In 1873 an iron church was built in a windy part of south London known as One Tree Hill. One of the priests serving the congregation of this temporary edifice was the Revd Thomas Helmore (1811–1890), formerly Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal and a noted authority on Gregorian chant. As a key figure in the revival of the English choral tradition, it is inconceivable that music would not have played a central part in the worship of the day.
When the time came to build a more permanent structure, a magnificent organ to be built by Lewis was included in the ambitious plans. Although it would not be completed for another 45 years, the first section was ready by the time of the consecration in April 1887. Alfred Eyre was appointed the first Organist and Master of Music in 1881, and remained in post for 38 years.
Music continues to be a central part of the worship at St John’s. The organ has been recently restored and the choir continues to flourish, now with a female top line instead of the boy trebles who sang for most of its history. Adrian Adams, the present Master of Music, has long surpassed Alfred Eyre’s record of 38 years at the helm.
St John the Evangelist is a Grade II* listed building in Upper Norwood, the area taking its name from the Great North Wood, an extensive natural oak forest dating to at least 1272. By the early 19th century, the forest had been largely cleared and, as central London became overcrowded, the Norwood Heights became a popular area for the well off to make their residence, attracted by the clean air and dramatic views. The relocation in 1854 of The Crystal Palace from Hyde Park brought huge change and saw significant housing development. Auckland Road was laid out in the 1870s and the church is surrounded by large Victorian villas as well as more recent buildings.
St John’s is part of the Church of England and is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. It is a traditional cruciform church, Gothic revival in style, with an impressive interior, which includes a nave with a gallery at the West end, a chancel with screen and reredos, side aisles and transepts and an apsidal Lady Chapel at the East end of the South aisle. There is an open narthex at the West end and a large tower base on the South side (this tower was originally intended to take a taller tower and spire, which were not built). The walls are generally of solid brickwork, with arcades and dressings of Bath Stone, the whole vaulted in brick.
The foundation stone was laid in 1878 and the chancel was completed in 1882, with the parish being established the following year. The church was completed and consecrated in 1887. The St George’s Chapel, on the South side, was added after the First World War and the Nativity Chapel near the North door was added in c.1945. The church suffered bomb damage in June 1944 and sustained major damage throughout the building, necessitating the rebuilding of the vaulting in the bays in the South aisle. Following the bombing, the Nave, Choir, Sanctuary and South aisle were closed and services were held in the North aisle, with the Nativity Chapel serving as the altar.
The church stands on the corner of Auckland Road and Sylvan Road in a densely populated residential area. Local residents since 1887 include Camille Pissarro, Sir John Ninian Comper, Raymond Chandler, Ira Aldridge, Marie Stopes, Lillie Langtry, Sir Henry Buckland and others.
Upper Norwood was a fashionable location to live and visit in the late 19th century and The Crystal Palace was a tourist attraction until well into the 20th century, meaning that people from all over the world visited the area.