Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
St James’ Church Bermondsey is a graceful church, Grade II* listed, and set within a spacious well kept former graveyard where a few tombs and grave markers remain. The church predated the building of the nearby railway by only a few years but its steeple, topped by a golden dragon, has been a familiar site for train passengers as they journey out from London Bridge for nearly two hundred years. The site of the first temporary London terminus, Spa Road Station, is just a few minutes walk away from the church.
The surrounding area was very different than it is today when the church was consecrated in 1829. Not only had the railway viaduct not been built, to the south the area was largely fields and market gardens, and wealthy merchants lived in large houses along Jamaica Road. St James Road was called Blue Anchor Lane and Thurland Road, where the entrance to the church is, was an extension of Spa Road.
Further west, the population was increasing rapidly. The parish church of St Mary Magdalene that served Bermondsey was unable to accommodate the increased congregation and the decision was made to build a chapel of ease. The problem of lack of space for expanding congregations was echoed in churches throughout London as people moved from the countryside in search of work and was partly blamed for the growth in the non-conformist movements including Congregationalists, Quakers, Methodists and Baptists. There was a fear of the spread of dissenting churches especially in the poorer areas like South London where support for these movements was strong.
Campaigning groups were formed to pressurise Parliament to grant money for the building of new churches, some campaigners saying that new churches should be built as a “national thank offering” to God for Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. In 1818 the Church Building Act was passed which granted the sum of £1 million towards the building of new churches. Other “Waterloo Churches” within modern-day Southwark are St Peter’s Walworth (1825), the former Holy Trinity Church, Newington (1824) and the former St George’s Camberwell (1824). The parish of St Mary Magdalene received a grant from the Church Commissioners towards the building of a new church and the rest was raised from parishioners who were said to have come forward with “energy and unamity”.
The foundation stone of St James’ was laid in February 1827 by Dr Tomline, Bishop of Winchester and consecrated in May 1829 by a new Bishop of Winchester, Dr Sumner, whose name lives on in certain parts of Southwark. The new church was able to accommodate a total congregation of 1880 people which included 980 free seats. Built in the Greek style, a report in the Gentleman’s Magazine of October 1830 praised if for having “no features borrowed from either the theatre or the meeting house.” The peel of 10 bells was cast from a cannon left behind by Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and the organ, made by James Bishop of Lisson Grove, was one of the largest in the country. This was restored in 2002 having been dismantled and its parts stored seemingly haphazardly throughout the church for the previous 50 years.
Originally a chapel of ease to the Parish of St Mary Magdalene, St James' became a parish in its own right in 1840 and comprised the eastern and riverside portions of Bermondsey. Schools were opened in 1841 on the left hand corner opposite the church, the school building said to be in the Elizabethan style with low centre and gable-roofed wings. The schools were bombed in the second world war but St James’ Church of England Primary School is still thriving on two sites, one just north of the church on Old Jamaica Road and the other to the south in Alexis Street.
The churchyard was closed for further burials in 1855 and this oasis of open space in what had now become a very crowded and built over area was used for communal clothes drying. The Metropolitan Public Gardens converted the space into a public garden that opened in 1886, the work giving temporary employment to a number of the unemployed within the parish.
The Joy Slide was destroyed by fire in the 1980s and later pulled down and replaced by a modern playground. It is still though fondly remembered by those who grew up in Bermondsey and there is now a campaign to build a new Joy Slide.
In 1921, the Joy Slide was installed in the church yard which had been donated by Arthur Carr, the Chairman of Peek Freans, the local biscuit factory. It brought fun to many generations of Bermondsey children who made the journey down the length of the slide sitting on doormats fast enough, it was reported, to exceed the speed limit.
Now situated in an area that is undergoing a high level of regeneration, St James’ is still a vibrant hub of the community. It serves an often transient congregation of many nationalities, and is linked with St Anne’s Church in Thorburn Square. Both church and churchyard have undergone renovation works and provide a timeless and calm haven from the bustle of modern Bermondsey. And though 180 years old, is still referred to as the New Church.