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The secrets of St John’s Holland Road


Words by Jake Russell

We look inside a little-known masterpiece of Victorian church architecture that was almost destroyed

Superb stone workmanship

St John the Baptist is Kensington’s only Grade I listed church. However, you will not find it described in Pevsner, nor mentioned in England’s Thousand Best Churches. In fact, few people know that one of the treasures of London’s ecclesiastical architecture lies on the busy thoroughfare of the Holland Road.

Not that the building is hidden. Its grand façade rises up beside the pavement in the French gothic style, with a high gable, a rose window, flying buttresses and three ornate porches. The whole façade is made from stone, as is the church interior, including the vaulted roof and the carved screens. Thousands of urban churches were built by the Victorians, the vast majority of them from brick, but the Holland Estate insisted that this one was constructed in stone. It’s another reason why St John’s is unique.

Work began in the 1880s, but the scale of the building meant it was not fully completed until 1911. The architect, James Brooks, was known for building churches in the East End, but the design for St John’s was inspired by the Cistercian Abbeys of Yorkshire, where superb stone workmanship was combined with austere interiors.

Splendid interiors

However, the interior of St John’s was far more splendid. This was due to its first two priests – George Booker and W.M. Spencer – who were responsible for the church between its founding and World War One. They not only put forward much of the money to fund the building, but also decorated it in their extravagant tastes.

Both priests belonged to the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church. Anglo-Catholics emphasised the historical links between the Anglican and Catholic churches by borrowing from Roman liturgy and theology. Priests, churches and services were often hard to tell apart from their Catholic counterparts, with clouds of incense and prayers in Latin. What’s more, their parishes were often found in industrial towns and deprived suburbs.

So, the interior of St John’s has the ornate decoration you might find in a basilica. Some of this is spectacular, such as the rood screen at the chancel entrance, or the painted reredos in the sanctuary, which depicts a scene from Revelation. There is also a Stations of the Cross made from gold and coloured mosaic, and numerous sculptures in Corsham stone, almost all by the well-regarded sculptor J.E. Taylerson – forming the largest single collection of his work in the country.

An outstanding building

The quality of the workmanship is high throughout. For instance, there’s an elaborate font of polished Devon marble and a paschal candlestick in golden marble with onyx banding and inlaid crosses of Egyptian porphyry. There’s also a rare collection of embroidered vestments, banners and altar sets used during the services.

So why do few people know that it’s here? Well, even during the height of the Anglo-Catholic movement, the ornament and ritual and St John’s was considered extreme. By the second half of the twentieth century the congregation was dwindling and the building in disrepair. On Sundays it was rented to an Ethiopian Orthodox community; the rest of the time the door was locked.

St John’s had been originally listed in 1949, but nobody knew what to do with the building. The decay was bad enough that demolition was proposed, but in 2015 the church was upgraded to Grade I status. It was also recognised as ‘an outstanding building, cathedral-like in its scale and aspirations, with a particularly rich, highly accomplished and complete interior.’

A perfect time capsule

Since then, money from various sources has allowed the building to be cleaned and repaired. In fact, the years of quiet neglect mean the interior has barely changed since it was first built, making the church is a perfect time capsule for the High Victorian style. It’s beginning to attract a larger congregation too, in particular from locals and lovers of music.

Work is still needed to restore the church to its former splendour. The large and unusual organ – built in 1897 and rebuilt in 1928 – requires restoration to make its hundredth anniversary. However, nothing can take away from the fact that St John’s is one of Kensington’s most magnificent buildings, and the perfect place to visit this Easter.

Tours of St John’s are available on request. Please contact the Associate Vicar Neil Traynor.


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