St James Bermondsey SE1

quick sketch

Walking back from the Little Bread Pedlar with my bag of goodies, I came to a standstill in front of St James’ Church, Bermondsey.

This is a magnificent 19th Century church, with a dragon as a weathervane. There is a generous park around the church, and benches. I made a quick sketch.

After my lunch, I walked along the West side of the church and passed between huge stone gateposts. Looking back, the church was spectacular against a moody sky.

There were some convenient benches stacked outside a closed pub, so I sat down and made a longer sketch.

St James’ Church, Bermondsey, 7″ x 10″ in Sketchbook 10. 5th May 2021 14:15

From this angle, the church might be in the countryside. What you can’t see in the drawing is the half-timbered pub, which is just off to the left. It is called “The Gregorian”. The pub sign is a heraldic shield, with a black dragon facing a white dove. The motto below the shield reads “SHALOM”. I can find no explanation for why a pub in Bermondsey should have a greeting in Hebrew on its coat of arms. But there it is. The pub was closed, so I couldn’t ask them.

The church is remarkable in many ways. For one thing, it is enormous, and very solidly built. Walking along the West wall, I could see that there was a crypt along the entire length. The steeple has clocks on each of its four faces, which is commendable and generous, in my view. All of the clocks were working, and showed the right time, including the one which was facing North over the roof of the Nave, and thus invisible except by a narrow angle.

As I was drawing this, the rain started, and then stopped, and started again. Eventually I packed up and finished the drawing at my desk when I got home. I also found out more about the church. The first stone was laid in 1827 and it was consecrated in 1829. The church was built as part of a huge Church building programme, funded by central government after the Napoleonic wars. The fund was called the “million-pound fund” and the churches built are called “Waterloo Churches” or “Commissioners’ Churches” for the Church Commissioners who managed the programme. Wikipedia has a whole article on the subject. I found it interesting that the government would embark on such expenditure when surely its funds were depleted after the wars? Information on a notice board by the church says that the fund was established as a thank-offering for peace, and a memorial to the soldiers who had fallen. Wikipedia offers two additional explanations.

  1. The demographics of the country were changing substantially in the first part of the 19th century. There were churches where there were insufficient people, and people where there were insufficient churches. This was certainly the case in Bermondsey, where the population quadrupled during the 19th century, from roughly 17 thousand in 1801 to over 80 thousand in 1901. The people were engaged in trades associated with the docks, such as ropemaking.
  2. It was seen by the government as important to provide churches in order to prevent insurrection (note 1). Churches provided guidance, stability, and social control. The French revolution of 1789-99 lived in people’s memories.

St James’ Church accommodated 2000 people, when built. It continues to offer services and describes itself as an Anglican evangelical church, with a “vibrant and active congregation of all ages and backgrounds, drawn from many countries in the world.” This is from the information leaflet on the church website. (Note 3) This information leaflet contains the following picture of the restored dragon weathervane, which I couldn’t resist including here:

“Restored and regilded, St James’s dragon weathervane, returns to Bermondsey in 2018” (from St James Bermondsey History leaflet, Note 3, and vicar’s blog: Note 4)

According to the church website (note 2), the bells were cast by Mears of Whitechapel from the canon left behind by Napoleon. The architect was James Savage.

Here is work in progress on the drawing:

  1. Wikipedia article quotes Port, M. H. (2006), 600 New Churches: the Church Building Commission 1818-1856 (2nd ed.), Reading: Spire Books, pages 15 and 16 ISBN978-1-904965-08-4
  2. Website of St James Bermondsey: is here. http://www.godlovesbermondsey.co.uk/our-history.php
  3. St James Church website history information leaflet: http://www.godlovesbermondsey.co.uk/resources/Church%20History%20Leaflet%202019a%20-%20June%2022%20%20FINAL.pdf
  4. The vicar of St James published a blog article about the return of the dragon here: https://bermondseyvicar.blogspot.com/2018/08/the-dragon-returns.html?m=0