IN the early part of the nineteenth century, parish work, as we now understand it, was unknown. The Provost, although Rector, took little part in parish matters, and the care of the people and of the little Chapel was left almost entirely to the Conducts. The services were bald and unattractive, and too often perfunctorily discharged. There was little or nothing else attempted in those days for the benefit of parishioners.
At last the wave stirred by the Evangelical Movement at Cambridge and the Church Movement at Oxford reached Eton.
George Augustus Selwyn from the former University, and Henry John Chitty Harper from Oxford, came to Eton as private tutors in 1831, both remarkable for physical vigour, and both men of strong character and with strong religious convictions. Two men like these could not be content to be idle. Selwyn took up vigorous work in New Windsor, the Vicar of which resided at Datchet, and Harper as Conduct inaugurated a new state of things in Eton. The poor were now for the first time regularly visited, the services were carefully and reverently performed, the sermons were full of earnestness and contained real and effective teaching.
It was by the energy of the same Conduct that the schoolroom at Eton Wick was built, and a service held in it for the benefit of the villagers. The erection of this was affected in 1840 at the cost of £259, the ground being generously granted by Mr. William Goddard at a nominal annual rent of 10s.
The first of these, Selwyn, was in 1841 called to be first Bishop of New Zealand ¹, and in later life was Bishop of Lichfield; Harper, after holding for some years the Vicarage of Mortimer, joined his old comrade as Bishop of Christchurch and later became Primate of New Zealand.' But the influence of such lives by no means passed away with their removal from Eton. Others were stirred by-their example and enthusiasm, and the good work thus begun was carried on by those who followed them, with good effect, and bore lasting fruit.
An additional stimulus was given to Church life a few years later by the transference of the County of Bucks from the Diocese of Lincoln to that of Oxford. This took place in 1847. Samuel Wilberforce was then Bishop of Oxford, and by his vigorous leadership and persuasive eloquence he infused a new spirit into the whole Diocese. The last visit of the Bishop of Lincoln was on April 16, 1846, when he consecrated as the Church burial place the ground and chapel now known as the Eton Cemetery.
The old Church-yard adjoining the College Chapel had for the most part been closed ² and interments of parishioners had taken place in the ground behind the little chapel.
Henceforth with rare exceptions³ all funerals took place in the new ground. The first burial was on January 6, 1847.
But a still more important step was in contemplation. It was resolved in 1850 that a larger Chapel and one more worthy of the place should be built, and the result was the erection of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, the present Parish Church.
The design was prepared by Mr. Ferrey for the accommodation of 11oo people. The total cost was £10,456.
The foundation stone was laid on October 21, 1852, by Prince Albert, and the Consecration took place on June 1, 1854. The Sermon on this occasion was preached by Bishop Selwyn, who was paying a visit to England.
The Dedication was celebrated by a dinner given to the poor on Fellows' Eyot.
The following are the original dimensions: total length, 156 feet; length of nave, 103 feet; width of nave 23 feet 6 inches, height 66 feet; width of aisles, 13 feet; width of chancel, 23 feet; tower and spire, 160 feet.
The site was given by the Provost and Fellows of Eton College with a subscription of £500. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gave £100, and many generous sums were given by Eton Masters and townspeople, and not least by the Rev. S. F. Marshall, then a Conduct.
The Rev. E. Coleridge contributed largely and collected among his pupils a total sum of £1155. It is an easy and somewhat ungracious task to criticise, in the light of later experience, the wisdom of those who have gone before, but it would now be generally admitted that some grievous mistakes were made in the building of St. John's Church.
It was built on too large a scale and for a greater population than Eton was ever likely to have. It was somewhat too ambitious in design, and yet wanting in solidity. The pillars were too slender. Both east and west windows were unnecessarily large. Unfortunately, an overzealous portion of the Committee brought about an alteration in the original plans, viz. the addition to the nave of clerestory windows, with, as a necessary consequence, a much higher roof. This spoilt the proportions both within and without and paved the way to subsequent disasters.
With determined devotion the Rev. E. Coleridge had raised a magnificent sum expressly for the chancel, and it was proposed to beautify this in various ways. But the increased cost incurred in the nave necessitated the sacrifice of this purpose, and he was persuaded to sink his offering in the general fund; a step that he never ceased to regret, and the chancel was left bare and unadorned, and remained so for many years.
But there was a worse mistake than this. The contractor's work was imperfectly executed, and his workmen took advantage of an incompetent clerk of the works, and not only laid most of the foundations in bad concrete but neglected to secure many of the bolts of the lofty roof.
The rough winds which sweep across South Meadow found this weakness out, and soon not only loosened the roof and cracked the walls, but threw several of the pillars out of the perpendicular, and when after thirty-six years (in 1893) the cause of the mischief was discovered, it could only be remedied by underpinning the walls and by the removal of the clerestory, and the lowering of the nave roof by seven feet. This entailed the heavy cost of £1400.
Yet another mistake was made. It had been hoped that the building of such a Church would have brought together those parishioners who had, for want of space or other reasons, either neglected worship altogether, or sought the means of grace in Churches or Chapels out-side the parish, but unfortunately the grand opportunity for uniting all classes, and helping them to realise their common brotherhood and common responsibilities, was missed. By the system adopted of appropriating sittings, class distinctions were perpetuated, and grievous offence given in many quarters, and several families drifted off to Nonconformist societies, where their presence would be more welcomed.
But those were days when as, yet the democratic principles of the Church were little understood. We can see the mistake now and can only.; deplore the hindrance to true Christian progress which was thus unwittingly created.
For several years the whole of this large Church was destitute of ornament; the walls were of cold white stone and the windows devoid of all colour. Some of the early attempts made to correct these defects can hardly escape criticism, nor can the attempt to colour the pillars be reckoned a success.
But at least the chancel has now a fairly dignified appearance and is worthy of the intentions which were frustrated at the time of its erection. We give in an appendix⁴ a list of various gifts and improvements effected at different times. They testify to the interest taken in their Church by those who worshipped there, and their desire to do their best for the glory of God.
The last important step taken before the Provosts of Eton ceased to be incumbents of the parish, was the building of a Church at Eton Wick. For some years previously the three Conducts, who practically carried on all the spiritual work of the parish, had voluntarily held a Sunday evening service in the little schoolroom there, but, with the growth of this hamlet, this room became intolerably crowded, and wholly insufficient for the purpose. As it could not be licensed for the administration of the Sacraments, all who lived there had to come into the town both for these and for the privilege of joining in Sunday morning worship.
The movement for a Church began with a meeting of the people of Eton Wick, at which seventy-five house-holders promised subscriptions which were to be collected weekly for a year.
With this proof of earnest purpose before them, the parishioners of Eton generally were soon stirred up to carry on the work, and a suitable site being given by the Crown in Sheepgate, the foundation stone of St. John the Baptist's Church was laid by Provost Goodford on August 4, 1866. The architect was Mr. (afterwards Sir Arthur) Blomfield. The following names appear as serving on the Building Committee: Provost Goodford, Rev. J. Shephard, Rev. W. B. Marriott, E. Warre, W. J. Sanders, W. Goddard, J. Cross. The Church was designed to hold i 8o persons, and cost altogether 57 3. It was consecrated on June 22, 1867, by the Bishop of Oxford (Samuel Wilberforce). As all other liabilities had been met and the Church started quite free from debt, the collections at the Dedication, amounting to 122, were devoted to the purchase of Communion vessels for the use of the Church. The Bible, Prayer Book, and Altar Book were presented by Mr. E. P. Williams.
1 A brass in memory of Bishop Harper is on the wall of the College Chapel just outside the south entrance to the Ante-Chapel.
2 The last burial was of Frances Coke Denman Hodgson, October 21, 1853, age 9, but this was by special privilege.
3 The last burial in that ground was of Sydenham Holt, age 24, June 3, 1854.
4 Appendix II., page 91.