The Rev. Christopher Ridley Pearson (pictured left) was nominated as the first Vicar of St. James’s parish, Tunbridge Wells, by the Rev. Edward Hoare, later so well known as Canon Hoare, Vicar of Holy Trinity. Hoare’s fierce opposition to the “Tractarian” (“High Church”) or Oxford Movement (also known as “the Anglo-Catholic Movement”) saw him labelled as “the Protestant Pontiff of Tunbridge Wells.”
He had thought that Mr. Pearson was “a safe pair of hands” to perpetuate his own extreme Protestant vision of the Church of England. To his dismay he found that both the teaching and ritual observed at St. James’s became more Catholic in character, a situation Hoare opposed with characteristic forcefulness.
During his time as Vicar of St. James’s Mr. Pearson grew concerned with the plight of his poorer parishioners, who in those class-conscious days were reluctant to enter the doors of his church, dominated as it was by the well-to-do. In 1870 the Rev. Harry Hitchcock, (below right), a wealthy young priest who had recently moved to Sandrock Road with his wife, came to the rescue. He volunteered to build a mission church for the poor at his own expense, and in addition he offered to serve it as a priest in an unpaid capacity. This was a somewhat unusual arrangement, but the offer was eagerly accepted. Fr. Hitchcock purchased the largest of the old quarries, which had been worked out and was later used as the Municipal rubbish dump. He built there a modest church, dedicated in honour of St. Stephen, and designed by the eminent architect A.W. Blomfield.
St. Stephen’s fully embraced the ideals of the Tractarian Movement and became a dramatic contrast to every Anglican church for miles around. An early photograph of the interior (pictured below) shows the altar carrying 18 candles, at a time when the presence of only two was viewed with deep suspicion, being considered too “Popish”. Feeling against Fr. Hitchcock was further exacerbated by his opening an Orphanage in Stanley Road, served by nuns from St. Margaret’s Convent at East Grinstead, sending ripples of horror through thoroughly Protestant Tunbridge Wells.
Fr. Hitchcock was headstrong in the face of criticism, before long his tactless espousal of the wearing of the proper Eucharistic vestments (only recently reintroduced in the Church of England) and the alleged use of incense alienated him too from Mr. Pearson, Vicar of St. James’s. When the latter’s remonstrations failed to influence him, a Commission looked into affairs at St. Stephen’s, as a result of which Fr. Hitchcock’s licence was removed and the mission church closed down for a while. However, controversy about Mr. Pearson’s “innovations” (which in truth were very moderate in character) continued unabated, resulting in tremendous rows at the Easter Vestry meetings, gleefully reported in the local press.
Despite all these worries, Mr. Pearson was not to be deflected, and soon after St. Stephen’s was reopened the Rev. Henry Shrubb Iredell became the priest in charge there. Despite strenuous and persistent opposition from Canon Hoare, Mr. Pearson successfully established the new parish of St. Barnabas in 1881, with himself and Fr. Hitchcock as the first Patrons of the living, to which they presented Mr. Iredell.
As to the Mission church, that was extended twice until in 1887 the momentous decision was taken to demolish it and to build on and around its site the present magnificent St. Barnabas’. The ambitious project was undertaken by the brothers J.P. and J.E.K. Cutts, architects of a number of similar buildings, but none as imposing as this. The original plan (pictured) shows a tower with a tall spire but – perhaps fortunately – that was not built, and a large porch was erected in its place, but not until 1932.
Not only was no expense spared in building the new church, but subsequent furnishings, always of the highest quality, have added greatly to its beauty. The chapel of St. Stephen stands on the site of the former Mission church, and contains both altar and stained glass from the original building. The first reredos behind the altar there, an early work by Ninian Comper, was much altered by Martin Travers in 1944, and the other fittings in the chapel were also designed by him. Travers designed too the reredos and tester in the Lady Chapel, a dazzling essay in the Italianate style, completed in 1947 and recently restored.
The huge canopy over the font, which makes a wonderfully dignified setting for baptisms, is the work of Milner and Craze, architects of the Holy House at Walsingham. They also completed in 1952 the equally ambitious High Altar reredos (pictured right), the framework of which had been erected in 1914. All of the fine collection of stained glass is from the studio of Heaton, Butler and Bayne and dating as it does from the 1870s to the 1920s it demonstrates the various developments in their style. The image of St. Barnabas, dating from 1951, is a late work of Ninian Comper, while the splendid banner of Our Lady (pictured left) is a much earlier design by him.
The founding clergy of St. Barnabas’ felt due reverence should be paid to the departed, to this end a beautiful underground mortuary chapel was provided. This was long before the days of undertakers’ chapels of rest, and it ensured that those parishioners who might live in crowded conditions had somewhere to lay their dead in dignified surroundings. Arguably this chapel, with its stone vaulting, is the most distinguished part of the building, and after a long period of neglect it has been restored recently to much of its former glory. The tradition of praying for the departed continues to play an important part at St. Barnabas’, which is very fitting since the Patrons of the living are the Guild of All Souls.
Geoffrey Copus, March 2011.