by Dr Jack Binns
Of all Scarborough’s many places of Christian worship, past and present, none can have passed through more changes than what began as the Anglican mission church of St John the Evangelist.
The foundation stone was laid by Mrs Blunt, wife of Scarborough’s parish vicar, archdeacon Richard Frederick Lefevre Blunt, on Tuesday March 27, 1883. The site was at the corner of Globe and St Sepulchre Streets on land recently cleared of “six low-class dwellings and a beer shop”. As with the origins of St Paul’s Anglican mission chapel in Regent Street, built only five years earlier, the purpose was to serve another hitherto-neglected but densely-populated working class area of the town. As the archdeacon noted in his supportive speech, there were about 4,000 residents living in the neighbourhood of St Sepulchre, Leading Post and Dumple Streets. Clearly, he was not the only Anglican to be concerned and alerted by the popular success in this neighbourhood of the Primitive Methodists in St Sepulchre and the Wesleyans in Queen Street. He now knew that the Church of England had to make a deliberate effort to reach out to the poorest of the community.
Yet it seems that there was no shortage of money to finance Blunt’s “mission”. The previous September, “a graunde fantasye fayre & olde Englyshe chepe” held at the Spa had raised the colossal sum of £1,500, more than enough to buy the site. The building itself, costing at least £3,000, was finished and opened as early as October 1884. Indeed, the opening ceremony was actually delayed until after the holiday season had ended, emphasising again that, unlike St Mary’s or Christ Church, it was designed solely for underprivileged townspeople, not for visitors.
The archdeacon must also have appreciated the support he had from leading members of the town and country. Present at the foundation was one of the most distinguished representatives Scarborough has ever had in the House of Commons, the Liberal John George Dodson.
Scholar of Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, outstanding linguist, lawyer, Alpine mountaineer and world-wide traveller and published author, Dodson sat for the borough from 1880 until raised to the peerage in 1884.
Also present there was the current mayor of Scarborough, William Barry, the town’s foremost builder and contractor.
Sparing no expense, the Anglicans had hired one of the country’s most accomplished architects to design St John’s. Charles Hodgson Fowler of Durham (1840-1910) was a specialist in the restoration of great medieval church buildings and already well-regarded for his work on Durham cathedral. During his long career he restored and re-built many East Riding churches for Sir Tatton Sykes of Sledmere and later was associated with work on St Martin’s at Seamer, St Thomas’ in East Sandgate and St Mary’s parish church.
At the north-east corner of Globe and St Sepulchre Streets, Fowler designed a superb church building entirely in red brick with stone facings in the perpendicular style of the 15th century. Though re-roofed and its south wall re-inforced, today St John’s remains virtually as it was 130 years later.
Blunt’s mission church had to wait until 1890 for its worn-out harmonium to be replaced by a second-hand organ costing £65. The antiquated harmonium was offered for sale at £16 10s. At the inauguration, the first hymn played and sung was “Onward Christian Soldiers”. In his accompanying sermon, the archdeacon noted quaintly that “young men and maidens, old people and children, all love singing to praise the name of the Lord”. The Church of England had at last caught up with the Nonconformists and the Salvation Army.
However, as the Scarborough Mercury reported portentously at the end of March 1939, “Doom Has Fallen on St John’s”! The last Anglican service there took place the following Easter Sunday. The church was closed and the building put up for sale. During the Second World War Rowntree’s used it as a furniture store.
For nearly 10 years, between 1949 and 1959, St John’s became a clothing factory. Bought first by a gown manufacturer for £2,700, from 1956 it was used by a Bradford firm, Kamella Ltd, to make children’s clothes. When it closed down in 1958, 33 girls lost their jobs.
Still, all was not lost, yet. For the past 10 years to serve the large number of Scottish summer holiday-makers and about 80 residents, Scarborough’s Presbyterians had rented rooms above WH Smith’s shop in St Nicholas Street. The vacation of St John’s now gave them an opportunity to restore the building to its original purpose. In October 1959, the Moderator of the General Assembly began its final lease of Christian life. Inside, now painted in “Presbyterian blue”, there were added two partitioned schoolrooms and a kitchen.
Finally, in 1972, the Presbyterian Church of England combined with the Congregational Church to form the United Reformed Church and two years later Scarborough’s remaining Presbyterians left St Sepulchre Street to join the Congregationalists at South Cliff on Ramshill. Once again, and for the last time, the church named after “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John, xxi, 20) was abandoned and unoccupied.
Today, now 40 years later, with all its external windows shattered but otherwise in good outward condition, St John’s stands at the mercy of a Listed Building Planning Request for conversion into apartments and maisonettes. One wonders what the archdeacon must be thinking.