The arrival of the railways in the 1850s transformed Beckenham from a rural village (variously 'Becheham' or 'Bachehham' in the Domesday Book) into a London suburb. St Paul's was one of no fewer than eight new churches built in the area between the 1850s and 1880s, to help serve the needs of a growing population.
At that time, much of the land in Beckenham and Penge belonged to the wealthy Cator family - former timber merchants who had amassed a hefty portfolio of property in South East London and Kent. The present-day Beckenham Place Park, with its grand 18th-century mansion, is a remnant of their estates.
The Cators were quick to capitalise on the commercial opportunities offered by the railways, and developed what became known as New Beckenham as a desirable middle-class residential area, “with large houses, extensive gardens, wide tree-planted roads”.
A church for the new neighbourhood was an essential part of the plan, and the foundation stone was laid in 1863.
The first service in the original church was held in July 1864, at which time the building appeared quite different to how it is today, consisting of a single nave without aisles for the congregation, and a chancel where the altar and lectern were placed. It was built in the imitation ‘Early Gothic’ style popular at the time, with pointed arches and other medieval-like features.
The intention of the Cator family always seems to have been to build a larger structure but for several years the chapel-like building, sometimes likened to a barn or even a dog kennel, remained as it was.
The neighbourhood continued to grow apace, and in 1868 plans to enlarge the church were drawn up. The expanded building, to be financed with Cator money, was intended to hold up to 1000 congregants.
“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.
The expanded building was consecrated on 17 May 1872; the colourful West Kent News account of the occasion reports that "rain fell fast, accompanied by lightning and several loud claps of thunder... The church was beautifully decorated by fair loving hands... At the conclusion of the service a most recherché déjeneur was served by Mr W. Leven's of Beckenham in a tent erected near the church."
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 must have appeared rather dark and gloomy.
In the early days it was not uncommon for there to be a congregation of 600 on a Sunday morning, and during the 1880s the numbers at Matins did indeed regularly reach 1000, with special services for children and a Sunday School of about 50. An organist and surpliced choir were employed, and a new William Hill organ purchased in 1891. The music in the church was evidently quite lavish, with oratorio performances recorded in the years which followed; a new vicar wrote in 1903 that "our music seems to me too florid and ambitious. It is a choir service, not congregational."
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, two of his paintings can still be seen in the church. The church suffered 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.
A much-needed 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 area.
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, and as God directs.
Further details of our church history are available in a book by John Collins, available from the church.
To read more about the current building and its contents, please visit our Buildings and Gardens page.