Calton Avenue (Part 1) - St Barnabas Church
by Ian McInnes
Historically the religious needs of Dulwich Village’s residents had been served by Christ’s Chapel - a chapel of ease under the parish of St Giles in Camberwell. From the 1850s onwards as more and more houses were developed in Sydenham Hill, and more particularly East Dulwich, it became clear that additional churches would have to be built. St Johns Goose Green was consecrated in 1851, St Stephens on College Road followed in 1868 and St Peters Lordship Lane in 1874.
The construction of East Dulwich Grove, Townley Road and Alleyns School (built 1884-87) also encouraged the expansion of Dulwich Village northwards and eastwards. By the late 1880s Christ’s Chapel was proving totally unable to cope with the increase in the numbers of residents who wished to use it and a further church became a necessity.
The first mention of a proposed new parish in Dulwich comes in the Estate Governors’ meeting minutes of 24 July 1890. Presumably at the request of the Bishop of Rochester, within whose diocese Dulwich was then located, the clerk to the Governors of Dulwich College had written to the Estate Governors telling them about the proposed new ecclesiastical district in East Dulwich and asking them for the gift of a site for a new church (and parsonage) in or near Townley Road. At this point Townley Road had only recently been completed and Calton Avenue (or Road as it then was) was still a dotted line on the 1886 Estate Map - boys going to the new Alleyns School from the Village walked along a path over the fields.
A further letter followed in November specifying a site on field 626, directly opposite the new Alleyns School. However it would appear that the Estate thought that field 618 would be an even better site for the church as it would be nearer East Dulwich (roughly at the northern end of today’s Dovercourt Road). At the same time they agreed in principle to provide a £2500 contribution towards the cost of the new church - the rest of the money, just over £10,000, was to be raised from the parishioners.
Meanwhile the Bishop of Rochester had appointed a new young assistant curate at St Giles, the Revd Howard Nixon, with the specific job of being Curate-in-Charge of the new Dulwich Mission District, and with the view to establishing Dulwich as a parish in its own right. As soon as he was in place the Revd Nixon set to work. Considering that both fields 626 and 618 were too far from Dulwich Village he persuaded the Bishop of Rochester to attend an Estate Governor’s Board Meeting in February 1891 to plead a case for moving the site to fields 601 and 602, just north of Woodwarde Road and much nearer to Dulwich Village. The site also had the additional advantage of being on higher ground which would make it more visible.
The site change was agreed in April, and in May the Revd Nixon called a meeting of potential parishioners where it was agreed both to build a temporary iron church on the site and to appoint a Church Building Committee for the building of a permanent one. The Governors agreed the temporary church on the southern part of the site and the first service took place on 5 September 1891 - attended by an Archdeacon as representative of the Bishop of Rochester. From then on Revd Nixon was to be called the Vicar-Designate and, on 1 January, 1892 the new church took over from Christ’s Chapel the responsibility for the various religious and benevolent activities carried on by the Dulwich Local Charities including running the Infants' School. The architect chosen to design the church was William H Wood of the Newcastle architects, Oliver and Leeson (later Oliver Leeson and Wood). The firm had won the competition to design Alleyn’s school back in 1884 and we must assume that he had used his frequent visits to Dulwich to oversee the construction of the school to secure good local contacts. He must have started work very quickly because, in July, C E Barry, the College Surveyor, reported that he had been sent the drawings for the church, and that the Estate’s own building committee had accepted the design in principle.
Preliminary work on site clearance, setting out and drainage installation started in October 1891 but shortly afterwards, at a meeting on 12 November, the Estate was asked if it would agree to move the site yet again. Preliminary excavations had shown that the proposed location of the church conflicted with the route of the high level Southern Outfall Sewer that had been built across these fields in 1859-60. Why the Estate did not bother to mention this point earlier is unclear as, given the impact it would have had on the area when it was built, one would have thought they would have remembered it. The site was moved to the west (nearer to the line of the notional future ‘Calton Road’) but still on high ground. The relocation was formerly agreed in January 1892 with the proviso that the Church Building Committee would have to provide and maintain any approach road to the site.
The foundation stone was laid by the Duchess of Teck (mother of the future Queen Mary) on 28 July 1892. Ground works progressed well and in March 1893 Nixon confirmed that construction works were about to start under master builder J W Bowman of Stamford, and that the contract had been given to Messrs Dove Brothers of Islington, the well-known church builders. In July he wrote again stating that the building committee had resolved to complete the entire nave instead of only the portion as previously determined and that this would save £700. The Governors were impressed and congratulated the Church Building Committee on the prospect of soon completing the church.
In February 1894 Revd Nixon sought permission to make a footpath across field 601, to the private pathway to Alleyns School and he followed this up in April with a letter asking the Governors to put in at least part of Calton Road, from Townley Road the Church, for the “convenience of the congregation”. The Governors initially said no but, after further discussion in May they changed their minds - but only on the basis that the church paid for it.
The new church was consecrated on St Barnabas' Day, 11 June 1894. W H Wood’s design was in a "perpendicular gothic" style with the ridge of the roof a uniform height over the nave and chancel. The bricks used came from Cranleigh in Surrey, some of the stone came from Bath, and some was supposed to come from Mansfield, but it later turned out that an inferior substitute stone had been used without the knowledge of the Church Building Committee. Twelve sandstone columns supported the roof, representing the twelve Apostles as pillars of the church. The original slates were from Timberthwaite near Coniston. On 14 June the Church was visited on the Estate Governors’ annual view and the Church Building Committee took the opportunity to lobby the Governors again to start the construction of the north end of Calton Road as far as the church. Their efforts were successful as at the next Estate meeting, it was resolved to seek permission of the Charity Commissioners to do this at once.
The temporary church was now being used as a church hall and in October 1895 Revd Nixon asked for the Governors to give him a further site on the corner of Calton Road and Woodwarde Road for the construction of a proper parish room - he was refused. The parish hall was finally constructed in 1910-12 in Dulwich Village and the temporary church was taken down in 1913.
In July 1896 the Governors agreed to a further grant of land next to the church for a parsonage which was to be a “house or residence, with garden and glebe thereto, for the Minister or Incumbent of the District Chapel of St Barnabas, Dulwich, and to be devoted to ecclesiastical purposes of ever, and containing covenant for the Revd Howard Nixon, the present incumbent, to pay a proportion of expenses of keeping Calton Road in good repair until, taken over by the parish”. The organ was dedicated in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the tower was added in 1906-08 at a cost of £5000. The original cost was much higher and the specification for the tower was altered - including a reduction of the thickness of the brick walls and the omission of some windows to save on stone. The outcome was that the tower proved insufficiently strong to support a peal of bells. The parishioners were called to worship by the small bell that had originally been used in the temporary iron church.
The church burnt down on the morning of 7 December 1992. The tower survived the blaze but was demolished after it was found to be unsafe. The new church, was designed by Larry Malcic of HOK Partnership and was built by R. Durtnall & Co., England’s oldest building company. It was consecrated in 1996.