A brief history of the church building.
The present Christ Church building replaced a smaller Georgian building. This had started life in 1820 as the independent Holland Chapel, but in 1835 became a Proprietary Chapel linked to the Church of England and the parish of St Mark, Kennington.
In 1855, after the addition of an apse at the East end of the building to allow space for a Communion Table, it become a Parish Church. By the end of the century the building has become dilapidated and too small for the congregation which had grown considerably under the ministry of the then Vicar, the Revered William Mowll. An influential local figure, after his death Chapel Street, the adjoining side street, was renamed after him.
During the 1890s plans were dawn up for a new larger church and land to the south purchased. The Churchmanship of the church was evangelical and there was a deliberate decision to build in a style distinctly different to the Gothic, still popular at the time. The style of the new church was to be Byzantine. The architect was Arthur Beresford Pite, the brother-in-law of the vicar. Many plans were considered, including several with the central tower of the West front as an open campanile, before the final design was agreed. The foundation stone bears the date 1898, and the church was consecrated in 1902. Building costs were covered directly by public subscription. The builder was Mr Weber, of Mortimer Street W1.
During the construction the Church Hall was used for worship. This had been built in a plainer style behind the church between 1897-8.
Pevsner (Buildings of England : London South p.333) points out the buildings stylistic similarity to Westminster Cathedral. ‘It is constructed of red and yellow brick in bands and Portland stone dressings to doors and windows. The roofs are slate and tile. A dome covers the centre of the cruciform plan. Traditional orientation is reversed with the liturgical west front facing east onto Brixton Road. The imposing West front is formed of a central octagonal tower, with three arched openings at first floor level over the doors. To either side the façade terminates in low towers which are slightly recessed and have domed roofs.’ The remarkable external pulpit, not part of Pite’s original plan and added in 1907 at the insistence of the Reverend Mowll, is the only element which upsets the rigid symmetry of the West front. It also upset the family relationships between vicar and architect!
The brick and stone gateposts along the Brixton Road frontage, with their elaborate lanterns, are contemporary with the church, and echo those of the Georgian predecessor. The railings are a modern replacement of originals removed during WWII.
The building is listed Grade II* (1951).
Throughout there are signs of restrained Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveaux influences.
The interior walls are limed washed and in contrast with the exterior, there is little decoration with the exception, below the dome, of remarkable mural inscriptions of the Ten Commandments, the New Testament Summary of the Law, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed designed by Edward Johnston. Johnston was also responsible for the design of the inscription on the stone lintel above the central west door. The internal lettering was executed by Eric Gill and it is thought that he also cut the lettering on the lintel.
The Stained Glass
The five stained glass windows in the church were all made by prominent stained glass companies of their time.
The first window,by James Powell & Sons, depicts St. Paul preaching to the Athenians. It had been erected by the parishioners in 1891 in memory of Canon James McConnel Hussey, the Minister at Christ Church who saw the movement of the church from Proprietary Chapel to Parish Church. When the first church was demolished, this window was transferred to its present position in the south transept of the new building.
The Good Samaritan window to George McMinnies was first placed in the centre of the apse of the new church. Designed and made by Clayton & Bell, probably from a cartoon by George Daniels, it was erected soon after the church was completed. It commemorated a man who had willed to the church re-building fund over one-third of the final costs.
In 1916, William Mowll had the McMinnies window moved to the right side of the apse. In its place he had erected the companion pair dedicated to his parents. Also made by Clayton & Bell, their subjects are the Sacrifice of lsaac, and the presentation by Hannah of her son Samuel to Eli.
Appropriately in the most prominent position, in the centre of the apse, is the final Clayton & Bell window: The Resurrection. This subject was particularly popular in the years following the first world war. The design was probably adapted by one of their draughtsmen from a painting by Axel Herman Haig. This window too was a dedication from a member of the Mowll family. Basil Christopher Mowll, nephew and successor incumbent to William.
More recent developments
1980’s and 1990’s
Under the leadership of the Rev’d Nigel Godfrey, considerable alterations were made to facilitate the greater use of the building in the service of the community and to house the residential members of the ‘Community of Christ the Servant’. This was a direct response to the Church of England ‘Faith in the City’ report, and benefited from the support of the Church Urban Fund; the parish being one of the most deprived in the country. A number of community initiatives were set up in the newly created facilities, some of which continue today.
The original West gallery was extended to the east to provide office space above. The area of the nave below was screened off to provide a multi- purpose space named ‘The Holland Room’. At the same time the remaining worship space was named the Basilica. In the process the two-manual Hunter organ (which had been moved from the first building and enlarged in 1902) was removed. Toilets and a kitchen were installed either side of the West entrance vestibule. Additional single story constructions were also inserted in the transepts to provide meeting rooms to the South and a chapel to the North. A second floor was added to the vestry, and a flat built above the new offices to provide additional residential accommodation.
For the first time crosses were added to the decoration of the building. Most notably a gilded cross was placed on the top of the central tower of the façade, replacing the now dilapidated original upward pointing hand.
In the 1990s two symmetrical wings in a complimentary style and using similar materials were added to the West front. That to the North is the Vicarage, and the Southern wing a café. The wings are low and sympathetic to the feel of the original – indeed some of Pite’s early unrealised plans show logia features in these locations. This was the work of the Revd Peter Andsell-Evans, who also designed the internal alterations.
2000 to the present
The gallery extension had been built to carry a new pipe organ, but in 2007 a fine digital instrument was installed with the speakers located above the gallery.
Between 2008 and 2012, thanks to two very significant grants from English Heritage, major repair and restoration and work was carried out to the much of the roof, and the external pulpit. At this time the public clock on the central tower was overhauled and returned to working order. This work was overseen by Thomas Ford and Partners and carried out by Rubicon Roofing.
In 2015 the kitchen was moved and incorporated into the café using the space previously occupied by the toilets to the South of the entrance vestibule, the area to the north of this vestibule was used to create a designated shop space.
New toilets and a servery were installed on the South side of the Holland Room, to plans drawn up by Roderick Maclennan, and the work done by Produk Ltd. Later the same year the forecourt was resurfaced and remodelled to a design by Deirdre Munroe.
The main worshp area of the church is in urgent need of attention. As well plans to deal with a backlog of routine minor repairs, permission is also being sought to remove some of the construction added in the South transept during the 1990’s and the chancel platform also installed at that time. This will increase both the amount and felixblity of the space for larger services, including school services, and community events. A light and airy smaller meeting room will also be created, and storage space preserved. It is also planned to remove the carpet to reveal the original floor boards and to improve the lighting.
In 2016 after a few years of faultless operation the clock again began to fail. A thorough survey has revealed major underlying issues with the set up of the clock which date back many years. A lack of funds and competing priorities may well prevent the clock being returned to working order. However to have such a highly visible public clock out of action is disappointing to many who see it. Currently applications are in hand to grant making bodies to try to secure the necessary funds.