St Peter Church

St Peters

St Peter Church was built by the notable Victorian architects, John Loughborough Pearson in 1863-4. Located on the edge of what was Vauxhal Pleasure Gardens in Kennington Lane on the site of the Neptune Fountain. It has now become Vauxhall St Peters' Heritage Centre.

The following article was published in 1991 by Vauxhall St Peter's Heritage Centre and The Vauxhall Society:

St Peter's Church Vauxhall
A History
David Beevers MA (Cantab) AMA
Lambeth Palace London SE1 7JU

2nd January 1991

Foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury

St Peter's Vauxhall was once described as 'the first really fine Church' designed by the eminent architect John Loughborough Pearson, whose most famous commission was the building of the first new cathedral in England since the Reformation, Truro Cathedral. One of my predecessors, Archbishop Benson, was the first Bishop of Truro before he became Archbishop. He once recalled Pearson's advice that 'the question to ask oneself on entering a church is not "Is this admirable, is it beautiful?" but "Does it send you to your knees?" '.

Whilst living locally, I have always been made to feel welcome by my local parish of North Lambeth, and the people of St Peter's Vauxhall in particular. On the rare occasions when an Archbishop has a Sunday off and is at Lambeth, I have sat among the congregation at St Peter's and shared in the dignified worship offered there week by week and marvelled at the beauty of the building. This Pearson church inspires and uplifts the worshipper, and in the words of the architect himself, it sends you to your knees.

I am sure many others will share my gratitude to David Beevers for giving us a fascinating picture of the origins of St Peter's, and a glimpse of Father Robert Gregory's commitment to meeting the needs of this inner city area in worship and service in the middle of the last century. Today, Vauxhall remains an urban priority area, and the Christian community continues to express the life of the gospel in its worship and ministry. Robert Gregory's vision of a church working alongside the community is now to find new expression as St Peter's opens its doors to the people of Vauxhall after extensive refurbishment.

May the work of this parish church continue to prosper in the furthering of God's kingdom and may it continue to send people to their knees to his praise and glory.

The Rev Robert Gregory the Parish Schools and the origin of St Peter's Church

In 1853 the Rev Robert Gregory (1819-1911) became the incumbent of St Mary the Less, Lambeth. Appalled by the poverty of the area (in 1860 less than ninety out of a population of 15,000 were assessed for tax and of those more than a quarter were the owners of public houses!), Gregory determined on creating a skilled work-force by setting up schools for children and apprentices. In 1854 he established a drawing school in the parish school-room which was so successful that a site was acquired for new schools from the owner of the building plots which were being cut from the former Vauxhall Gardens. Gregory appointed John Loughborough Pearson as architect and the schools were designed in what was called a thirteenth-century Gothic style; they consisted of separate boys' and girls' schoolrooms, a headmaster's house, and an art school. The foundation stone was laid on 27 June, 1860, by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

Gregory's art school achieved great renown. The two major employers in Lambeth, Maudslay's engineering works and Doulton's pottery factory, needed, respectively, skilled draughtsmen and designers and artists. The school set out to train pupils for these two concerns and it is a tribute to its success that artists of the calibre of George Tinworth, the famous sculptor of terracotta panels for Doulton, W. W. Ouless, the portrait painter nicknamed 'the pocket Millais', and Robert Wallace Martin, the most talented of the brothers who formed the Martin Brothers pottery, were all pupils.

The poorer inhabitants of the parish were also provided with a soup kitchen, added by Pearson to the original complex in 1863-4, and a clothes workshop. Poor women were paid 1 /6d for making clothes one day a week. So successful was this venture that the Government army clothing department issued a contract for providing clothing for soldiers. In one year no less than 100,000 shirts and several thousand great-coats were made.

In 1860, whilst the schools were being built, Pearson drew up plans for a new church. Gregory realised that the cutting up of Vauxhall Gardens for building plots would result in a substantially increased population for whose spiritual needs provision would have to be made. The developer sold the land for the schools but he gave the site for St Peter's Church on condition that all the seats in the church were free and not rented. Gregory was vigorously opposed to the pew-rent system because it excluded the poor and he readily agreed to the condition. The site chosen was adjacent to the schools and next to the house of the former manager of Vauxhall Gardens. This was adapted by Pearson for use as the vicarage in 1862. The Ecclesiologist commented in 1864: 'an adjacent house ...once as perfectly stupid and characterless a brick house as Lambeth itself can show, has now by the addition of an upper story in modified pointed with a good sky line, been made very tolerably to do duty as a parsonage'.

On the northern side of the church a brick Gothic orphanage was built by Pearson in 1860-2. Now known as Herbert House, it was intended for the orphan daughters of professional men who were to be trained as pupil-teachers for the elementary schools. The orphanage was managed by Gregory's unmarried sister.

St Peter's and the idea of the 'town church'

In 1861 Alexander Beresford-Hope, the President of the Ecclesiological Society, published The English Cathedral of the Nineteenth Century. Hope, summarising much current thinking, felt that the evangelisation of the towns called for churches of cathedral size 'at least 200 feet long and with dimensions proportionate'. Hope advocated high imposing Minster-like buildings with uncluttered interiors served by a resident clergy. Secular buildings, Hope went on, were being built on a magnificent scale. It was scandalous that the 'House of the Lord [should] remain small and mean, and served by single handed impotence'. In a rousing finale Hope wrote: 'Be up and stirring, and plant the Gospel in conspicuous guise, with well adjusted organisation, as the means sufficient for so great an end, where the throng is thickest, and God speed the work!'

St Peter's is the first major example of a cheap town church built according to these precepts although, of course, it is considerably smaller than Hope would have wished. The exterior depends for its general effect on height, the use of simple materials, and an unbroken roof-line. It became the prototype of Pearson's later town churches and it provided the inspiration for the urban masterpieces of James Brooks, in particular St Chad's, Shoreditch.

The Initial Scheme

Pearson always preferred to submit finished designs in the hope that enough money would be raised to allow building in stages. Unfortunately, chronic lack of funds prevented the realisation of Pearson's initial scheme for the church. A massive tower was to have been placed against the north aisle with English, rather than French, detailing and the large comer buttresses on the west end of the nave were to be surmounted by turrets. The three-bay narthex was to have had a central bas relief of Christ delivering the keys of heaven to St Peter flanked by reliefs of the calling and the crucifixion of the saint Above, in a continuous frieze, an incised design of Christ's entry into Jerusalem was planned.

The Exterior as Built

The church is built in brick with stone dressings and is largely unornamented: in 1897 The Times commented on 'its baldness ...almost brutality'. At the west end the three buttresses are the same height as the west windows and, above, there is a rose window composed of tangent circles. The three-bay narthex projects below the buttresses. A small Italianate bell turret is attached to the south-west, and there is a projecting baptistery. The unbroken roofline extends to the plain unbuttressed semi-circular apse.

The austere exterior combines motifs from English, French and Italian twelfth and thirteenth- century Gothic, but Pearson created from these a powerful work of art The Architect (1878) commented: 'Mr Pearson ...culls the exquisite forms of the best periods of Gothic architecture, but arranges them in such a bouquet that it can scarcely be said to be medieval at all'.

[note: the numbered references following certain items relate to this plan]

Interior: The Nave and Aisles

On entering the church through the western narthex the overwhelming impression is of the height and harmonious proportions of the interior. Archbishop Edward Benson recalled that 'Mr Pearson said that the question to ask oneself on entering a church was not "is this admirable, is it beautiful?", but "Does it send you on your knees?"' The proportions of the church were calculated by a mathematical system of ratios known since antiquity as the Golden Section. Decoration is kept to a minimum, though more was planned, and the eye rises to the brick vaulted roof which, despite the Italian Romanesque plan, gives the church its overwhelmingly French character. St Peter's is the first of Pearson's churches to be vaulted throughout and although Pearson claimed he could provide a vault nearly as cheaply as an ordinary roof, it was an extraordinary achievement in a church which cost only �8,000. There were few medieval precedents outside the cathedrals and architects tended to associate it with the despised sham plaster vaults of Regency Gothic churches. It only became more common when French, rather than English, prototypes were admired.

The five-bay brick nave is flanked by north and south aisles. The south aisle ends in an organ chamber and the north aisle has an additional 'transept' of two bays. This was originally intended for schoolchildren who were admitted by their own door and who left before the sermon. The capital of the central vaulting shaft (1) is carved with the four cardinal virtues: Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance. In about 1900 the 'transept' was turned into a Lady Chapel and fitted with an altar with a good Arts and Crafts beaten metal frontal (2). On the west wall is a rare survival: a splendid banner cupboard, almost certainly designed by Pearson (3).

The cylindrical columns of the nave arcade are carved with capitals the designs of which the Building News (1865) described as 'almost Romanesque in character' with 'a sort of curliness and redundant curvature'. The capitals cost �15 each and were carved in stages, all to a slightly different pattern, by J. J. Smith, Pearson's Clerk of Works. As late as 1873 they were still uncarved. On the penultimate bay of the nave the capitals are carved with figure subjects: the south side has angels playing musical instruments, and the north side has scenes from the life of Christ (4).

Above the nave arcade there is a blank triforium (derived from Tintern Abbey) and a clerestory composed of simple plate-traceried windows. Along the triforium it was intended to paint Old Testament scenes on the north side and New Testament scenes on the south. The Ecclesiologist ( 1864 ) commented: 'Messrs Clayton and Bell purpose to fill (the panels) with paintings in a few simple colours - something more than mere outlines, and yet not complete pictures -like illuminations of the twelfth century. One on the south side has been completed, representing the Marriage at Cana. It is certainly very cheap, and we heartily commend the idea ...' Unfortunately, dirt, smoke, and fumes from the gas lamps soon obliterated the one executed panel and it was decided not to continue with the scheme.

Furniture and Fittings

The stone PULPIT (5), made by Poole of Westminster, stands on four demi- columns and is carved with Italianate foliate motifs. The central panel has an incised picture of Christ delivering the keys of heaven to St Peter; on the left side there is a scene of St Peter healing the cripple at the gates of the Temple, and on the right St Peter baptises the centurion Cornelius. The latter two panels were added in 1886.

The FONT (6) in the west baptistery was made by Poole of Westminster; it is plain and square and stands on cluster columns. The bowl has incised scenes of the Baptism of Christ, the Sacrament of Baptism, Noah's Ark (because the Flood was likened to Christian baptism), and the Crossing of the Red Sea (which was also interpreted as a symbol of Christian baptism). The pictures are by Nicholl, who was paid �18 for 'incising the font' in 1874. The magnificent polychrome font cover with stencilled geometric decoration was designed by Pearson in 1891.

In the north aisle a CRUCIFIX (7) commemorates the first vicar, George w. Herbert, who died in 1894.

The STAINED GLASS in the baptistery (8) is by Clayton and Bell and dates from 1865; one window was paid for by the first incumbent, the Rev G. W. Herbert, as a memorial to his infant daughter.

Clayton and Bell also supplied the PAINTING (9) of Christ in Judgement above the west door in 1867.

The Chancel and Sanctuary

The apsidal chancel is divided from the nave by an arch of greater projection than the rest and by a low stone wall surmounted by a wrought-iron screen with gates (10 ). The intention was that the eye would be drawn with minimal interruption to the most sacred part of the church. However, the chancel and sanctuary needed a further form of visual separation from the nave and this is accomplished by a more complex vaulting pattern, a rich scheme of decoration, and paired openings in the triforium with single lancets above. The 1860s scheme is still remarkably intact and is now a rare and precious example of a High Victorian Anglo-Catholic sanctuary arrangement

The apse (11) was decorated by Clayton and Bell, Pearson's favoured firm for this type of work. A green dado with a two-tint diaper motif is surmounted by a wide band painted Indian red, also in two tints. Above this is a band of frescos illustrating the Passion of Christ; these cost �45 each and were installed in stages between 1866 and 1868.

Reading from the left the scenes represented begin with two pre-figurations of Christ's life: The Killing of Abe1 (a type of the CrucifIxion), and Melchisedech the High Priest (a type representing Christ's priesthood). These were added to the original sequence in about 1877. Then follows The Last Supper, The Agony in the Garden, Christ Carrying the Cross, The Crucifixion, The Descent from the Cross, The Resurrection, and Christ's appearance to the Apostles after the Resurrection.

The long inscription above the wall paintings comes from the Vulgate, St Jerome's Latin version of the Bible, and provides an appropriate text for each picture. From the left: Posuit mi hi deus semen aliud pro Abel ( Genesis 4.25: God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel) SCDM (i.e. secundum) Similitudinem Melchisedech exurget alius sacerdos (Hebrews 7.15: After the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest) Caro mea vere est cibus et sanguis meus vere est potus (John 6.56: He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him) Deus provide bit sibi victimam holocausti (Genesis 22.8: God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering) Filiae lerusalem nolite flere super me (Luke 23.28: Daughters of J erusalem weep not for me) Ecce agnus dei qui toll is peccatum mundi (Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world) In pulverem mortis deduxisti me (Psalm 22.15: And thou hast brought me into the dust of death) De comedente exivit cibus (Judges 14.14: Out of the eater came forth meat) Si videris me quum tollar a te erit tibi quod petisti (2 Kings 2.10: If thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee ). The line of the Passion sequence is terminated by corbels supporting statues of St Michael and St Gabriel (12). These date from 1882.

Furniture and Fittings

The IRON GRILLE (13) beneath which the choir stalls are set was designed by Pearson and made by Potter in 1867. C. L. Eastlake wrote in The History of the Gothic Revival ( 1872): 'It is impossible to praise too highly the skill and attention which have been bestowed on the design of these screens, and . indeed on the whole of the metalwork in this church'.

The HIGH ALTAR (14) and REREDOS apparently stands on the site of the Neptune fountain in the former Vauxhall Gardens. The magnificent alabaster reredos (15) was designed by Pearson, made by Poole of Westminster, and enriched with mosaic by Salviati of Venice, the foremost mosaicist of the day. It is an excellent example of High Victorian geometric design. The built-in cross was incorporated into the reredos to prevent the possibility of removal on liturgical grounds.

The SANCTUARY LAMPS were given by Harriet Wyndham in 1901 in memory of Katherine, daughter of Henry, fifth baron Polwarth and Sara Chubb.

The ST AINED GLASS in the upper lancets is by Lavers and Barraud to the designs of Nathaniel Westlake; it dates from 1864-5. Christ in Majesty is flanked by SS Mary, Peter and John. The triforium glass is by Clayton and Bell, c.1865-67, and illustrates themes from the life ofSt Peter. Each light cost �50.

An Anglo-Catholic Parish: Ritualism and the Mission to the Poor

The first vicar of St Peter's, the Rev George w. Herbert, was educated at Exeter College, Oxford, and was admitted priest in 1856. After serving his curacy at St Mary's Church, Tothill Fields, Westminster, he became vicar of the new parish of St Peter's in 1860 where he ministered until his death in 1894. Herbert believed that the Tractarian reassertion of Catholic teaching within the Church of England needed the outward and visible sign of a revived ritual. His vision was a pre- Reformation ideal of the church as a mystical body suffused with God's power. Worship should reflect these mysteries and Herbert slowly introduced many of the so-called 'Six Points' of ritual observance: the eastward position for consecration of the Host, wafer bread, the mixed chalice (i.e. water and wine together), candles, vestments, and incense. It was hoped that a more ritualistic form of service would attract the poor by its appeal to the imagination and the senses.

The first and most essential step was regular Holy Communion (never referred to as Mass until early in the twentieth century). In 1864 Communion was celebrated at 7.00 am on the first Sunday of the month, Saints' Days, and Festivals; 8.00 am on the third and fifth Sunday of the month; and noon on the second and fourth Sunday of the month and Festivals. In Mission Week in 1865 there was daily Holy Communion at 7.00 am and in 1867 Herbert was encouraged by the increase of those who communicated whilst fasting; on Easter Day 1867 there were 248 communicants of whom 198 received at 6.00 am and 7.30 am. By 1889 daily Holy Communion was the norm. Today this is taken for granted, but daily Communion was very much a Tractarian innovation; in the early nineteenth century most parishes celebrated Communion just four times a year.

After establishing the primacy of the Sacraments, Herbert began to introduce colour and ritual. In 1868 he started wearing Eucharistic vestments in spite of the 'regret' expressed by 'certain communicants'. In the same year the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared the ceremonial use of altar lights illegal and Herbert regretfully announced that he would no longer use them. They were probably re-introduced soon afterwards, though they were not finally declared legal unti11890. In 1873 the altar acolytes began wearing scarlet cassocks; in 1882 purificators (i.e. cloths for wiping the chalice during Communion) were introduced; in 1891 incense was first used, though whether in a 'ceremonial' or 'non-ceremonial' sense is unclear; in 1892 a magnificent cope, originally embroidered in Bruges but completed, on Preston's recommendation, by St Mary's Convent Embroidery School, Wantage, was first worn at the Communion service; and in 1893 and 1894 splendid violet and white chasubles, based on thirteenth- century examples at Rheims, were presented to the church.

Music was an important part of the life of the church. Gregorian Plain Song and Helmore's Psalter and Hymnal Noted were used whilst the staple of congregational worship was Hymns Ancient and Modern. The Builder (1865) noted the 'hearty congregational services ...which are not such as to attract strangers from a distance, but suited to the needs of the parishioners'. In 1873 the organ, which, since 1870, had been hired, was bought from T. C. Lewis, a well-known organ builder and bell-founder.

The acute poverty of the parish much affected Herbert In 1866 both cholera and cattle plague hit Vauxhall and Herbert referred to 'the Lord's sore judgements'. The problem was that the parish had no rich residents and there was little incentive for the young and the fit to stay. Nevertheless, in 1886 Herbert managed to secure donations of soup and blankets from Lady Caroline Charteris and Lady Mary Gordon and brandy was presented by Mr Burnett, the owner of a distillery in the parish and a previous benefactor to the parish soup kitchen. In 1888 Herbert wrote feelingly: 'Our poverty is always great whether trade is good or not; the sickness, the trials of old age, and helplessness, are constantly weighing us down'.

One response to the ever-present problem of alleviating poverty was the setting up of wards, or branches, of the recently revived religious orders. This often occasioned controversy as Anglican brotherhoods and sisterhoods were modelled on Continental Catholic prototypes. They gave expression to the Tractarian demand for total commitment to the will of God and they were a practical response to the nursing of the poor. In 1867 senior and junior branches of the Brotherhood of the Holy Redeemer were established and in the same year a ward of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament was constituted. The primary aim of the Confraternity was the making of grants for vestments and church ornaments to poor parishes, but it also favoured 'extreme ritualistic' practices, most notably the reservation of the Sacrament, the saying of requiems, and the rite of extreme unction. In 1877 the Lay Brotherhood of the Holy Name was constituted for mission work independent of the parish; this complemented an already existing sisterhood which still survives today. There was also a Parochial Temperance Guild and, from 1877, a branch of the Guild of the Holy Sepulchre; this aimed to provide the poor with a decent burial.


St Peter's, Vauxhall, was the most important element in an extraordinary exercise in Victorian philanthropy which provided not only a splendid new church, but also schools for both apprentices and children. Robert Gregory's aim was to combat poverty by providing the means by which a skill could be learned and religious instruction supplied. The church, which formed the focal point of his scheme, became the prototype for many cheaply built town churches. It is the masterpiece of Pearson's middle period when he was most influenced by Continental Gothic models. Its solid construction, height, and noble proportions provided an admirable setting for the elaborate services characteristic of the second phase of the Catholic Revival within the Church of England. It remains today a model of what an inner- city town church should be.

Dimensions of narthex: 23 feet x 7 feet
Length of nave: 78 feet
Extreme width: 49 feet
Length of chancel: 42 feet
Width of chancel: 23 feet
Seating capacity: 900
Cost: �8000
Main sponsors: Benjamin Lancaster & Rev Robert Gregory
Architect: John Loughborough Pearson

Important Dates

  • 1860: Foundation stone of St Peter's schools laid by the Prince of Wales on 27 July. (J. L. Pearson's first design for St Peter's drawn up in November.)
  • 1861: Parish of St Peter created from district chapelry of St Mary the Less.
  • 1863: Foundation stone of St Peter's Church laid by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 16 April.
  • 1864: Church consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester on 28 June, the Vigil of St Peter.
  • 1864-1865: Upper lancets of the apse glazed by Lavers and Barraud.
  • 1865: Baptistery glazed by Clayton and Bell.
  • 1865-1867: Apse triforium glazed by Clayton and Bell.
  • 1866-1868: Apse frescoes of the passion of Christ designed and executed by Clayton and Bell.
  • 1867: Iron side screens added to the chancel. Painting of Christ in Judgement by Clayton and Bell installed above west door. (Senior and junior branches of the Brotherhood of the Holy Redeemer and a
  • ward of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament constituted. )
  • 1868: Eucharistic vestments introduced. 1870: Sanctuary paving completed.
  • 1871: Lectern, which cost �65, supplied by Hart and Co.
  • 1873: Organ, which had previously been hired, bought from Thomas Christopher Lewis, organ builder and bell-founder.
  • 1874: Nicholl paid �18 for 'incising the font'. Altar completed except for marble slab.
  • c.1877: Frescoes by Clayton and Bell of the Killing of Abel and Melchisedech added to the apse.
  • (Lay Brotherhood of the Holy Name constituted. Burial Guild of the Holy Sepulchre formed. )
  • 1880: Mortuary chapel added to the church by J. L. Pearson.
  • 1882: Statues of St Michael and St Gabriel installed in the sanctuary.
  • 1891: Font cover designed by J. L. Pearson. Incense first used.
  • c.1900: Morning chapel for children fitted up as a Lady Chapel.
  • 1901: Seven sanctuary lamps given in memory of the Hon Katherine Scott


    Quiney, John Loughborough Pearson (1979) has an extended account of the building of St Peter's, Vauxhall, and contains a useful bibliography.

    The Royal Institute of British Architects Drawings Collection contains seven contract drawings and nine other architect's drawings (U988/U996) of the original unmodified design.

    The contemporary architectural press dealt extensively with St Peter's. The most useful accounts are listed below:

    The Architect, VII, 1872, p.235; VIII, 1872, p.232; , XIX, 1878, p.234; LVIII, 1897, p.386.

    The Architectural Review, I, 1897, p.4

    The Builder, XXII, 1864, p.327; XXIII, 1865, pp.626- 7; XXVIII, 1870, p.382.

    The Building News, VII, 1861, p.427; XI, 1864, p.509; XII, 1865, pp.581, 707, 712, 755, 847; XIX, 1870, p.3; XXIX, 1875, p.696.

    The Church Builder, XII, 1864, p.186; XXXVII, 1871,p.11.

    The Ecclesiologist, XXII, 1861, pp.56-8; XXV, 1864, pp.272-4

    The parish archives are preserved in the Greater London Record Office. Of particular interest are the four Preachers' Books from 1858-1894 (P85/PETI/19/1-P85/PETI/22/1); these have tipped-in printed accounts by Rev G. w. Herbert which detail additions to the furniture and decoration of St Peter's. Parish life is also dealt with in fascinating detail.

    Robert Gregory, Autobiography of Robert Gregory (1912), has a good account of the social conditions in Lambeth and Vauxhall in the nineteenth century.

    A. J. B. Beresford-Hope, The English Cathedral of the Nineteenth Century (1861), is useful for the background material it contains on the 'town church' movement of the 1860s.

    Charles Makeson, A Guide to the Churches of London and its suburbs for 1889 ( 1889) has an account of the type of service to be found at St Peter's.

    David Beevers is Keeper of Preston Manor in Brighton, a branch museum of the Royal Pavilion. Since graduating from Cambridge, David Beevers has spent the whole of his working life in museums.

    After a first post at Liverpool M useum, David Beevers became curator of Tradegar House Newport, Gwent, and since 1979 has been Keeper of Preston Manor.

    David Beevers is the joint author of Sussex Churches and Chapels (1990) and the author of the new Pitkin Guide of All Saints Margaret Street (1990). He is a regular contributor to the Antique Collector and contributes to numerous other journals. David Beevers worships at St Michael and All Angels Church in Brighton (1860 Bodley and Burgess) and his church have commissioned him to write their guide book in 1991.