Church History                                                           

A Brief History of St James’ Church.

by Susan Schibli, Reader at St James and others


In 1862 the church of St James was built in Sandrock Road in the area then known as Calverley Plain, at a cost of £6000. The Architect was Ewan Christian (1814-1895).

In 1861 the Tunbridge Wells Gazette had this to say about the site for the new church of St. James: -

“It is to be raised in the midst of a district which may be called remote from any place of worship. It is at the very centre of extensive building operations that are every day being enlarged so that the population of the locality is growing rapidly and is in evident want of a fitting place of worship, the nearest church being St John’s. The site has been well chosen and the country around is open and beautiful”.

The first ceremony to take place at the site was the laying of the foundation stone and the Gazette gave the following graphic account: -

“The ceremony was scarcely performed when a very smart, pelting hail shower drove some away and compelled others to take refuge under the best shelter they could find. Just as the hail commenced to fall, some of the scaffolding (built up to hold the seating) gave way with some noise. A number of persons were on it and underneath it and fears were entertained lest some person should have suffered an injury. Though several were compelled to cling to the scaffold and others fell eight to ten feet, happily no hurt was sustained by a single individual. The falling hail and broken scaffold merely causing a temporary confusion unusual on such occasions”.

The report continues that about £100 was still required to open the church and about £800 was needed to build a spire. In September of that year, advantage was taken of the Harvest Thanksgiving services at Trinity and St. John’s to appeal for additional contributions to the building of St. James’ and £113 was received.

In April 1862 it was reported that “the last few weeks have been so thoroughly well employed upon the building that a great improvement has been made with its appearance. The debris has been removed and the wall surrounding the Church has been completed. The incumbent is to be the Reverend C. R. Pearson, son of the Reverend J. N. Pearson, formerly of Trinity Church who will without doubt prove a valuable minister and we congratulate the inhabitants on obtaining a clergyman who is preceded by so favourable a reputation”.

The consecration of the building was to have taken place in May 1862 but the Archbishop of Canterbury was unwell. Eventually the Bishop of Ripon was commissioned to open the building “with such sacred observances as are necessary to render it a recognised offshoot of the Mother Church”.

The ceremony took place in unfavourable weather once more but on this occasion inside. The body of the church was nearly filled. No less than eighteen clergymen supported the Bishop in his duties on the happy occasion and a new choir had been formed under the direction of Mr. J. Roberts.

At the end of July the choir joined Speldhurst and Rusthall at the choir festival at Canterbury and this was deemed to be “not a little flattering to the choir to be included. Although only recently formed, the progress has been so great that we are satisfied its performance will reflect credit upon themselves and the town”.

Subsequently it was stated to have done so!

The life of the church in 1863 was active, both spiritually and practically. On the practical side a public appeal was made for money for the completion of the spire on the church and in December that year the top stone was laid and a flag waved over it during the day.

In that same year money was being raised for a bell that same bell calls the people to services to this day.

Four years after the Consecration of the building the population of the parish was already more that three thousand and the donors of the Church and Parsonage Ground Messrs A and N Ward gave an acre of land in the heart of the district for schools in connection with St James’.

By January 1867 the new school was opened and by the end of the summer there were over two hundred children attending it. Boys and Girls from five years old were received on Monday mornings. Terms for Tradesmen and mechanics 3d weekly, for Labourers 2d weekly and a penny extra for out-parishioners. At the end of the summer the first St James’ School treat took place with nearly three hundred scholars as well as teachers and friends. Flags and banners bearing suitable inscriptions were carried and a procession headed by Rev. C R Pearson went up to a field on the Calverley Water Works kindly lent by Mr. Willicombe (a prominent builder of the time). Games were played and tea and cakes were consumed.

As we have seen the parish was rapidly expanding and in 1870 the Rev H W Hitchcock moved into Sandrock Road and offered to build a Mission Church in the poorest part of the parish near the school at his own expense. The hope was that the people who attended no church already would go to services “whether they have Sunday clothes or not”.

Mr Hitchcock was appointed curate in charge of “St Stephen’s” as the mission church was called. St Stephen’s had a somewhat stormy passage in its early years and many grievances were expressed about “Romish” tendencies. Public meetings were held in the town protesting about innovations of the ritualist party in the Church of England and in view of the prevalent national points of view, it was not surprising that St. Stephen’s was closed down for a time. It was reopened in 1875 and in 1881 was renamed St. Barnabas with its own separate parish.

A new Parish Room in Albion Road was built and opened in 1880.

The Tunbridge Wells Gazette reports that in 1883 the Easter Festival was very heartily observed. There were large congregations at services during the previous week and on Easter Day the church was crowded to overflowing with large numbers being unable to find admission at both morning and evening services. Little wonder that we find plans for an extension well under way.

With the building of the North Aisle in 1883 together with the Organ chamber and extension to the vestry major works on the church came to a standstill. At that time too a reredos and new chancel screen were erected all were designs by Ewan Christian.

Although there were no major items of expenditure, repairs and maintenance had to go on over the years. The reports show several appeals for rebuilding and organ maintenance, better heating systems and redecoration.


At the vestry meeting of 1892 it was stated that owing to repairs to the cleaning of the organ costing £77.12.6 the church accounts showed a debit balance of 14/2d. The installation of electric lighting was first mooted in 1900 but was not installed until 1904 even though two people donated most of the cost.

The Church clock was installed in 1901 in memory of W. Bowell Esq. a past Churchwarden in celebration of whose Golden Wedding the Bowell Reading Room has been built at the parish hall. The Gymnasium was added to the existing hall in 1905 by W. Brindle in thanksgiving for recovery from a serious illness. People do not appear to think the same way these days!

The lych gate was built in 1891 by C M Oldrid Scott, then became a First World War memorial in 1921. The names of those listed on the Lych Gate Memorial can be found here.

The choir and vicar vestries were built in 1912/1913.

In 1913, the choir stalls were designed by C M Oldrid Scott.

The font is a copy by the stonemason’s firm Burslem of a font in Rome sculpted in 1863 by the Danish sculptor Thorwaldsen (1770-1844). It was given to the church in 1914 in memory of another Churchwarden by his wife.

The coloured roof of the chancel was redecorated in this style in the 1960s.


The oak paneling installed in 1970 in the sanctuary was the work of Stephen Dykes Bower.

Whilst all the building projects and provisions of furnishings and fittings for the Church were being undertaken, it must not be thought that the spiritual and caring life of the Church was in anyway taking second place. St James’ has been built as one of the results of the spiritual revival known as the “Evangelical Awakening” and had a strong biblical-based and Prayer book orientated worship. To these ends, it ensured that its parishioners were well instructed with services, Sunday Schools and Bible Reading.

The way of life in the parish at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th Century was very different from today with two totally separate strata’s of society. The rich in the large houses of Ferndale, Pembury and Lansdowne Roads and the poor in the cottages in the areas around Camden and Albion Roads. The middle income group such as it was played a lesser part as they were neither benefactors nor needy. It was the rich who gave the donations that started many of the societies and groups and it was the poor who attended them.

In 1890 contribution were invited for the following:-

The Assistant Clergy Fund – to provide a stripend for a poorly paid Curate.

The Parochial Schools for Boys, Girls and Infants.

The Sunday Schools.

Provident Clubs – to assist the poor in summer in providing against

the needs of winter.

Maternity Society – to assist poor married women at the time of their confinement.

Invalid and soup kitchen.

Choir fund.

St. James’ Parish Room.

Mothers’ meeting – to gather together mothers and help them in making garments for their families at less than cost price.

There was also a Coal club, a branch of the C. of E. Temperance Society, the Band of Hope, Men’s bible Class and an Industrial Society.

As is the case today Missions were held periodically with Guest Speakers and unlike today there were several mid-week services with daily Evensong and four opportunities on Sunday for church going.

In 1972 a new Church Centre and Clergy house were opened in Birken Road, Sherwood by the Right Reverend R.D. Say, Bishop of Rochester. It was renamed the Church of St Philip the Evangelist by the Bishop of Rochester in 1981.

In 1983 The Bishop of Rochester Rt Rev. Say dedicated the new church hall in memory of Michael Adrian Raleigh, Architect & Church Warden. This hall was built attached to the church and replaced the old hall which was located some distance away in Albion Road, and subsequently pulled down to make way for more houses.

Also in the early eighties a new infant and junior school was built nearer to St James’s Church but still Church of England funded.

The Vicars who were in charge of St James’s Parish from its dedication to the present day are:-

1862     Rev Christopher Ridley Pearson.

1881     Rev E.A. Eardley-Wilmot M.A.

Prebendary of Wells Cathedral.

1886     Canon Avison Terry Scott M.A.R.D.

First Archdeacon of Tonbridge.

1925     Rev. George Thomas Manley M.A.

1930     Rev. Evan James Hopkins M.A.

1946     Rev. Geoffrey Watkins Grubb M.A.

1953     Rev. Donald Plumley A.L.C.D.

1964     Rev. Canon R.W. Goldspink M.D.

1983     Rev. Norman Norgate M.A.

1997     Rev. Canon Jim Stewart MA


I thank Janet Edwards for supplying most of this brief history of St James’ Church. (Bruce Williamson)

Adapted from notes of Bruce Williamson based on information given by Janet Edwards, and from the Book of St James’ Church History 1862-1980.