Historical Notes on St Cuthbert's Church, Philbeach Gardens

 For the Earl's Court Society, 16 November 2009

THE STORY of St. Cuthbert's Church Philbeach Gardens really begins here st St. Philip's Church in Earls Court Road - as St. Cuthbert’s Parish was carved out of that of St. Philip's Parish South of the West Cromwell Road and up to the boundary of St Matthias's Parish Earls Court.

Up to the 1870's the future St. Cuthbert’s Parish consisted of Lord Kensington’s Earls Court Farm Estate bounded by Earls Court Road, West Cromwell Road, the railway line and Eardley Crescent etc.

However, in the 1870's Lord Kensington sold the farm off (to repay his debts) for the construction of buildings. Most of the five-storey houses were intended for the prosperous middle and upper classes; and those of the South end of Philbeach Gardens were completed between 1876 and 1880. At this time other houses were being built in Warwck Road, Nevern Square and Earls Court Square etc.

With all these additional houses being completed there arose a pressing need for the occupants to have their local place of worship, and so there were various plans for an additional Church of England Church to be built in the area. There were many objections and problems over the building of yet another church in the area, particularly by John Jackson, Bishop of London and The Reverend Walter Pennington, Vicar of St. Philip's Church Earls Court Road. The Vicar was understandably reluctant to lose out on the lucrative pew rents of the occupants of the newly-constructed houses in his Parish. However, these objections were eventually overcome and in June 1883 the Vicar relented and agreed that another clergyman could establish a new church in Phiibeach Gardens.

This Clergyman was The Reverend Henry Westall, who had been the Senior Curate of
St. Matthias Church, Earls Court for the past ten years. St. Matthias was a High Church Foundation, and as such was out of favour with Bishop John Jackson. The Church existed from 1869 to 1958 on the site of the playground and bungalow of St. Cuthbert with St.Matthias Primary School in Warwick Road. St. Matthias's Church suffered bomb damage in World War II and it was demolished in 1958. The parishes of St. Matthias and St. Cuthbert were amalgamated in 1954.

Fr. Westall formed a Church Building Committee in February 1881 and held a public meeting to promote the building of a new church to be under the patronage of St. Cuthbert, the famous Bishop of Lindisfarne who died in 687. St. Matthias Church had set up the daughter church of St. Patrick in Kenway Road in 1872, but the temporary iron church burned down in 1879, so one can see why the prospect of a permanent neighbouring church in Philbeach Gardens was a very attractive proposition.

In September 1882 the Freehold and Leasehold site of St. Cuthbert's Church was purchased from Lord Kensington and the builder (for £2,475), and in the Winter of 1882/83 a temporary iron church was erected - it was opened on 2nd February 1883.

The Architect Hugh Roumieu Gough (1843-1904) was chosen to design the permanent church building and his drawing was displayed in The Building News on 14th October 1881.

Building work commenced on the Clergy House, and the Foundation Stone was laid by the 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorn (the late Queen Mother's Grandfather) on 2nd June 1883. The builder of the Clergy House and Church was S.Belham & Company.

View along the South Aisle of St Cuthbert's.

Hugh Roumieu Gough's original design for the permanent church building. The drawing was published in The Building News on 14th October 1881.

The building of the church itself followed on from the Spring of 1884 and the foundation stone (a block quarried at Lindisfarne) was laid by Earl Beauchamp on 2nd July of that year. After many hold-ups due to lack of funds, the church was eventually completed in 1887 and if was conscrated by Dr. Frederick Temple, Bishop of London, on 18th November 1887.

When the church was opened it had a plain red-brick interior with few of the embellishments that we now see, and perhaps take for granted. From 1887 to 1914 Fr. Henry Westall had the interior of the church lavishly embellished with marble, stone carving, woodwork, painting, metalwork and embroidery - to achieve the glorious interior that exists complete and unspoilt to this day. This work was overseen by professional architects and designers including H.R. Gough, William Bainbridge Reynolds, J.Harold Gibbons, The Rev. Ernest Geldart, C.E.Kempe and Sir Ninian Comper. But much of the work was undertaken by members of the congregation who were organised into Arts and Crafts Guilds, under professional direction.

The simple reason for all this expense, labour and extravagence over nearly 30 years was that in the Medieval Catholic tradition only the best was good enough for God. The full Catholic style of worship was re-introduced into the Church of England in Victorian times following the flourishing of The Oxford Movement in the 1830's led by Newman, Keble and Pusey and others - so that the plain worship of Georgian times returned to the traditional ways with vestments, candles, crucifixes, tabernacles and incense etc. In the fairly immediate area of Kensington the example of St. Matthias's Church was followed by those of St. Cuthbert's Church, St. Stephen’s Church Gloucester Road and St. Augustine's Church Queens Gate.

Under Fr. Westall St. Cuthbert’s Church grew rapidly in influence, until it was soon the most flourishing High Church foundation in Kensington - and the Church became known for its extreme Anglo-Catholic ritualism.

Fr. Westall died in1924 and was suceeded as Vicar by Fr. Frederick Croom (1925-1936). We have an interesting photograph of his funeral procession down Warwick Road showing the ceremonial and clergy attire. Fr. Lewis Gage-Brown was Vicar from 1937-1959 and Fr.Gerard Irvine was Vicar from 1960 -1968. The present Vicar is Fr. John Vine who was inducted in May 1969. So in 122 years we have had only 5 Vicars [written in 2009].

The church building suffered damage during the Second World War as did the Philbeach Hall (built 1894/1896 to house the Church Hall, accommodation for 6 Curates, a Library and a gymnasium). We have a photograph of The Philbeach Hall and Church Building showing the War damage from which it can be seen that the Hall was a shell and the Church roof had lost half of its Western Bellcote. The church lost much of its stained glass and a programme of church and hall restoration work was carried out in the 1940's and 1950's. Unfortunately the church was re-roofed in copper in the 1940's (instead of the original slate) and this was later : seen to be a mistake, as by the 1970's rainwater was pouring into the building from many parts of the roof.

The major roof problem (plus the fact that there were so many parish churches in the Earls Court area) prompted the Archdeacon of Middlesex in 1986 to conclude that St. Cuthbert’s Church should close. Therefore in the 1980's the Vicar and other Members of The Parochial Church Council fought a prolonged battle with The Diocese of London to keep the Church open.

Eventually a question was asked by Lord Kennet to the Bishop of London in the House of Lords concerning the future of St. Cuthbert's Church - and since that time the Diocese has made no mention of closure.

The threat to the church prompted English Heritage to have St. Cuthbert’s Church listed as Grade II* and between 1987 and 2008 all of the church roofs have been renewed in Westmorland slate and the gutters in lead, largely funded by English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We are therefore now very hopeful that St. Cuthbert's Church has a viable future and that the traditional Anglo-Catholic ritualistic style of worship started by Fr. Henry Westall in Philbeach Gardens in 1883 will continue for at least another 126 years. We have a small but very committed congregation under the leadership of Fr. John Vine and Bishop John Broadhurst of Fulham - and we all have great confidence in the future of our Parish Church and the work that we do for our parishioners and the wider community.