In the middle of the 19th Century, Victorian Britain was a prosperous nation with an empire, but a country divided by poverty. London was the largest city in the world with over 2.3 million inhabitants, and growing rapidly. London's immigrant population was also increasing, with people from all over the world coming to live in the capital.
New bridges over the Thames and railways were opening up the fields of Surrey to suburban expansion. Nineteenth-century Kennington was an area suffering from great poverty. The church of St John the Divine emerged in this background of poverty, as a mission to bring the Christian Gospel to the poor of South London.
In 1866 a missionary curate, Rev. Daniel Elsdale, opened a district mission in a school in Bolton Street (now Bolton Crescent), off Camberwell New Road. In 1868 the mission moved into a new school building on the corner of Elliott Road and Frederick Crescent designed by C. A. Gould. School lessons were held upstairs while downstairs was used as a temporary church.
In 1870, a site for a permanent church was acquired, and C. A. Gould was appointed the intended architect. However, this plan was changed in 1871 when the assistant curate, one Rev. Charles Edward Brooke, supported a design by the architect George Edmund Street (1824-1881). Street was a skilled church architect who specialised in the Gothic Revival style. During the later Victorian ea it was highly fashionable to design buildings in the ornately decorated Gothic style which was popular in the 13th Century. Street had erected some fine buildings, and went on to build the Royal Courts of Justice on Strand, London (opened 1882). Street's plan was to build St John the Divine in three stages: chancel, chapel, organ. chamber and vestries, with temporary nave; nave and aisles, with baptistery and porch; tower and spire.
The building work was funded by a public appeal begun in 1871. A new parish was formed and Rev. Daniel Elsdale was appointed first vicar in 1872.
The appeal found its greatest support from an anonymous donor who gave £10 000 to the church. It was later discovered that the donor was Rev. C. E. Brooke, then the assistant curate. Brooke's generosity enabled Street to design a church of such stately grandeur. Street was appointed as architect and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Winchester as Chairman of the Building Committee. A new parish of St John the Divine was created and on the 4th July 1871 the foundation stone was laid.
The church was consecrated by Bishop Harold Browne of Winchester on 14 November 1874, with only the nave completed.
Works on the church building continued througout the 1870s and 1880s, including the installation of the organ by J W Walker & Sons (October 1875). George Edmund Street died in 1881 but his son, Arthur Edmund Street, led the construction of the tower based on his father's designs.
The spire of St John the Divine was finally completed 17 years after the findations were first laid, with the topping-out and installation of the weathercock taking place on 7 December 1888. At 200 feet (61m) tall, the tower could be seen for miles around and reminas to this day the tallest church spire in South London.
At the time, the Church of England was divided over the issue of Anglo-Catholicism - the "high church" style of liturgical practice. In 1874 the Public Worship Regulation Act was passed by parliament to limit "ritualism" in Church of England services. As a result of this act, some Anglican vicars were even imprisoned for using Roman Catholic religious practices in their worship. The second vicar of St John's, Rev. C. E. Brooke, was associated with the Oxford Movement and a strong supporter of Anglo-Catholic worship. The act was eventually repealed in 1911.
The interior of the church was fitted out in a highly ornate style typical of the Victorian era and of Anglo-Catholic churches, including beautiful stone carvings by Thomas Earp, wrought iron altar rails, stained glass windows, and a carved reredos painted by Clayton and Bell. A new organ by J W Walker & Sons was installed in 1875. A number of additions were made to the church over the years, all enriching the beauty of this house of God. The overall impression was of a sacred place of worship steeped in the traditions of centuries of Christian witness and tradition.
During the Second World War, the devastation of the London Blitz struck the church when in 1941, German incendiary bombs exploded on St Johns. The attack destroyed most of the roofs, the nave and chancel vaults, together with the majority of the furnishings and stained glass. In the 1950s, with the horrors of war behind them, Londoners began to rebuild. Projects such as the Festival of Britain on London's South Bank heralded a new optimism. Plans were being considered for the reconstruction of the church of St John the Divine.
There was an initial plan to redesign the church, adding a high clerestory and vault to the nave, but this was rejected in favour of reconstructing the building to Street's original design. In 1955 the work began, restoring the roofs, vaults and interior stonework. Most of the interior fittings had been destroyed in the bombing, so new fittings were designed: a new high altar in the nave apse, new wrought iron screens, a new wood pulpit, and painted decoration to nave vault. The 1874 triptych reredos was remounted but its scorched panel paintings were covered up with wallpaper. It was soon dismantled and replaced by wall paintings on boards by Brian Thomas round the apse dado in 1965.
In 2001 the church again suffered a fire. This time the structural damage was minimal, but the soot and smoke damage was immense The fire was caused by a candle falling into the Christmas Crib. During 2002 the church was completely cleaned and restored. During this restoration the church was re-wired and a completely new lighting system was installed, along with new chairs, a new sound system, re-ordering of the sanctuary and the floor restored. The church is now more beautiful than it ever was.