A brief history of St Paul's
In 1863 the foundation stone was laid for a new church or chapel in the centre of an estate which was being developed by Albemarle Cator.
The Cator family were rich timber merchants who owned a large area of land in the Penge/Beckenham area. The original building was quite different from today’s building. It was described as a barn by some, others called it a dog-kennel! The first service was held in July 1864.
In 1868 Mr Cator had plans to enlarge the building because he foresaw his estate growing to have a population not less than 3750. A church was planned to hold 1000 and was to be built at his own expense. “The building is not entirely new, the Nave and part of the Chancel having been built some years; to the wide Side Aisles have been added and the Chancel lengthened. An Aisle Vestry and Organ Chamber have also been added to the Chancel, and an entirely new Tower with spire of lofty proportions has been built at the West end of the North Aisle,” wrote the Church Commissioners’ architect, Ewan Christian in 1870. It was consecrated in May 1872 and the first Vicar, W G Wrightson, was inducted in June of that year.
In the second half of the 1870s stained glass windows were designed and installed and the walls painted with the Ten Commandments, The Creed, The Lord’s Prayer and murals depicting Moses striking the rock, the Israelites fed with manna, Christ the Bread of Life and the Parable of the Marriage Supper (which is the only section to survive). With the windows stained and texts and murals around the walls the church appeared rather dark and gloomy.
Several other improvements were made over the coming years, often as memorials to various families in membership with the church. One of the last alterations was the building of the William Hill organ in 1891.
In the early days it was not uncommon for there to be a congregation of 600 on a Sunday morning (though only 40 took communion because many who attended had not been confirmed and therefore could not take communion). There was a special service once a month for children and a Sunday School of about 50.
After the First World War the creation and fitting out of a War Memorial Chapel was a major preoccupation. The prime mover was Major J Horton, who was quite a remarkable man. Two of his paintings can still be seen in the church: a copy of Holman Hunt’s Light of the World and The Last Supper (which is the reredos in the Chapel of Remembrance). The First World War memorial is shown in the accompanying pictures.
The church had its fair share of damage during the Second World War: in 1940 “a land mine made a gaping hole in the East window, blew every other window out, shattered the roof, smashed the reredos and altar, wrenched and blew in the doors… The rain was dripping through the roof … the windows were still without glass and there were holes in the roof … birds flew in and out freely and rugs and hot water bottles were provided for the aged or infirm.” In 1942 incendiary bombs came through the roof and a fire was started. The dent made by an incendiary which did not explode can still be seen in the North Aisle. Canon Laycock cared for the church and people throughout these difficult years, and oversaw the rebuilding and repair before he retired in 1949.
The church hall was added in the 1950s and is an integral part of the premises. The hall comprises two sections with sliding dividing doors, a small modern kitchen and four toilets, including one which is wheelchair accessible. The hall is used extensively by the local community, as it is the only such facility available in the community.
The church has continued to develop; it was one of the first Anglican churches to be affected by the charismatic movement in the mid-60s, the worship led by dance groups and a wind band, although that is not our practice now. A long incumbency by Canon Julian Frost, who retired in 2001, has been followed by shorter periods with Rev Barry Rowland and Rev Vince Short.
In 2017 Rev Simon Couper was installed as our vicar, and the current chapter of our history continues with the introduction of audio/visual equipment and reordering of the chapel as a fully accessible space. Our worship and involvement in the community also changes with the times.
So St Paul’s Beckenham moves on as God directs.
Further details of the history are in a book by John Collins, available from the church, £5