St Stephen’s Church, Kersley Street (now Assemblies of the First Born, Battersea Bridge Rd), London SW11

From a Draft Chapter 3 of the Survey of London:

“St Stephen’s, built in 1886, was the last of the six Battersea churches designed by William White. It passed to a Pentecostal congregation in 1978.

The church derives from a modest chapel founded by Samuel Gilbert Scott, vicar of St Saviour’s, to supplement provision in his parish. In 1878 a plot was bought on the east side of Poyntz Road, in the railway-locked triangle off Latchmere Road. St Aldwin’s Mission Chapel opened there in 1880, ministering to a district informally assigned to it from the parishes of St Saviour and Christ Church. The chapel had a crow-stepped brick front in White’s manner, but was pragmatically detailed and may have been designed by a builder or surveyor. It was demolished around 1980.

St Aldwin’s soon boasted ‘a somewhat extensive parochial organization’ under Scott’s curate Thomas B. Brooks, helped by ‘mission women’. But the plot was too small for a permanent church. By July 1880 Canon Erskine Clarke had been drawn in to negotiate for a fresh site on Crown land between Kersley Street and Battersea Park Road, then destined for development by Thomas Pink, who was ready to make over his interest in the plots. Pink failed, but his successor too proved amenable, as did the Office of Works, on the usual grounds that a church would keep up property values. Brooks now put out an appeal, and an agreement to purchase the Kersley Street site followed in October 1881. A year later a temporary church was built there by William Gulliver. It took the name of St Stephen, probably after St Stephen’s, Westbourne Park Road, Paddington, which had been founded and largely paid for by Brooks’s father.

“I’m always trying to chase down a certain kind of nameplate from the 1890s to 1930s with a specific letterform. They’re mainly painted on enamel or milk glass and the letters G, C and S have angled terminals [the end points of letters]. I want to find an original sign to find out when they were first made – ideally, I’d love to find a guide sheet to see when they started using them.” (Alistair Hall)

Neither Scott nor Brooks stayed in the district long enough to build a permanent church. In 1885 the Rev. H. Percival Smith took up the cudgels and appealed for £1,400 over and above the promise of £4,000 secured from the Bishop of Rochester’s Ten Churches Fund. That body it was which appointed William White as architect, not his long-standing patron Canon Clarke. Smith stressed that Clarke ‘has really nothing to do with the building of the church except being on our committee and the site being in his parish’. Over six months in 1886 Smith—described by Bishop Thorold of Rochester as ‘a really good man’—pushed St Stephen’s through to efficient erection by Holloway Brothers.

Somewhat old-fashioned for its date, St Stephen’s repeats ideas from White’s earlier Battersea churches. White himself regarded it simply as ‘an effort to plan for a poor congregation’. Nevertheless St Stephen’s has a neat, disciplined air. The materials are his favourite London combination of buff stock bricks with red dressings and touches of polychromatic patterning on the upper parts of the west front, now faded. That front’s plainness is set off by half-hipped roofs at the ends of the narthex and aisles.

Nave, chancel and aisles have the conventional interrelationship, but the chancel is perked up by an apse.

Towards Kersley Street the tower tucks in beyond the east end of the aisle. In the published sketch design it ended in a tall broach, but more money must have come in, for on revision White raised the belfry stage, inserted an extra level for a clock-face on each side ‘with a pointed brick for each of the hours’, and topped things off with a hutch-style crown as at St Mark’s.

Internally the broad chancel arch and good lighting from the clerestory, contrasting with the windowless aisles, contribute to the auditorial air. The bases, shafts and capitals of the four-bay arcades are of stone, but the arches and most other features are of red brick. There is little carving. The short chancel, as in other of White’s Battersea churches, is raised over a vestry. The nave roof is of the king-post type, the chancel roof boarded.

The initial fittings were simple. The wooden sedilia and credence may be those for which White allowed £15. Also economically specified were a pulpit, lectern, altar and rails. The east window (designed by White and probably made by Lavers, Barraud and Westlake) showing St Stephen’s condemnation and martyrdom was noted at the time of consecration. An organ under the tower and the clock in its top stage followed in 1887; next year came a plain reredos backed by a painting by a Kersley Street artist named Norris, later removed. A humdrum chancel screen arrived as a war memorial in the early 1920s. The panelling behind where the stalls once were seems of the same date.

In 1929 the open space at the west end was curtailed when Battersea Bridge Road was widened.

Artistic alterations took place from designs by Martin Travers in 1939–40. St Stephen’s having by then drifted upwards to a High-Church tradition, Travers contributed an inventive version of the English altar, using fabrics for economy and adding communion rails in front. A suspended timber font cover was also installed. In 1953 a side-chapel was formed south of the chancel.

By 1966 St Stephen’s was one of three Battersea churches earmarked for possible closure. Deputed to visit, John Betjeman attended Evensong. He found the interior ‘very pretty … not grand, but homely and well- proportioned … there were about fifteen people there, which isn’t bad for an Extreme church, where Masses are the chief services.’ The ‘really beautiful’ Travers reredos, he added, ‘is well related in colour to the warm brick walls and a rather pleasant 1880-ish window above’. Despite this eulogy St Stephen’s was shut and its parish united with Christ Church. Under the present Pentecostal congregation, the church is well cared for. A podium has been created in front of the chancel arch, while the screen has been set further back, obscuring the former sanctuary which functions as an office. The Travers reredos and font cover have gone.”

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