeacon of Middlesex. Sinclair had much to do with promoting the many churches built in the ancient parish between 1845 and 1875. 'Called to the charge of Kensington', wrote Archbishop Tait of Sinclair, '… he at once began the work of subdividing it into manageable districts; and he allowed no personal interest to stand in the way when a partition of his pastoral authority seemed right'; (fn. 5) while his monument in St. Mary Abbots declares: 'In his time through his self-denying efforts fourteen ecclesiastical districts were formed out of the mother parish of Kensington'. (fn. 6) In other words, Sinclair could afford the parcelling-up of his territory which later and less privileged clergymen could not.

Many of these districts were soon rapidly divided into smaller areas. 'Under the late Archdeacon Sinclair', the local newspaper stated in 1879, 'Kensington churches were so multiplied that the Old Court Suburb parish became almost like an episcopal see'. (fn. 7) At the time their number seemed to confirm the vigour and efficiency of the Anglican parochial system. Kensington, claimed Francis Hessey of St. Barnabas's, Addison Road, in 1872, 'now contains upwards of 121,000 souls; and yet rapidly as its population has been increased, fresh churches have been built for the use of that population, to which parochial rights and duties have been successively attached; and each new parish has again been subdivided, as soon as the necessity has occurred. Such repeated subdivision is still going forward.' (fn. 8) Under this system, anyone could promote a church and appoint a vicar. It was then left to the diocesan bishop and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to define a necessarily small district for the foundation and placate existing incumbents, who stood to lose both territory and pew-rents. For an impoverished clergyman this could spell disaster. These conditions sufficiently explain the hostility of Walter Pennington of St. Philip's, Earl's Court Road, to the establishment of St. Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, in the early 1880s (page 370).

The Kensington churches built under Sinclair may roughly be divided into 'estate churches', promoted or supported by landowners and developers to make property in their district more eligible, and 'private churches' started by individual clergymen to further a particular brand of churchmanship. Estate churches on the whole were 'low' and private churches 'high', but this was not an issue before the 1860s. In that decade a local building boom coincided with the first great clashes over ritual. In southern Kensington, St. Augustine's, Queen's Gate, St. Jude's, Courtfield Gardens, St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens, St. Stephen's, Gloucester Road, St. Luke's, Redcliffe Square, the demolished St. Matthias's, Warwick Road, and the short-lived St. Patrick's, Kenway Road, were all built in this period or shortly after. Financial difficulties, theological acrimony or topographical jealousies attended most of these foundations. A. C. Tait, who followed Blomfield as bishop, was hostile to ritualism. His successor after 1869, John Jackson, was still cautious, but after 1885 Frederick Temple was more liberal, as Henry Westall's escapades at St. Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, were to prove. In general, a moderate ritualism was growing in acceptance in southern Kensington during the 1870s, with at least two churches (St. Mary's, The Boltons, and St. Stephen's, Gloucester Road) changing tack in this period. The local parsons tried to be polite about one another, but there were strong animosities beneath the surface, with St. Paul's, Onslow Square, and St. Jude's, Courtfield Gardens, lined up on the 'Low' side, St. Augustine's, Queen's Gate, St. Matthias's, Warwick Road, and St. Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, in the 'High-Church' camp, and the rest in between. There was much theological literature at this period. Most local churches had a parish magazine by 1880, and from 1888 there was a monthly periodical called The Kensington Churchman and Ruridecanal Gazette.

The financing of these churches caused many problems at the time and stored up others for the future. As Kensington was rich, the national and diocesan churchbuilding funds which were important in poor areas played a very small part. Some churches, like St. Paul's, Onslow Square, and St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens, were built at the sole expense of the landlord or developer. In Hereford Square on the Day estate, the developer was unwilling to provide the church which the freeholder suggested, so none was built (page 162). More commonly the landlord gave the site or sold it cheap, and the committee or vicardesignate had to raise funds for building. The contrast between the two churches on the Gunter estate is telling. At St. Jude's, Courtfield Gardens, a rich evangelical businessman supplied nearly all the backing for building: even so, the spire was prudently postponed. At St. Luke's, Redcliffe Square, the vicar went rashly ahead with the whole church, and financial disaster ensued.

Though large donations were common, few even of Kensington's churches were built in one campaign. Many went through three stages: iron church, half the church (either nave or chancel, usually the former), and completed church. The iron church erected for St. Paul's, Vicarage Gate, in 1855 was claimed as the first example of the genre in London, (fn. 9) and during the 1860s the type became a distinctive device of Sinclair's church-building policy. 'The province and purpose of the Temporary Iron Church has been most marked in Kensington', commented Pepperell. 'There are but few exceptions to the rule that, as to the later erections Iron has been the pioneer of stone or brick. It is utilized for the first formation of districts and subparishes, and for the collection of congregations. The young clergyman settles himself down to a new locality, puts up the Temporary Church at a small cost,— in the midst of bricks and lime heaps, and scaffolding all around; the houses, however, are soon completed and occupied, and in two or three years he feels himself strong enough to turn his attention seriously to a permanent erection, and in many cases in an incredibly short time the work is accomplished, and the useful Iron friend is sold or hired out to some brother minister who wishes to imitate the process in another place. (fn. 10) In due course, however, the Metropolitan Board of Works set its face against iron churches. This seems to have been justified, for in Kensington the one at St. Patrick's, Kenway Road, burnt down in 1879. The iron church raised for St. Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, in 1883 was described as 'the first erected after an interval of twelve years'. (fn. 11)

The private churches had on the whole the longer struggle for money, having to pay for their site as well as the bricks and mortar, but clergymen like S. C. Haines of St. Matthias's, Warwick Road, and Henry Westall of St. Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, became expert at badgering their flock for money. Nearly all the churches failed to provide any proper endowment. The 'low' churches relied on pew-rents, the 'high' ones on almsgiving, but all assumed that future clergy would have some private means and that Kensington's prosperity would guarantee large congregations and liberal donations for the future. Because of their small parishes, the rich congregations at first did not have enough to do locally and so often 'adopted' poorer districts elsewhere. But by the 1890s there were signs that some areas were too small to support themselves indefinitely. After 1914 nearly all the Kensington parishes began to suffer from multi-occupation and the decline of family life, which led to falling attendances. Churches like St. Jude's, Courtfield Gardens, and St. Cuthbert's, Philbeach Gardens, which drew strongly from outside their borders survived better than others, but all were affected.

The 'church censuses' of 1851, 1886 and 1902–3, though not directly comparable, give some sense of attendances at these churches over the years. The statistics for 1851 were not broken down for each church, but show that compared to other districts of similar size Kensington already had more churches, higher attendance and a greater proportion of rent-paying sittings. By 1886, though the local population had doubled, the position was similar. But in 1902–3, after twenty years of roughly stable population, attendances had slumped. At St. Stephen's, Gloucester Road, St. Philip's, Earl's Court Road, St. Paul's, On slow Square, and St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens, the figures were nearly down to half those of 1886, and in the extreme case of St. Mary's, The Boltons, attendance had fallen by two-thirds. (fn. 12)

The Anglican churches of southern Kensington are by no means exceptional in their architecture and planning, but they have some special features. All are Gothic, but there is a division of some note between the stone-faced churches, clad usually in Kentish rag, and the brick-faced ones. Commissioners' churches like Holy Trinity, Brompton, were generally in brick for cheapness. The later 'high' churches adopted brick because it allowed extra money to be spent on fittings and because architects of Tractarian sympathy felt it to be 'truthful' in an urban context. The 'estate churches' belong to a different tradition: in southern Kensington, St. Paul's, Onslow Square, St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens, St. Mary's, The Boltons, St. Jude's, Courtfield Gardens, St. Luke's, Redcliffe Square, and St. Stephen's, Gloucester Road, are all faced in rough-hewn stone. This elevation by style and material above the stucco and brick houses around them reflects their local status. Yet inside, the earlier of these churches (St. Paul's and St. Mary's) were plastered, whereas the other four (all built between 1866 and 1873) originally had polychromatic brick walling, as if their architects preferred brick but estate convention obliged them to have ragstone facing. These colourful interiors have been harshly treated; only at St. Luke's do they even partially survive. The darkening of such churches through over-liberal insertion of stained glass prompted a backlash, and whitewashing or colour-washing over patterned brick work started in London churches from the Edwardian period. In Kensington, the process began in the inter-war period, but the post-war policies of Milner and Craze, the London diocesan architects, completed what others had begun. At St. Augustine's, Queen's Gate, there have been recent attempts to make some amends by repainting the brickwork in polychromatic colours.

In planning, the churches of 1866–73 mentioned above (St. Peter's, St. Stephen's, St. Jude's and St. Luke's) make a coherent group. They represent thoughtful attempts to settle a satisfactory church-plan for wealthy, conventional suburban parishes. All try to reconcile orthodox ecclesiological ideas about the visible separation of nave, aisles and chancel with the seating traditions of evangelical worship; all squeeze in as many sittings as possible in order to maximise pew-rentals; and all verge upon architectural 'roguishness'. There are some differences between them. At St. Stephen's galleries were originally excluded, whereas at St. Jude's capacious galleries were put cleverly into semi-transepts without spoiling a view of the altar. Bassett Keeling's two northern Kensington churches of 1863–4 (St. Mark's, Notting Hill, and St. George's, Campden Hill) probably influenced all these four buildings, particularly George and Henry Godwin's St. Jude's and St. Luke's. Their interiors have been so roughly treated since 1900, starting with G. F. Bodley's unfeeling handling of Joseph Peacock's work at St. Stephen's, that it is hard to see them now as they were originally intended.

Other Churches and Sects

Though fewer Roman Catholic churches than Anglican ones were built in southern Kensington during its period of development, what they lacked in number they made up for in status and conspicuousness. Kensington, declared the sermon-taster the Reverend C. Maurice Davies in 1876, 'is rapidly becoming the focus of Roman Catholic influences in London'. (fn. 13) At one end of the parish lay the London Oratory, poor in appearance from its establishment in 1852 until Herbert Gribble's great church rose in 1880–4, but always potent in authority and influence. At the other extremity near the west end of Kensington High Street was Our Lady of Victories, built in 1867–9 and, as the Pro-Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Westminster's jurisdiction until Westminster Cathedral was consecrated in 1902. These two foundations, distinct in theological as well as architectural style, outranked humbler enterprises like the Servite Priory and Church in Fulham Road, the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington Square, the Carmelite Church in Kensington Church Street and the sundry Catholic missions, priories and convents in North Kensington whose ministry was directed towards poor areas.

On this formidable basis ambitious Catholics hoped to build further in the 1870s. Monsignor T. J. Capel in particular aspired to make Kensington the unrivalled centre of fashionable Catholicism in London by founding a Catholic University College in Wright's Lane and a 'feeder' school in Earl's Court. No priest was more feared or envied by the Anglicans than Capel, an eloquent but casuistical preacher from the pulpit of the Pro-Cathedral. Pepperell criticized him with unusual vehemence in The Church Index, and S. C. Haines of St. Matthias's, Warwick Road, a near-neighbour of Capel's projected school, insinuated in a pamphlet that he concentrated his influence upon 'those wealthy weak ones whose estates become the sinews of a war against their native lands'. (fn. 14) But Kensington's faithful of the established persuasion were spared when Capel's plans collapsed amidst debt and scandal in 1878–9 (page 106). Thereafter, Catholic advances were more cautious and, after the building of the Oratory, there were no further great building projects.

Nonconformists were well represented but perhaps less influential in Kensington than in poorer parts of London. The Congregationalists, who began in Hornton Street in 1794–5 and built themselves the handsome, defiantly classical Kensington Chapel in Allen Street in 1854–5, were the exception; theirs was a community of some standing and intellectual pretension. Other sects did their best to keep up with the house-building boom of the 1860s, by which time the orthodoxy of Gothic had percolated into chapels. The Baptists built in Neville Terrace off Fulham Road in 1856, the Scottish Presbyterians in Allen Street in 1862–3, and the Methodists in Warwick Gardens in 1863, all with some show of ambition.

But the same miscalculations and embarrassments dogged dissenting foundations as Anglican ones. Over-eager ministers sometimes anticipated a large following where only a small one was to be had. Samuel Bird promoted a new Baptist chapel at the future Emperor's Gate in 1868–9 only to see his enterprise flounder; the mortgagee was left in possession and obliged to make further embellishments before a congregation of English Presbyterians took the building off his hands in 1873 (page 393). The Wesleyan Methodists, never at their peak in prosperous districts, also erred by building in Warwick Gardens, if Pepperell is to be credited. 'A degree, perhaps, of laudable ambition has led some leading Methodist ministers and laymen of late years to desire to place chapels in neighbourhoods different from those usually occupied', he wrote. '… But if the experiment is to be judged by its results in this instance, it would appear a lamentable mistake; and it may after all be worth considering whether John Wesley's own rule will not serve Methodism for all time — "To preach the Gospel to the Poor, and to go not only to those who need us, but to those who need us most".' (fn. 15)

During the present century other denominations have joined in the business of supplying the religious wants of Kensingtonians. In Iverna Court, the unique St. Sarkis's Armenian Church (1922–3) stands cheek by jowl with the Seventh Church of Christ Scientist (1926–8). More recently the newcomers have availed themselves of redundant 'plant' no longer wanted by older-established churches. A Russian Orthodox congregation occupies the chapel in Emperor's Gate, Copts worship in the old Presbyterian Church in Allen Street, and Armenians, too numerous for St. Sarkis's since the Turkish invasion induced many to leave Cyprus, in St. Peter's, Cranley Gardens.


  • 1. Pepperell, pp. 74–5. Pepperell’s articles originally appeared in The Suburban Press.
  • 2. Survey of London, vol. XLI, 1983, p. 38: Pepperell, p. 30: G.L.R.O., P84/TR12/140.
  • 3. Survey of London, vol. XXXVII, 1973, p. 130; vol. XLI, 1983, pp. 46–7.
  • 4. Alfred Blomfield, A Memoir of Charles James Blomfield, D.D., Bishop of London, 1863, vol. 1, p. 237.
  • 5. William Sinclair (ed.), Thirty-Two Years of the Church of England 1842–1874: The Charges of Archdeacon Sinclair, 1876, p. v.
  • 6. Monument to John Sinclair, south transept, St. Mary Abbots Church, Kensington.
  • 7. Kensington News, 27 Sep. 1879.
  • 8. Pepperell, p. 83.
  • 9. Survey of London, vol. XXXVII, 1973, p. 46.
  • 10. Pepperell, p. 85.
  • 11. [Henry Westall], History of the Church of S. Cuthbert, Kensington, 1898–1905, pp. 18–19.
  • 12. P.P. 1852–3, LXXXIX, p. 3: British Weekly, 26 Nov. 1886: Richard Mudie-Smith (ed.), The Religious Life of London, 1904, pp. 79–80, 282.
  • 13. C. Maurice Davies, Unorthodox London, 1876, p. 248.
  • 14. Pepperell, p. 65: S. C. Haines, The English Catholic Church better than the Roman Catholic Schism, 1872, p. 7.
  • 15. Pepperell, p. 28.