Church of St. James, Royal Tunbridge Wells
Statement of Significance
Church of St James
Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Royal Tunbridge Conservation Area
Tunbridge Wells originally grew up as a resort following the discovery of the springs in 1606. With seasonal Royal patronage and under the fashionable Master of ceremonies, Beau Nash, it reached its height of popularity as a resort in the later 17th and 18th centuries.
The coming of the railway in the 1840/50’s led to the rapid expansion of the town in the mid to late 19th century with the building of large permanent villas, increasing in substance as development spread further eastwards and succeeding the earlier cottages and lodging houses.
This development often took the form of of opulent houses in landscaped grounds following the Arcadian inspiration of ‘Park’ developments established by the architect Decimus Burton.
The St James area was laid out in the 1850’s and was a part of John Wards Calverley Estate. Its development was taken forward primarily by Burtons colleague William Willicombe who was responsible for much of the layout of the town from the mid to late 19th century. The significant expansion of suburbs was to serve needs of genteel wealthy upper middle classes who came to ‘The Wells’.
A number of churches were therefore needed for the rapidly expanding town and in order to serve the rising population.
The Church of St James served the north-eastern expansion of Tunbridge Wells and was begun 1860 and completed in 1862. Its surrounding residential area was more or less fully developed by the 1871 census.
Recent changes in the area have seen new flatted developments, conversions of the original large houses or new infill developments in their large grounds.
A distinctive feature of the local 19th century streetscape is the informal alignment of the streets, in gentle curves joining one another at acute angles, with these junctions creating nodal points that are key local focuses. St James Church sits at such a location in the townscape at the confluence of a number of roads.
The church building provides punctuation to long views particularly along the length of St James Road and also in several shorter unfolding views from other surrounding streets.
Its open frontage behind a low wall also provides a noteworthy space in a streetscape mainly dominated by mature boundary hedges.
As well as providing a focal point locally, it is also a landmark in the wider townscape, the spire being visible from almost all parts of Royal Tunbridge Wells.
The church sits to the north of its site in open grounds. There are no burials within the grounds.
Adjacent to the church to the east is Church House, the original ‘gothic’ vicarage now converted to flats, meeting rooms and office accommodation.
A car park fills the land between the Church and Church House.
Directly attached to north aisle is the Hall, a later addition built tight to the curtilage on the north side, with residential houses beyond.
The grounds to the west and south are laid to plain grass with areas of trees and shrubs and some laurel and rhododendron hedging to the boundary, a typical landscape treatment in Tunbridge Wells.
A few large specimen trees define the space providing complimentary scale to the church and adding to the simple, strong setting.
The lych gate to South side dates from 1891.
The whole site is bounded by sandstone walls, with the easternmost section of the site to Church House fronted by dense laurel.
The Church of St James was designed by Ewan Christian (known for the National Portrait Gallery and a significant number of churches and church extensions). It was built by Bramah, a local builder who oversaw the building of much of Tunbridge Wells.
The church is constructed of rough dressed coursed local sandstone with ashlar quoins to openings and buttresses.
The roof form is a large gabled nave with gabled aisles to the north and south.
The south aisle is contemporary with the original building of 1862, the north being added in 1883 to accommodate overcrowding. The roof has replacement concrete roof tiles, which are now rather bland in colour.
A tower is located on the south-west corner with a tall, graceful stone spire above.
The short, canted apsidal chancel has vestries and organ on north-east side and Chapel to the south east.
The Vicar and Choir vestries of 1913 are by C M Oldrid Scott, a member of the famous family of architects, and harmonise well through the use of local sandstone.
Church House was built in 1868 a large red brick gabled building, originally the vicarage being used as such until 1964. The building is now used for range of activities, including church offices, meeting space and playgroup. The basement provides valuable storage space and rooms. The upper two floors are let off as flats. It has one idiosyncratic detail with a windows being located above the fireplaces.
The hall on the north side was built in 1982 in matching sandstone, which is sympathetic to the main building. Its form is discreet and unassuming.
It was built to replace the old parish hall, which was further north in Albion Road.
The white painted rendered boiler room with metal flue and the close-boarded entrance structure to the crypt under the south west chapel are both attached to the east elevation.
The main entry is via the porch under the south-west steeple.
It leads to the west end baptistery, which is tucked under the raking balcony and with a partial screen to the nave.
The font is of special interest; being a copy of one installed in 1863 in a Rome church and carved by the notable Danish Sculptor, Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), who lived there. It was copied by Burslems, a local masons firm, and installed in 1914 and is one of only 2 or 3 similar ‘angel’ fonts in the country.
The raked balcony over, shares a stair access to an upper room over the kitchen, but is rarely used. A large west window lights it and the nave.
The Church interior is spacious and lofty. Its 4 bay arcaded nave, with north and south aisles, results in essentially square plan.
It measures 20 metres across the nave and aisles, and 19 metres from chancel arch to balcony. There are round stone columns to the arcades with bold carved foliage to their capitals.
The roof structure is false hammer-beam collar- trusses. Pastel colours were applied to the ceilings in the 1960s.
The south aisle has series of traceried windows, with 2 of the 3 having Victorian stained glass.
Dormers to the nave roof and roof windows to inner slopes of the aisle roofs also light the church interior. Together with the large west window, this generally gives the interior a light airy feel.
On the north side the windows are blank recesses against the hall. The first bay though retains a back-lit stained glass window erected to the memory of Rev A T Scott who died 1926. He was Priest, Rural Dean, Honorary Canon and the very first Archdeacon of Tonbridge.
It comprises three lights representing the Light of the World, Melchizedek the Priest and the Good Shepherd, which allegorised the Archdeacons contribution to his Church.
Scott did much to improve and beatify the Church, including the lych gate in 1891, the vicar and choir vestry in 1913 and the font in memory of a parishioner George Winch.
The nave has a wide central aisle with a further two in the side aisles.
The interior is furnished in wooden pews.
The church has a few tablets to the South African War of the early 20th century and other memorials to the First World War.
The east end chancel has a high chancel arch with a wide, apsidal end, with lancet stained glass to its canted sections depicting the Passion. The chancel ceiling is decorated in a gothic revival style in blue with symbols of the Crucifixion.
There is a fine carved screen with angels installed 1926 by Frank Rosier, a wood-carver from Frant who also did much work in the Town Hall. It is now relocated to the sides of chancel in a 2004 reordering. This also included extending the chancel platform into the nave and new chancel furniture by carpenter Bob Avery.
The organ was built in 1865 by J W Walker & Sons and considerably enlarged in 1883 by them.
It underwent a major rebuild 1937 by John Crompton Organ Co when the present console was installed. There were further overhauls in 1958 and in 1976.
It is reputed to be one of the most comprehensive instruments in Kent. Comprising nearly 2500 pipes, 3 manuals and pedals 51 speaking stops and is particularly notable for its choruses and reeds.
The War Memorial Chapel adjoins the Chancel on the southeast corner with stained glass windows to the east and south.
A 1981 North extension, provides a well used hall with a kitchen, toilets and with a small meeting room over, accessed from the upper west end of the church.
Plan of the Church
Sandbach R & Strange K, A Short History of St James’ Church 1862-1980
Savage A, Royal Tunbridge Wells
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, Conservation Area Appraisal 2000
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, Local Plan Review- Urban Capacity Study
Newman J, Pevsner - The Buildings of England
Listing description - Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Importance