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Changing Times | Demolished churches were town landmarks

One of the facts I have always found quite amazing is the number of churches and church premises that there have been around the area over the years.


This week, therefore, I thought we would take a look at another two of them. We have had two St John’s churches in the town. Sadly, neither is still in existence.


The earliest church built in 1821 was situated near to the seafront between the Steyne and Market Street, and named St John’s. However, by 1829, it had been sold to a trust. Its distinctive Gothic tower was added in 1833 complete with a clock.


However, strange as it may seem, by 1876 the church was deemed to be too small and so it was closed. There was a public meeting in 1879 to discuss a possible new church in the town. There was an available site in London Road, which was eventually chosen.


It was not until 1960 that the clock tower in Market Street was finally demolished, taking away an important landmark in the town, one that had been used by the fishermen for a number of years.


On August 25, 1880, Lady Cecilia Bingham, who was the youngest sister of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, laid the foundation stone for the new St John’s. Similar to today, a number of fundraising events were held, and subscriptions were received which totalled £2,000 to allow for building works to the chancel, transepts and vestry. The spire was built at a later date when funds allowed.


By August 1882, St John’s was ready for use, but because the church was still in debt it was not possible for it to be consecrated until 1885 when the debts had been cleared. In January 1886, the Bishop of Chichester conducted the service of consecration.


It would appear to have been a very spacious church with seating estimated to be available for 900 people, this at a time when the population of the entire parish of South Bersted only amounted to 1,195.


It must have been a very imposing and impressive structure. From some of the reports and information detailed in a small publication at the time, it would appear to have been a real community church, with many donations being received either in kind or cash to ensure that the church had everything needed for such an important building. However, because of the continuing lack of money the spire was not constructed until 1895.


Finally, the town had its own completed church to be used for the benefit of all. It should be remembered that at this time London Road was more of a residential area than it is today.


Sadly, in line with many churches, with the decline of congregations and the costs involved in maintaining these magnificent buildings, St John’s ultimately closed. Following the closure in 1975, it was finally demolished.


Boots had new premises built on the site and still occupies this prime site, though WH Smith, the other original occupant, has moved to the other side of London Road. There was always a right of way between Sudley Road and London Road, and it is for this reason that the doors in Boots are situated where they are, at opposite ends of the shop.


I hope these photographs evoke memories similar to those told to me over the years. This church holds many a happy memory for Bognorians everywhere. Its closure removed an even more prominent landmark from the town.


At the northern end of Sudley Road, which was at the rear of this magnificent church, the old vicarage associated with the church (now demolished) was apparently haunted by a variety of spectres. A curse was supposed to have been placed on this building after the then vicar tried to put a stop to local smuggling. Footsteps were often heard upstairs and dragging over the floor when no-one was there along with slamming doors, rattling windows, and sightings of an apparition. Although the vicarage has now gone, sounds of digging are alleged to be heard in the old garden area up to this day and the area (which now has shops built on top) is said to be unlucky.


It is interesting to note that in the 1960s the local press reported that the church had been neglected since it had been built and to bring it up to standard would have meant that a total of £30,000 was required which would include a new organ and a boiler house.


The last service was held in St John’s in July 1971, when the value of the site was estimated at between £200,000 and £250,000. At the last Communion held in the church only 70 people took part. The date for the service was decided by the Bishop of Chichester, the Right Rev Dr Roger Wilson following the signing by the Queen of the ‘order in Council declaring the redundancy’.


The vicar of Bognor Regis, at that time, the Rev Dr W G Sinclair Snow stated that the statutory waiting set down by the church commissioners had to leave the church empty for a period of 12 months to allow for another church or organisation to purchase the building. Only in the absence of a purchaser could the building be demolished.


Ultimately, in February 1972, St John’s Church was demolished much against the wishes of residents, who still regarded it with affection. However, it was a large church that could hold a congregation of more than 1,000, which was far in excess of the needs of that time.


The final entries in the register on June 27 were for the baptism of Sharon Gregory and the last marriage was between John Whitehead and Jane Edge, who were both members of the church choir.


Churches evoke memories for some people, for others it is the wonderment at the building of some of these incredible edifices, at a time when building methods were viewed as less able than today. For some readers the information that there was ever a church in London Road will come as quite a surprise, for others it will hopefully bring back happy memories.

Posted in Lifestyle.