Throughout the hardships of the war years the parish had enjoyed the committed leadership of the Revd Frank Bishop, and it was he who led the fund-raising efforts with a view to rebuilding the church. The Diocesan Surveyor had visited the church the day after the December 1940 bombing and advised that nothing could be done until after the war, though a local builder, A Coldman & Son of Heber Road, was called in to overhaul the main roof slopes and make good some of the damage at a cost of £33 11s. In May 1941 the parish was awarded a grant towards this of £20, equivalent to just over £1000 today, by the City Parochial Charities (Ecclesiastical) Fund.
The parish knew it could count on some war damage payments from the Government under the War Damage Act (1941). Fr Bishop wrote in an appeal leaflet: “the Government has promised to provide plain substitute Churches or plain repair Churches for those destroyed by Enemy Action. This is as generous as can be expected, but will undoubtedly have to be supplemented if our Churches are to be worthily furnished for the worship of God, and improvements do not come within the scope of the compensation for War Damage. This severe damage, requiring such extensive restoration suggests that now is the obvious time to carry out such minor improvements as may be within our power.” From 1943 the proceeds of the annual Christmas Sale were reserved for the Restoration Fund, so too was money raised by Gift Days and other efforts of the congregation, such as individual collection boxes or individual gifts. Full details were regularly featured in the parish magazine.
Shortly after VE Day, 8 May 1945, Bishop Simpson asked Fr Bishop to leave St John’s and take on the parish of St Giles’ Camberwell, where he was instituted at on 3 November. The church’s 80th birthday was celebrated that year in the ruins of the church and £411 17s 11d raised for the Restoration Fund. In his sermon that day Bishop Simpson recalled his long association with St John’s (he had been baptised there in 1883 and later been a member of the choir), and mentioned with gratitude the sacrifice he was asking the parish to make in Fr Bishop’s move to St Giles, and spoke of looking forward to the time when he should come to bless the new St John’s.
Revd Charles McKenzie
After an interregnum presided over by the Revd A M Bray, the parish welcomed the return of the Revd Charles Gerard McKenzie, a former curate, as Vicar. Fr McKenzie was 31, a Cambridge graduate, and had served as a Chaplain in the RAF Volunteer Reserve for four and a half years. Part of this time had been divided between Africa and Italy where he had been responsible for the building of a dozen churches for members of the Forces. According to the South London Advertiser:
“one in Italy seated over 200 and was built by a labour force of ten Italian builders, four carpenters and odd helpers.”
It was for this work that Fr McKenzie was awarded the Order of the British Empire in January 1946. He told the Advertiser
that above all he wanted to get bomb-damaged St John’s Church rebuilt as speedily as possible and to build a parish hall: “And naturally, having been a Forces’ Chaplain, I shall take a very keen interest in the men and women of the parish coming back from the Forces.” Who could be better fitted for the task than a priest who already knew the parish and had experience of building churches?
Fr McKenzie’s Induction took place at the Church of the Epiphany, Bassano Street, on 9 March 1946. By the autumn the PCC had nominated J B Sebastian Comper FRIBA as their preferred architect and by January 1947 he had been appointed. Sebastian Comper (1891-1979) was a son of Sir Ninian Comper, the last great Gothic Revival architect, and nephew of William Bucknall with whom his father was in partnership. He was a local boy, born at Knight’s Hill in Norwood and educated at Dulwich College. He had been his father’s assistant until the mid-1930s, thoroughly imbibing his style. His design used the columns of the nave and the chancel arch from the 1865 church but raised the north and south walls by nine feet, with eight clerestory windows on each side giving a light, airy feel to the church. An image of it was used as the parish Christmas card that year.
Restoration and fundraising
The actual rebuilding, however, was dependent on fundraising as well as access to scarce building materials. In June 1948 Fr McKenzie wrote of the Restoration Fund in the Parish Magazine: “Our need to increase this fund becomes more and more urgent as we look forward to the day when the work of restoration will begin. We hope to pass, well pass, the £3,000 mark this year. Already we have made an excellent start with our Lent saving, our Patronal collections and donations. Over £150 has been given this year, but by December 31st
we hope to increase this sum fourfold.” He then went on to advertise an American tea, sideshows, music and a mystery stall in the Epiphany Hall on 12 June, followed by a grand Whist Drive, concluding: “We are very hopeful this will be as successful as our previous efforts, and we are confident that our people will respond with their usual generosity to so important a fund as the Restoration Fund.”
St John’s tower and apse had, by good fortune, survived the bombing; in September 1948 the clock was renovated and could be heard striking the hours ‘to show St John’s was very much alive’. At the end of December 1948 the South London Advertiser
reported that Fr McKenzie hoped that the church might be rebuilt sooner than anyone dared to hope. He is quoted as saying: “There is unanimous agreement in the parish that it will be a great day in the life of the community in East Dulwich when our church is restored and opened. When I have put forward the urgent claims of rehousing, people have still maintained that the church should be restored as soon as possible.”
Rebuilding makes quick progress
From the carefully annotated photographic record largely put together by Peggy Dowling, a long-standing member of the congregation, it looks as if rebuilding began in earnest in 1950 and progressed surprisingly quickly. The builders were Holland and Hannen, and Cubitts Ltd, a major London firm who had been responsible for County Hall and the University of London Senate House.
By the end of May 1950 the roof trusses and boarding, as well as the south-west and north-west pinnacles were complete. In June, St George’s Chapel was demolished and on 1 August work began on a new Lady Chapel on the site, extending its footprint westward and lowering the ceiling. The vaulted ceiling of the church was created in September and October using aluminium trusses as a cheaper and lighter alternative to wood, infilled with liquid fibrous plaster. On 1 October the rose window at the west end was complete. By early November the interior of the church was clear of scaffolding and a new floor had been laid.
In March 1951 the baldachino over the altar was erected, made of plaster rather than wood. This was a new feature, designed by Sir Ninian Comper, with the opening verse of St John’s Gospel in Greek inscribed in gold lettering under its edge. The Lady Chapel was complete by early April and the tester, also designed by Sir Ninian, was erected on 29 April, though not painted and gilded until later. It was not until 1954 that the West Gallery was added to house the organ console and choir.
The new building, with its bright, white interior, was rededicated on Saturday 5 May 1951 by Bishop Simpson in a lengthy service in which each part of the building was consecrated. In June’s edition of St John’s Magazine
, Fr McKenzie commented: “How kindly the Bishop spoke of our parish and its traditions. We are conscious of our inheritance and we have tried to be worthy of it. Then the first Sunday in the new church. The Bishop of Brechin [the Rt Revd Eric Graham] said the first Mass and afterwards the Sacrament was again reserved in its true home. What encouragement we received from the congregations on that first Sunday.”
The following day, the solemnities over, the parish held a rededication supper. Fr McKenzie called it “an incredible achievement! The sight of those tables as we entered the hall! The ‘maestro’ of catering and her assistants surpassed themselves. A never-to-be-forgotten occasion, no one was more impressed than our architect.” Bearing in mind that rationing did not entirely cease until July 1954, the menu, comprising chicken, ham and tongue; green and Russian salads; pickles and sauces; fruit salad, trifle, cream custards, fancy cakes; rolls and butter; cheeses, including cream, cheddar, gorgonzola and gruyère; dessert, coffee and tea, was indeed a tour de force
However, fund-raising was still very much needed. The same issue of St John’s Magazine
gave further information on finance: “Five years ago we appealed for £10,000 for the restoration of our church. Unfortunately, in five years the value of money has decreased but we have now collected £9,888 9s 6d., which includes £1,000 given to us by the Church Overseas. This year already £698 12s 6d. has been given, over £400 during the Re-dedication Festival. We have also received a legacy from the will of Miss Lyttle of over £1,800. The parochial contribution to the Restoration will not be less than £15,000. We are already approaching this figure, for we have already allocated the £3,300 from the proceeds of the sale of S Andrew’s to our Restoration Fund.” By the time the rebuilding was complete at least £15,000 had been raised by the congregation, a tribute to their dedication and commitment to rebuild a precious part of their lives.
In her memoir My decade of Vicars of St. John’s, East Dulwich
, Norah Cullingford wrote: “I think zeal was the operative word with Fr McKenzie. He was the most ebullient person imaginable with his hearty laugh and often friendly slap on the back!... He was a priest of deep devotion and sincerity and a friend and counsellor to many.” She recalled that he was an excellent preacher but “with all his geniality, Fr McKenzie also had a stern side which came uppermost in regard to anything of which he disapproved.”
Life after St John’s
For much of the 20th century St John’s, like many other Anglo-Catholic parishes, had a tradition of unmarried clergy. Fr McKenzie was a bachelor and his parents, Arthur and Annie, lived with him at the Vicarage. His mother acted as housekeeper for him and his father, who had worked in insurance, was very involved with the finances of the rebuilding.
The three of them also holidayed together, but on a cruise to Norway Fr McKenzie met a young lady, Joyce Fox, travelling with her widowed mother. According to their daughter Mary, he reorganised all their excursions to be on the same ones as Joyce and her mother, and some of their later courtship took place at Heathrow Airport, near her home in Windsor. Joyce had been in the Wrens during the war and was working as a nursery school teacher when they met.
Finally, Fr McKenzie resigned the living of St John’s and, as Vicar designate of St Matthew’s, Northampton, he and Joyce were married in Windsor Parish Church in August 1955 (see photo). The Dean of Peterborough, the Very Revd Noel Christopherson, a former Vicar of St John’s, and Canon R Creed Meredith, Vicar of Windsor officiated, and the Revd Hugh Mansfield Williams, a former curate of St John’s, was best man. In going to St Matthew’s, Northampton, Fr McKenzie succeeded Canon Walter Hussey, who had become Dean of Chichester. Canon Hussey was a great patron of the arts and had commissioned works by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland for the church, as well as compositions by Britten, Rubbra, Finzi and Howells and others.
Fr McKenzie did not long enjoy his family or his artistic inheritance. In October 1961 he died, tragically early, leaving Norah Cullingford to comment: “We have always felt that overwork and worry at that job caused his untimely death at 47 years of age.” A Solemn Requiem was held for Fr McKenzie at St John’s on 4 November 1961 and his ashes rest in the Calvary.
Fr Rolt, who succeeded him at St John’s, and had known him as a curate, wrote: “Our deep sympathy is extended by thought and prayer to his wife, his two little children, his mother, who suffered yet another bereavement the next day in the death of her husband, his other relations and his parishioners at Northampton. We can think of him only as full of life and vitality, giving his whole self to his ministry and expending all his energies, which seemed to be boundless, in his love for God and God’s people. That he should die in his prime when his work according to earthly standards seemed to be at its full height of success is a bewildering shock, but a reminder that our reckonings are not God’s… What always impressed me about him was his devotion to his people, his wise pastoral sense, and his great love for souls. This last must be his greatest memorial, for there must be hundreds of people who first learned of Our Lord and His Church from Fr McKenzie, and they must bless God and thank Him for such a devoted priest… May God give rest and reward to Charles McKenzie, a faithful and wise steward of his mysteries.”