By Robert Tyerman
St Marks’s Church was consecrated by the Bishop of London on 24th June 1847, and has enjoyed a history of education and literary associations and, for most of the time, moderate, non-partisan churchmanship ever since. As well as the cure of souls, finance and building have presented continuing challenges, as much in the heyday of the 19th-century pew-renting congregations as today.
Built to cater for the new villa dwellers who came to live on this previously rural fringe of London, St Mark’s was intimately connected with the foundation of St John’s School, Leatherhead, and the genesis of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books. The need for a church in the new district was felt from the early 1840’s and a small temporary building was constructed as an outpost of the parish of Christ Church, Marylebone. The freehold of the site was brought for £600 in 1846 from the trustees of Harrow School.
St Mark’s was built at a cost of £9,300 (in the money of the day) by the architects, Thomas Cundy and his son, also Thomas. One critic called it somewhat mysteriously ’a large broad, Gothic riding school’ and the Ecclesiologist magazine lamented ‘another vast hall with galleries around three sides’.
Most people, then, as now, however, appreciated the building’s qualities of light and space. It had seats for 1,450, with 1,000 rented seats and the rest free. The divisive practice of pew renting persisted in the Church of England well into the twentieth century, in some cases up to the Second World War, but, even in today’s stretched financial conditions, there have been no voices raised for its reintroduction at St Mark’s.
Ashley Haselwood, who had been the Christ Church curate in charge of the initial St Mark Project, became the first vicar. Haselwood moved to have a school founded next to the church for the sons of poor clergy (who were less widespread than now), which became St John’s School.
First reactions to his plan were distinctly tepid. It was suggested he wanted the school simply to provide choristers and that some of the money raised to fund St John’s was in fact used to pay his curate; in those days, incumbents paid curates out of their own stipends.
Haselwood, who lived in Bond Street, was frequently absent from the church. Richard Hughes, the historian of St John’s, recalls there were criticisms of Haselwood’s handling of the money from rented pews and allegations of speculation in railway company shares.
Nevertheless, the money for the school was raised, one wealthy parishioner, Lady Burdett-Coutts, of the banking family, committing more than £600 a year to the project – each pound gave the donor a vote on admissions to the school. St John’s began life next to the church, later shifted to Greville Mount, in Kilburn, and finally moved to Leatherhead in 1872. Haselwood’s curate, Dr Thompson, became its headmaster. Today, St John’s still provides scholarships for the sons and daughters of the clergy and Hughes says it is anxious to revive associations with St Mark’s.
Haselwood was succeeded in 1857 by John Bellow, a noted and popular preacher, who eventually went over to the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1870. Perhaps the most famous of all St Mark’s incumbents – so far – was installed, Canon Robinson Duckworth.
From its beginning, incumbents of St Mark’s have been presented by the Prime Minster. It was perhaps no coincidence that Duckworth was also tutor to Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, Queen Victoria’s youngest son.
Duckworth proclaimed it his mission "to provide a type of service which should be identified with no party but should be reverent, dignified, representative of the best spirit of the Church of England and void of offence in the eyes of all who are loyal to the Prayer Book". The Parish schools, started in 1864, but in a dilapidated state, were rebuilt in 1873 in what is now Violet Hill. The chancel was built in 1877 and 1890, during Duckworth’s incumbency.
It was on a boating expedition that Duckworth introduced Alice Liddell, the daughter of his friend, Charles Liddell, to the Revd Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, a clerical don who used her as the model for his books, Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. Duckworth himself appears in the foreword of an early edition of the Wonderland as ‘The Duck’ and Alice through the Looking Glass is supposed to have been written in the his vicarage. He also had a tenuous link with George Washington. His friend Charles Liddell’s cousin, the Earl of Strathmore, married a grand-daughter of the American President's cousin, Robert Porteous, whose son, coincidentally, later became a Bishop of London.
After 26 years, Duckworth was succeeded by another well-connected parson. John Magee, the son of an Archbishop of York and great-grandson of an Archbishop of Dublin. Magee was a former chaplain to the Bishop of Rochester, Randall Davidson, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the First World War. He invited many of the famous preachers of the day to St Mark’s but was criticised by low church people for departing from Duckworth’s policy and taking St Mark’s too ‘high’.
This tendency was blamed by his critics for the falling-off in congregations and grave financial problems which beset the church in the first two decades of the present century. Hospital collections fell from £160 in 1907 to £28 in 1922 and the Easter offering from £202 in 1914 to £64 in 1922.
But, there were other problems, besides liturgical differences. The population mix of the district was changing with more non-Christians coming into the area. The First World War had a traumatic and profoundly dislocating effect on the community and the church.
St Mark’s had never been richly endowed and always relied on the support of parishioners and well wishers, as it does today. One such, Joseph Good, funded the building of the spire and much of the chancel.
In 1908, St Mark’s had to find £1,200 to rebuild its drains and underpin the west end of the church. Some of the money came from voluntary contributions and some from a bazaar, opened by the Duchess of Albany. After Duckworth’s death in 1911, funds were raised to build the present baptistery in his memory. Money was raised to later, under Magee’s successor’s, to electrify the church in 1925, for £340, and make other improvements, as congregations slowly rebuilt in the inter-war years. Magee’s successor, Percieval Gough, inherited debts of £800 and an annual stipend which had fallen to £300. Vigorous fund-raising through bazaars and other means became the order of the day.
John Newsham Taylor, who took over from Gough in 1933, decided to economise further by disposing of the old vicarage at 5 Abbey Road. He moved into a smaller house in Clifton Hill. A lawyer, as well as a cleric, he went back to the bar in 1933 before rejoining the church in the Midlands, where he died suddenly while taking a service in 1941.
Arthur Morris, who succeeded Taylor, was popular, both as preacher and pastoral minister, but as ever, had to devote much of his energy to repairs and renovations. Finding Clifton Hill too small, ha and his family moved to a vicarage in Abercorn Place, but the lease expired in the year war broke out in 1939. It was decided to build a new vicarage beside the church and the Morrises moved in to today’s building in 1943.
The Second World War brought its own dramas to St Mark’s. In October 1941, a bomb fell over the road and the force of the blast was such that the spire had to be taken down. St Mark’s congregation was given temporary refuge for services in the Abbey Road Baptist Church and the Presbyterian Church in Marlborough Place.
When usable, St Mark’s was often fuller during the war than for decades. The district was a collecting centre for the RAF, which held church parades in St Mark’s. In 1944 the church was narrowly missed by a flying bomb, which shattered much of the glass. Morris, who had rejected offers of preferment during the war, left afterwards and later became the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
Joseph Hobling, assistant priest at St Mark’s in 1939, had been called up as an army chaplain and captured by the Germans. Staying with the other ranks in prison camp, he organised entertainments and even took confirmation classes. Late in the war, some American bombers mistook the camp for a German training centre and bombed it, wounding Hobling fatally in the head.
Morris’s successor, William Wilson, was inducted in 1947. It was during his term that the spire was rebuilt, in 1955, and St Mark’s issued its first appeal for a community hall with a pamphlet, ‘The People Next Door Need Your Help’.
In 1965, St Mark’s was the venue for the launching of the St John’s Wood Preservation Society, under the presidency of Lord Ampthill, to oppose the encroachments of property developers. That same year, Barrington Wainwright replaced Wilson as vicar. Donald Aird took over from Wainwright in 1979 and left us in 1995, after a ministry which is still warm in our hearts. John Barrie, our new incumbent, is the 13th at St Mark’s and he and his wife Rosy have all our support in facing new challenges in the future.