The church of St John the Evangelist, Waterloo, venue for this year’s conference (see details left or here), was one of four new ‘Waterloo churches’ in Lambeth authorised by the Commissioners for Building New Churches in 1822. This was five years after the opening of nearby Waterloo Bridge, built as ‘a lasting Record of the brilliant and decisive Victory achieved by His Majesty’s forces in conjunction with those of His Allies, on the eighteenth day of June One Thousand eight hundred and fifteen’. Being the closest of the four churches both to the bridge and to the metropolis, St John’s was the most architecturally ambitious. It is a Greek Revival design by Francis Bedford, who built churches in the same style at Kennington, Brixton and Norwood. John Rennie the younger, who had overseen the laying of the foundations for Waterloo Bridge, also advised on the foundations for the church (the site being notably swampy).
Opened in 1824, the St John’s was a typical rectangular auditory, galleried on three sides and built over a vaulted crypt. Its pedimented Doric portico was topped by a tall, slender spire, a Grecian version of the model devised by James Gibbs at St Martin in the Fields. This has divided opinion. Writing in the 1820s, the architect James Elmes found the church’s ‘real beauty of proportion […] absolutely destroyed by the atrocity of a steeple, the ugliest perhaps in London, which is straddled a cock-horse across the pediment’. Sir John Summerson was more forgiving; he thought it ‘The kind of tower that Ictinus might have put on the Parthenon, if the Athenians had had the advantage of belonging to the Church of England’.
In 1878 the churchyard on the south side was made into a garden and opened to the public. Octavia Hill, later a founder of the National Trust, is said to have paid for the mosaic frieze below the gallery windows on this side, bearing the text ALL MAY HAVE, IF THEY DARE TRY, A GLORIOUS LIFE OR GRAVE, from George Herbert’s The Church-porch.
In 1885 the church was renovated by A. W. Blomfield, and in 1924 Sir Ninian Comper added a baldacchino before the altar, with a Lady Chapel behind. The baldacchino and stained glass in the east window (by N. J. Cottingham) were destroyed when the church was hit by a firebomb in December 1940, but the early eighteenth century white marble font, of Italian origin and presented to the church at its opening, survived.
For ten years the building lay roofless, with services held in the crypt. It was finally restored in 1950 under the direction of Thomas Ford, and in 1951 was rededicated as the Festival of Britain church. In his restoration Ford removed the side galleries and added new furnishings, including two pulpits and additional vestries at the east end. The most notable feature of the restored interior was two painted panels by the Jewish refugee artist and convert Hans Feibusch: a Virgin and Child within the reredos and a large Crucifixion scene in the former opening for the east window above.
In 2021-2 the Grade II* church underwent a £5.5m restoration programme, under the direction of Eric Parry Architects. The scheme generated some controversy, on account of the removal of some of the Thomas Ford furnishings. The new interior is bright and white, with some of the detailing picked out in gold and colour. Following restoration, the church was rededicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in October 2022.