St Stephen’s Church was built to meet the needs of the growing population in South Dulwich following the establishment of the Crystal Palace on the top of Sydenham Hill and the arrival of the railway which made its way in a tunnel under Crystal Palace en route to Chatham and Dover.
The Church with its notable spire has been a landmark in Dulwich ever since it was painted by the famous French Impressionist, Camille Pissarro in 1870, two years after its Consecration.
Designed by Charles Barry Jr (the son of the architect of the Houses of Parliament), the Church was of considerable beauty and was richly decorated in the Victorian Gothic style beloved of Pugin and Ruskin, as can be seen from a contemporary painting, probably the work of Barry himself.
The Church met the needs of the growing community south of the newly-built Dulwich College (also designed by Barry) and Dulwich Woods became the setting for many fine houses. Shortly after the completion of the building Sir Edward Poynter executed the fine fresco in the chancel commemorating the Trial and Martyrdom of St Stephen.
World War II
Over the years the Church was further beautified and enlarged. In particular there is a fine east window by the renowned stained glass makers C.E.Kempe & Co, erected in memory of his wife in 1924 by Lord Vestey, the owner of Kingswood House which lies close to the Church.
Despite serious war damage caused by V1 ‘flying bombs’ in 1944, the building was saved, though not without anxious moments in 1946 when the walls began to lean outwards. This was the result of the pressure exerted on them by the roof which had almost been lifted off the building by the bomb blast.
An ingenious proposal by a young builder to squeeze the walls together by the use of jacks resulted in the walls being restored to their original position, since when they have been held together by unobtrusive tie bars inserted at intervals along the nave. This work was described in The Builder magazine as a ‘miracle’.
The rich decoration of the interior of the Church was largely restored to mark the Church’s centenary and, more recently, there has been successful and sensitive re-ordering with a nave altar.
Music has always been a major feature of worship at St Stephen’s and a new organ has recently been installed at the west end of the building.
A longstanding member of the congregation, Michael Goodman, has written a history of the church entitled The Story of St Stephen’s, South Dulwich, A Beacon in Times of Peace and War: The History of the Building and the People who lived and worshipped there 1868-2007. The book contains an account of the contributions made by parishioners to the Life of the Church over the past hundred and thirty years and the relationship with the Dulwich Estate.
Copies of this book are obtainable from St Stephen’s Church, College Road, London SE21 7HN. The price is £7 including postage and cheques should be made out to St Stephen’s PCC. The book may also be purchased at local booksellers.