‘The Tin Tabernacle’

St Columba's Church
St Columba's Church

Towards the end of 1906, the vicar of Scarborough, then the Rev TE Lindsay, announced that he had secured a site for a new Anglican church to serve the people of the North side. As he pointed out, “between the cemetery and the sea” there were now between three and four thousand residents who lived more than half a mile from the nearest Anglican place of worship.

His chosen site at the junction of Dean Road and Columbus Ravine opposite Dove’s monumental works had been a rubbish dump for many years and was both ill-drained and on a slope: it would need to be cleared and given a deep, solid foundation. More surprising, however, was vicar Lindsay’s choice of patron saint: he said that the new church would be dedicated to the Celtic missionary, St Columba of Iona, who had first brought Christianity to the north-east of England and made it “holy ground”.

The Rev REB Russell, the first priest in charge of the proposed church, took mild exception to the name on historical and practical grounds and suggested St Aidan instead.

Correctly, he told his vicar that St Columba (521-597) had converted the heathen Picts of what became Scotland, whereas St Aidan, a century later, had played a major part in the evangelisation of Northumbria from Lindisfarne.

Secondly, Russell also made the pertinent point that there was certain to be public confusion between the name of an Irish missionary saint and Columbus, a Genoese navigator, whose name had been assigned to an adjacent thoroughfare since 1892, the 400th anniversary of his accidental discovery of America.

But Lindsay brushed aside Russell’s reservations: he had a fixed preference for Colum, the Celtic for the Dove of Peace. So Columba, the English version of his name, it had to be. Two years later, Russell’s unique contribution was to found Scarborough’s first boy scout group, the Earl of Londesborough’s Own, with boys recruited from St Columba’s Bible class.

Still, in 1906, the vicar’s plans were as yet far beyond the financial resources of his parish. When the bishop of Hull, Dr Blunt, Lindsay’s predecessor, came back to Scarborough to dedicate the new church at the end of July 1907, it was little more than a mission hall. Only 86 feet by 32 feet, founded on brick but made of corrugated iron, lined with felt, boarded inside and with a slate roof, the first St Columba’s was soon nicknamed “The Tin Tabernacle”: a disparaging description not appreciated by its distinguished local architect, Frank Alfred Tugwell. It had cost £800, held up to 300 worshippers and was also
to be used as a Sunday school.

Seven years later, St Columba’s was still temporary and increasingly inadequate. At a meeting of St Mary’s parishioners, the new vicar of Scarborough, the Rev C Cooper, observed that the Sunday school was now overcrowded so that sometimes children had to be turned away, yet only half of the £7,000 needed for the building fund had been raised. Nevertheless, further delay was unacceptable: building a permanent church must begin soon.

The Kaiser and his High Seas Fleet had other plans. Among the hundreds of shells fired at Scarborough on December 16, 1914, one passed through the east end 
of St Columba’s close to the altar rail. But it was the world war and the impoverishment it caused during and afterwards that once more interrupted the construction of the North side’s new Anglican church. By 1922, when the building committee finally accepted AW Sinclair’s tender, it had reached £7,900 14s. 10d.

Though a new altar, dressings and frontals had been received from the former chapel of St Margaret’s school, it was still not certain that the parish could afford to fulfil the architect’s plans. So when the archbishop of York laid a memorial stone dedicated to the late bishop Blunt, 40 years vicar of Scarborough from 1864 until 1905, it was only for the baptistry. Not until the following year was it agreed that the whole church had to be built at once and not in stages.

As the new vicar of Scarborough said, house building on the North side had been resumed: soon there would be three or four hundred new homes between Columbus Ravine and Wilson’s Wood (The Glen). Also aware of the same development, the Town Council had recently received a 50 per cent grant from the government to lay a proper road extending Columbus Ravine beyond Dean Road all the way to Peasholm Park. The North side was growing rapidly.

Accordingly, on August 1, 1923, the corner stone was laid by archdeacon Lindsay, formerly vicar of Scarborough, and dedicated by Francis Gordon, bishop of Hull. The estimated total cost had now risen to £18,000.

At last, almost 20 years after Lindsay had first declared his ambition, at the beginning of 1926 St Columba’s was finished and dedicated by Cosmo Gordon Lang, York’s archbishop. There were 700 present to see and hear him do it. The final bill had now reached £21,000, but the opinion then and now is that the investment was well spent. St Columba’s was and is “a model of architectural economy”. Built on an angular, sloping site, it uses all the ground to the best advantage. The long nave arcades continue two bays beyond the crossing, allowing a view of the high altar from every interior location; the clerestories of both nave and chancel admit plenty of light; and there are aisles to both nave and choir. The whole is built of local brick with Cloughton stone dressing and a roof of Westmorland slate. From its flamboyant window tracery down to its wrought iron door hinges, St Columba’s is an expression of unique originality.

In recognition of its status, in 1932 the church was awarded a separate chapelry identity and the Rev George William Boddy became its first vicar. Half a century later, Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, agreed to include St Columba’s as a Listed Building, one of only 70 built between 1918 and 1939. It had been a long yet worthwhile journey from “The Tin Tabernacle” which in 1962 had been entirely replaced by a new church hall.