The story begins when a new Parliamentary Act - The Dulwich College act 1882, which set up the existing Alleyn Foundation, came into force. Among its many provisions it envisaged a new ecclesiastical district for Dulwich. This was because of the rapid increase in London's population due to urbanization and the consequent expansion of the suburbs. At the time, local government was provided within the framework of the medieval parish boundaries which were known as vestries until they were replaced in 1902 by borough councils. The parishes to the south of the City were large, Dulwich was situated in the parish of Camberwell, which also included Peckham, and the population rose from 39,000 in 1841 to 235,000 in 1891 and 260,000 ten years later. This huge and rapid increase in population naturally caused the ecclesiastical parish of St Giles, Camberwell as opposed to its vestry to be unable to cope with the numbers requiring its service in the three stages of life, baptism, marriage and death and it was therefore sub-divided into a number of smaller districts.
In the vicinity, St John's East Dulwich was built in 1865. St Stephen's South Dulwich in 1868, St Clement's East Dulwich in 1875 and St Peter's Dulwich Common in 1874. St Paul's Herne Hill in 1844 (replaced by the present church owing to a fire in 1858). All Saints West Dulwich was built in 1891 and St Faith's North Dulwich began its ministry as a mission church of St Paul's in the present church hall in 1909. Throughout this same area, churches or other denominations were also springing up, many, architecturally, indistinguishable from the Anglican churches.
There was a further reason for the increase in church building; social control; it was anticipated that the Church would be a civilizing force among this rapidly expanding working class population. It would provide agencies for the encouragement of temperance, thrift and the provision of medical care. The philosophy of muscular Christianity suggested that boys and young men would acquire manliness, self- discipline and patriotic duty through membership of the churches' gymnastic and boxing clubs and uniformed youth organisations. Girls were encouraged to join the Girls' Friendly Society which was established in most Anglican churches.
The Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester of which Dulwich was part before the creation of the Diocese of Southwark in 1905, was Bishop Thorold who was regarded as a broad church or liberal cleric and thus in complete contrast to his predecessors a generation earlier when the Anglo-Catholic Revival ensured that all the new churches founded in Dulwich would be Ritualist in their liturgy. Towards the close of the 19thC there was a reaction against Anglo-Catholicism in favour of Evangelicalism. In politics the High Church priests often sought political roles on vestry or borough councils, hoping to deal with the root causes of poverty through political action, the Evangelicals found their mission in addressing the issues of poverty and homelessness by providing relief through good works.
Meanwhile, in Dulwich, the condition of Christ's Chapel which had served the village and its surrounding district since 1616 was causing considerable concern. Water was coming in through the roof and funds from pew rents did not appear to be sufficient to satisfactorily cover the cost of the repairs. Furthermore, the pews were all let and there was little or no room for the increasing population. The only solution was to build a new church.
Dulwich was the last ecclesiastical district to be carved out of the old Camberwell parish; its increase in population had been far slower because of limitations to development placed upon it by Alleyn's College of God's Gift. However, development was anticipated to increase in order to generate income for the ambitious schools' building programme as envisaged by the Dulwich College Act of 1882. The Act also required the estate to provide free of charge, land for a church and parsonage and £2500 towards building costs of a new church. Christ's Chapel would continue under its own chaplain but parochial duties which had devolved to him from the 1860's would be inherited by the new vicar of St Barnabas. The sum of of £500 pa and free accommodation was to be extended to the existing chaplain and any successors.
The campaign to build the new church was led by Mr William Cortlandt Mahon, a local resident living in East Dulwich Grove. It seems that it was his choice that the dedication of the new church should be to St Barnabas. Mahon, who had pressed the bishop to build the new church, acted as one of its first churchwardens. It would also appear to be the case that Mahon, like Bishop Thorold was not a high churchman nor was the prospective new priest-in-charge, Howard Nixon who thought ritualism put off young men. So that is how the tradition of St Barnabas' low or broad ministry evolved.
Revd. Howard Nixon
In April 1890 Bishop Thorold found the energetic young curate, Howard Nixon who had spent 8_ years in Kingston parish where his work among young men was particularly successful. There was evidence that men did not attend church in anything like the numbers of women. He asked Nixon to start a church in Dulwich.
The site earmarked by the Dulwich Estate for the new church was between Woodwarde Road and Townley Road but Nixon objected to this site wanting it to be nearer the centre of the parish which included Dulwich Village as well as roads to the north and east. The Estate's first suggestion had been directly opposite the new Alleyn's School.
Nixon proved a very tough negotiator and in February 1891 he persuaded the Bishop to attend the next Estate Governors' meeting to add his support to that of his own in seeking to build the new church on higher ground so it would be better seen. The governors agreed to this in April. The chaplain of Christ's Chapel, the Revd. George Daniell wrote in the chapel leaflet that 'something acceptable must be found to suit the Bishop, the Ecclesiastical authorities, the College & Estate Governors, Charity Commissioners and Inhabitants of the Hamlet of Dulwich .and members of the Foundation of the College of God's Gift (ie the Chapel congregation) - not easy to find anything to which all will say 'Yes'.
Initially it was envisaged the new parish would include the Village centre and the eastern district (Glengarry Rd etc, Lytcott Grove area, Playfield Crescent. Later it took in other areas around Melbourne Grove.
In May 1891 a public meeting to be held at the Infants' School, was announced. By all accounts it was poorly attended and clearly a disappointing start. There were probably local divisions over the passing of pastoral roles from the Chaplain of the Chapel to the new vicar designate. Nevertheless, there was sufficient attendance to ensure that a building committee was elected and soon offers of help started to flow in.
The Iron Church
It was agreed to hire a corrugated iron church for a period of 12 months and open for the first service that September. A choir was to be formed, comprising 12 boys and 12 men which the new vicar would train himself. The temporary church was designed to accommodate 300 persons and had a small chancel at one end. It stood at the junction of today's Woodwarde Road and Calton Avenue.
Nixon was a firm believer that a choir was the key to the success of the new church. Another tactic he used was getting men to serve on the PCC (which numbered 24) for a limited period. He saw this as a means of building a core loyalty. On a practical side, one half of the new church would have free seats, the other paid for pews.
The Chapel Chaplain ruefully wrote “New grooves are sure to replace old ruts and the process of getting out of the one and into the other will surely sometimes be painful” However gifts to furnish the new church came in, a brass Cross, candlesticks, a brass book rest and flower vases.
The temporary church was ready for its opening service on 5th September 1891, the furniture only arriving on the Friday and Saturday. - “The little church looked very bright” the new parish magazine reported..
The following month various building work started on the new church. The architect was William Wood who had won the competition to build Alleyn's School. The design, in similar red brick to Alleyn's was described as Perpendicular Gothic and was designed to seat 600. The bricks were made at Cranleigh, in Surrey, the tiles came from the Tilberthwaite slate mine near Coniston, the 12 sandstone columns representing the 12 Apostles came from Yorkshire, the stone around the windows from Bath . Work however was forced to stop when it was discovered that the building was being erected over the High Level Sewer put under the hill in 1859. The site was moved westwards, nearer to the proposed new road of Calton Avenue. It would thus appear that the current church, set back from the road is built over the same tunnel!
Church officers were appointed, all male. The choir was such a success in that it was oversubscribed, and an auxiliary choir was formed. The following year one of the first choristers was appointed to the choir of the Chapel Royal St James, the first in a long line of such achievements; in 1992, a century later, Gavin Moralee from the St Barnabas choir was Choirboy of the Year.
The new vicar now began to take over the pastoral duties formerly carried out by the Chapel chaplain. On 2nd July 1892 the Duchess of Teck (a senior Royal) laid the foundation stone. Nixon asked the Governors to build up Calton Avenue to aid the construction, initially they said no, but then agreed providing the church paid for it! In 1894 the Estate did build up Calton Avenue for prospective housing.
The new church was consecrated on St Barnabas Day 11th June 1894 The building, without the tower, cost £18,000, which, apart from the Dulwich Estate's contribution of £2500, came in small sums from the parish. some from a brick stamp scheme and some from the proceeds of sales of work which were largely organized by the female members of the parish. Lake House, the vicar's first home, now covered by Dulwich Village Infants School Lake building was in Chinese pagoda style and some of the fetes had a Chinese theme. The next stage of building which took place two years later was the building of a vicarage and as required by the 1882 Act, the governors gave land adjoining the new church for the purpose and and Mr Wood was also engaged to build that.
By 1906 sufficient money was raised to consider completing Wood's original design for the church by adding a 90 feet high tower. The amount raised however was not enough to fulfil the architect's specifications, so in order to save money, the thickness of the brick walls was reduced and the size and number of the windows decreased to economise on the use of expensive stone. The problem was that the tower could not now withstand the weight of the proposed peal of bells and so only the bell from the iron church would be used in future. However, Nixon's building programme was far from over.
The Parish Hall
In 1895 Nixon had asked the Estate for land to build a church hall, the former iron church was being used as the parish room. A site was found in the village and work commenced 1910-12 and the iron building was finally taken down in 1913.
Meanwhile relations between the Chapel and the new Church had improved. Canon Daniell had been found an additional role as a selector of ordinands in the diocese and the posts of new vicar of St Barnabas and the Chaplain of the Chapel were properly formalized. Daniell assisted Nixon with youth work and ran a gymnastic class for young men. A Band of Hope was formed to support temperance, Choir picnics became a regular feature.
In 1903 a religious census was conducted which showed that on a particular Sunday St Barnabas had a congregation of 141 men, 230 women and 168 children, a total of 539 and 566 attended Evensong the same day. At the Chapel the attendance was 351.
Soon after the building had been completed Mr FE Day, a parishioner, formed a group of wood carvers who began a fifty year long project to create choir stalls, a screen, pannelling and tracery around the interior.
In 1900 Nixon had approached the Governors yet again, this time for land to build a hall for the thriving men's' institute. He wanted it in the east of the parish next to the newly built-up roads around Playfield Crescent. He found an ally in the person of the Master of the College, Arthur Herman Gilkes, an advocate of temperance who believed that young men patronized pubs, not merely for the sake of drinking, but for companionship. Persuaded by the support of Gilkes for the project, the governors offered Nixon a small triangle of ground on the edge of the Estate at the corner of Townley Road and Lordship Lane. The Institute raised its own funds and built the attractive building which remains the property of St Barnabas and today is used as a NHS health centre.
First World War
During the First World War it became the custom to publish in the monthly St Barnabas Church magazine, the names and regiments of local men who had volunteered for active service, as well as in another column recording those who had been killed. This added pressure on young men to volunteer and the initial list totalled 320 names including those of 38 members of the St Barnabas Institute. By 1917 with numbers on the Roll of Honour numbering 400-500 with a further 42 killed it was deemed that the Roll was then too large to publish monthly and instead a list would be posted up in St Barnabas Church.
After the armistice a list was opened for the names of those of the parish who had been killed and these were inscribed on wooden memorial boards placed on the north wall of the nave of the church. Funds were also raised for a memorial to all those from the parish who were killed and a new East Window depicting the Risen Christ was made and designed by Whitefriars Glass Company whose owner was Harry Powell, a member of the Chapel congregation. Both the window and the memorial boards were destroyed in the 1992 fire and as a result we no longer know the names of those from the parish who were killed. Shortly after the end of WW1 the surviving members of the Institute began to raise funds to build an extension to the main building as a gymnastics hall to serve as a memorial to those of its membership who were killed. Ironically, it was virtually completed as WW2 was declared.
World War 2
Nixon retired in 1935 after over 40 years' service to St Barnabas Church and with a incredible legacy in what he had created. He was succeeded by the Revd. Wilfred Brown MC MBE
The new vicar was a WW1 decorated war hero. a former army chaplain and holder of the Military Cross who remained as a member in the Army Reserve. Wilfred Brown was called up in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in WW2 and his absence for periods of duty meant that it was left for his the curate the Revd Ted Noon to maintain the activities of the parish. Black-out regulations required that only the two altar candles and a small light at the Litany desk were the only lighting permitted in the war years. The Parish Hall as used as a mess hall for local troops and was not serviceable again until 1946. The Institute Hall became the HQ of a Civil Defence air raid wardens' post. St Barnabas Church escaped war damage in the war although the Chapel was badly damaged in July 1944 by a V1 'flying bomb' which also destroyed Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Post-war and 'The Villager'
In 1946 a new format parish magazine was launched- The Dulwich Villager edited by George Brown . 'The Villager' sought to retain the tangible community spirit which had built up in Dulwich during WW2 by appealing to a wider readership than merely parishioners. In this it was very successful and would continue to be published for another fifty years.
Canon Brown retired in 1958 and was succeeded by Arthur Perry, previously vicar of St Bartholomew's, Sydenham. A keen crossword competitor, Perry twice won The Times contest. He arrived in Dulwich at a time of change. The role of Christ's Chapel Chaplain was now combined with that of the vicar of St Barnabas and he became the first Foundation Chaplain. It was also a period of change within the Church of England itself; in order to achieve greater financial stability the concept of stewardship was launched and in the liturgy, greater emphasis was given to family Communion which replaced matins as the main Sunday service.
There were complaints that the interior of St Barnabas was too dark and consideration was given to whitewashing the interior brickwork, to lighten it. In the event the Diocesan authorities turned down the proposal on the grounds of high maintenance. The problem of the gloomy interior was partially solved in 1980 by the incoming priest, the Revd. Richard Lewis who shared many of the qualities of Howard Nixon in that he was a keen advocate of choirs and church music generally, and also had ambitious building plans. In 1988 he appointed Dr William McVicker as organist and director of music, a post he occupied for the next thirty years during which time he built the choir up to over 70 , made recordings and led choir tours in Italy and Croatia.
Richard Lewis proposed re-ordering the church, bringing forward the altar in line with current practice, resurfacing the flooring with a light yellow tile, moving the carved screen to the opening of the nave and locating a parish office at the back of the church. The partial collapse of the chancel floor might therefore be seen as a sign of divine approval for such drastic alteration! To the delight of the congregation, many of the 'temporary' wooden pews which had been installed when the church opened in 1894 were removed and replaced by more comfortable individual seats. He or someone, got hold of a second-hand army surplus wooden hut which was installed at the rear of the church to provide a place for children's groups on Sundays and later for the newly formed Wednesday Friends. It was known as The Little Barn and demonstrated quite clearly the advantages of having meeting rooms next to the church rather than the distance away from the Parish Hall.
During the re-ordering work the parish de-camped to the Parish Hall for Sunday Service. Several years later this was followed by Richard Lewis's second phase of rebuilding - the provision of a lounge, library, and toilets connected to the main church building
St Barnabas destroyed by fire 1992
Richard Lewis was translated as Dean of Wells in 1990. Whilst dean he would employ his considerable organisational skills to initiate changes to Wells Cathedral. The project has been described by English Heritage as 'one of the biggest building projects at a medieval cathedral since the Reformation.' In Dulwich, his successor was Richard Cattley, a Yorkshireman with a great talent for preaching and a camera- friendly face which went down well when Songs of Praise was broadcast from St Barnabas. In December 1992, following a Christingle service the day before, a fire broke out in the early hours of the morning which by 9am had destroyed the nave and severely damaged the tower.
That same evening, at Christ's Chapel, Richard Cattley pledged to a crowded congregation to see the rebuilding of the church through. It would be a long and painful but, ultimately, supremely successful journey. It was fortunate that there was the right man on hand for the difficult task of project managing the work available from within the congregation and Keith Jackson carried out this exceptionally complex but ultimately successful task. Consultations were widely held as to what people would like to see as a replacement for the old church. As often happens, opinions became polarised. Many wanted a replica of the old church rebuilt, others wanted a modern building with a lighter interior with fewer or no obstructive columns. It was the issue of the damaged tower which ultimately determined the future design. Although the tower appeared to have survived the fire, it was, as noted earlier, built of reduced thickness of brick in 1908 to save money. On examination it was found that the fire had weakened the thinner brickwork and it was condemned as a dangerous structure and had to be taken down. A competition was then held for a new design.
The New St Barnabas Church
It was unfortunate that the rebuilding of St Barnabas, now hailed as a great success, was initially so blighted by dissent. It was true that the architects, the HOK Partnership, had little or no experience in church building but they were (and remain) a major designer of important public buildings including the Crick Institute in London and the Barclays Bank building at Canary Wharf. Nevertheless, the design by Larry Malcic was ambitious and featured the first glass spire of a church in England. Indeed, so revolutionary was the design that opinion on it was evenly divided and not only among the residents of Dulwich, but also in Southwark Council's planning committee in which the agnostic chairman had the casting vote and gave the design the go-ahead. The resulting church is light, it is flexible, its organ and stained glass are spectacular. In its design it reflects the presence of the earlier church, by retaining the base and outline of the walls and tower in the piazza in the forecourt.
Although the money from insurance paid for the rebuild, there was a whole shopping list of items which were not covered - the stained glass by local glass artist Caroline Swash, new furniture; and the parish decided It wanted a community suite as flexible additional space. A big campaign to raise £300,000 was launched. Rather like Canon Nixon's building campaign a century before, the money came in, partly in small amounts such as Smartie tubes crammed with pennies as well as considerable sums raised at big events,
The ordination of women priests in 1994 had allowed, Dianna Gwilliams to be ordained and she became the curate, first at the Coplestone Centre and then at St Barnabas. When Richard Cattley moved after 10 years as vicar, having seen the rebuilding of the church, she officiated during the interregnum. When applications for the post of vicar were advertised, her name, by popular demand, was added to the five or six short-listed candidates for the now vacant post. She was at a strong disadvantage to be selected; a divorcee, female, and serving in the same parish as its curate. However, she had so impressed the parish already that she won hands down. One of her first actions was to encourage theatrical director, Tricia Thorns to produce Passion Play 2000 to celebrate the Millennium. In 2013 her qualities were recognised beyond Dulwich and she was appointed Dean of Guildford thus becoming one of the most senior female priests in the Church of England.
The current vicar of St Barnabas and Foundation Chaplain is the Revd John Watson.