WEST DULWICH, Lambeth, London – All Saints.


[Note: These are my observations of the church originally written prior to the fire of 2000 which so severely damaged it.]

This building was George Fellowes Prynne’s first major project in the London area. It was built between 1888 and 1892, shortly after Fellowes Prynne finished his work to complete St Peter’s Church, Streatham, located only a few miles away. It was probably his most ambitious design, save that of Colombo Cathedral, but it was never completed to his full plans. From various contemporary documents, recent writings and personal observation, the design features of this fascinating building can be described.

“No-one who has passed Dulwich Station on the Chatham and Dover Railway can have failed to notice the remarkable church which stands on an eminence some little distance from the line. This is All Saints’…”

So began an article in Church Bells (5 March 1897) in which an interview with the first incumbent, the Rev. James Beeby, is recorded.  This man was the motivating force behind the building of All Saints’ in the first place. It seems that he was not greatly fond of small churches, which goes some way to explaining why he wanted the new church to be able to hold 1600 worshippers when complete. He was thinking ahead to the growth of the area, already triggered by the advent of the railway, and doubtless assumed that congregations would increase in similar proportion.

Any description of this church will struggle to convey the massive scale, and sense of space and height, of the building, despite providing full factual details of the dimensions.

The site on which the church is built is triangular and drops from west to east about 28 feet. This drop allows for the construction of a spacious crypt beneath the chancel and sanctuary. The nave is 68 feet high, 40 feet wide, and would have been 128 feet in length if completed. The chancel is the same height as the nave, and it is in the form of a lofty pentagonal apse at the east end, reminiscent very much of French cathedral design. See the illustration below.

The original plan for the interior had seven double-arched bays, with the piers being built of brick and stone. Only four bays were built. There are panels above each of the lower arches, which were probably designed to be filled with murals, and a clerestory in the upper level of arcading, consisting of groups of triple lancet windows.  Between each group of windows is a groined vault, which supports a barrel roof. Unusually, this roof is slightly pointed at the apex, rather than being round like the traditional wagon roofs of Devon.

The three images here are from Examples of Modern Architecture. That of the pulpit is from a trader advertisement.

The chancel and nave are separated by a lofty arch, in which is rich stone tracery – the first of Fellowes Prynne’s stone screens. This tracery is high up, and fills the curve of the arch. Lower down is a wrought iron rood screen, set between the pillars which spring from a chancel wall, and support the stone screen. The chancel wall has wrought ironwork upon it, and there are wrought iron gates at the entrance its entrance.  Arches to the south of the chancel divide it from the vestries and support the organ chamber; to the north, a musicians’ gallery is located above the arch dividing the chancel from the Lady Chapel. The spaces between these arches and associated pillars are filled with wrought iron screens. There is an ambulatory running behind the arches south and north connecting the Lady Chapel with the vestries and access to the crypt. It gives passage behind the high altar, tracing the rounded shape of the massive apsidal sanctuary.

This sanctuary must be one of the most imposing Fellowes Prynne ever designed and saw completed. The high altar is raised upon seven steps, and is

“…a masterpiece of carving, 12 feet in length…..executed from the architect’s design by Mr. Peter Cook of Kennington and… decorated by Messrs. Clayton and Bell.”  (Church Times issue unknown 1891.)

The altar at present is covered by its frontal, but it is in fact typical of Fellowes Prynne’s designs for altars, consisting of three open panels through which the appropriate altar frontal for the season would show. Behind the altar are simple dossal curtains, in front of which can be appreciated the fine altar candlesticks and cross. To either side of the curtains are a series of blind arcades. These are the frames for stone carvings of sixteen saints, which are these days highlighted by having been skilfully painted. See illustration below.  Whether to paint them was ever Fellowes Prynne’s intention is not known by the author, but it must be borne in mind that he was fond of colour, and used brightly coloured murals, paintings and mosaic tiles in many of his churches. Each saint is named and carries a representation of the instrument of their martyrdom. Above the saints and the dossal curtain rises the magnificent set of seven triple-lighted windows. These do not contain stained glass – the present glass is the replacement of what was lost after damage during World War Two. The immediate effect of this huge area of clear glass is one of immense light. Again, this may not have been the architect’s original intention, but there is no doubting its stunning effect.

The north and south aisles form the body of a chapel on either side. That on the north side is Lady Chapel with an apsidal sanctuary. It reflects the design of the great sanctuary, in that there is an ambulatory around the back of the altar, and a series of three windows above it, illuminating this beautifully proportioned chapel. The ceiling is vaulted in wood, with decorated ribs picking out the dome above the apse. Pillars leading up to the roof groins rest on corbels decorated with carved angels holding shields – one is illustrated below.  In the ambulatory can be seen some of the church’s oldest stained glass windows, one of which (St Monica) is also illustrated below.  These are hidden by a curtain behind the altar, and cannot therefore be seen from the seats.  The chapel has a sense of intimacy about it, when compared to the massive space of the nave of the church, and it is possibly a surprise to know that around 200 people can be accommodated in it.  As well as being a chapel, the seating area of the north aisle is also part of the main area of the church, as neither it nor the south aisle (the All Souls’ Chapel) is separated from the main body of the church.

It is interesting to note that at the division between the nave and chancel, at either side of the chancel wall and screen, there are narrow bays set at 45 degrees in the corners formed between the chancel wall and the north and south arcades. This can be made out in the architect’s drawing, shown above. This kind of device was used by Fellowes Prynne later in his career at St John’s, Sidcup. In the case of St John’s, the chancel already existed, and was narrower than Fellowes Prynne would have wanted; the angled wall helps to draw the eye from the scale of the nave down to the scale of the chancel. At All Saints, the constraint is placed on the architect by his use of a massive, undivided nave. The effect of the angled bays is to bring the worshipper’s attention to the focal point of the building, namely the sanctuary. The angled bays each have a pair of stacked arches, the upper arch being a continuation of the musicians’ and organ galleries, and the lower arch giving access to the ambulatories. The lower arch on the north side also gives a limited view from the Lady Chapel to the main chancel. The wrought iron pulpit is located next to this northern bay, and is particularly wide, allowing people seated in the north aisle up to the chancel of the Lady Chapel, to see (and it would be hoped, hear) well. The pulpit is once again typical of Fellowes Prynne, except that it is in black-finished iron rather than his more favoured brass. It rests on a stone plinth, embellished with coloured marble pillars. It is illustrated below.

The seating in the nave is solely chairs (as was the architect’s preference – see Thurlestone church) and Fellowes Prynne used his standard arrangement of parquet flooring for the seating area and coloured encaustic tiles for the aisles. The marble font is situated at the south end of the centre aisle, a temporary expedient pending the completion of the building, in particular the designated baptistry. A lavishly carved font cover, complete with gilded dove, is suspended above it.

As already mentioned, the site Fellowes Prynne used enabled him to incorporate a huge crypt beneath the east end of the building. (Another example of such a scheme is at St Alban, Bournemouth.) In the case of All Saints’ church, the existence of the crypt has a significant effect on the external appearance of the building, as well as providing space for meetings, children’s groups and other activities.

These postcards are contemporary with the early days of the building.

The external appearance of the building (illustrated above) warrants a more detailed description, as it is unlike anything else Fellowes Prynne was to design. The first thing that is remarkable about the building when seen from the north-east or south-east elevations is its immense height. It dominates the area in which it is situated, partly owing to its elevated site, but more to its scale. The sense of height is, of course, far greater externally than internally, as the whole of what appears to be the “ground floor” is in fact the crypt. There are groups of triple lancet windows along the north and south walls, and a main door on the south side. Most stunning and worthy of note is Fellowes Prynne’s use of the apse at crypt level, for here there are buttresses all around, below the seven sets of east window lights. Each buttress becomes the supporting structure between each of these windows, and the line is carried all the way up to the apex of the domed part of the roof above the apse, which is marked by a delicate metal cross. At ground level, there is an arch between each buttress, and above these arches, the small lancet windows of the ambulatories of both the main sanctuary and that of the Lady Chapel. There is a walkway at ground level directly below the ambulatories, beneath the arches formed by the buttresses as they lean to the building.

To the south of the apse can be seen a series of lancet windows above a wider buttress arch. These windows trace the stairway from an entrance to the crypt up to the main body of the church, and they make a particularly attractive feature of design. The features to the south elevation are unremarkable: there is a series of lancet windows at both crypt and main floor level, and on north and east facing dormers in the roof, but little embellishment elsewhere. The exception is at the roof rib marking the start of the chancel, at the apex of which the fleche was intended to be.  (A fleche was erected in more recent times but was never replaced after collapsing.)  At the base of this rib is an octagonal turret.  There was a squat conical spire upon this turret, as seen in the postcard of the exterior illustrated above, but this is no longer evident.  The neighbouring chimney stack was also twice its present height.

In contrast, the north side of the building is richly decorated.  Some of this dates from the original building, and some to the restoration by J. B. S. Comper, notably the square bell turret with its pyramidal copper roof, reflecting somewhat the octagonal feature originally on the south side.  Features on this elevation include the apse of the Lady Chapel, and the charming exterior of a spiral staircase.  Comper’s bell turret occupies a space which Fellowes Prynne had intended for a much smaller and more embellished bell tower, or campanile; Comper’s structure is arguably more in proportion than Fellowes Prynne’s would have been, especially given that the church has never been completed to his original dimensions.  The turret was dedicated in 1952 as a War Memorial.

As has been mentioned, the church as designed was never completed. Not only is it three bays shorter than Fellowes Prynne had planned, but it is missing the designed apsidal baptistry flanked by two porches.  Little has been said of the west end: there is little to say, as it is rather ugly and not at all in keeping with either the detail or the spirit of the original design.  No doubt there was always hope that it would only be temporary, but the truth is that the church is already larger than is needed by the community, and a continual drain on resources. However, to enter through that uninspiring door makes what greets the eye all the more exciting – surely one of Fellowes Prynne’s most amazing achievements.

The photos here show details from the church prior to the fire of 2000.

The screen

The screen at All Saints, West Dulwich, now collapsed following a devastating fire, was the first of George Fellowes Prynne’s stone screens. The screen was a composite, having rich stone tracery filling the expanse of the chancel arch, and below it, between central shafts and the sides, a set of iron cross members, the central one of which housed the rood and figures. The tracery of the stonework centred around three circles. The centre circle was divided into five segments, and the outer ones into four. Below them were three arches with cusp features decorating them. The central arch extended higher that the outer ones to meet the centre circle. The circles and arches were so designed that the space in the chancel arch was filled to the optimum extent, with very few ‘gaps’ to infill.

The pillars sprung from a chancel wall, very much a feature integral to the screen, but in almost all cases constructed whether a screen was built or not. In Dulwich one observed the slenderness of the pillars, indicating that the nature of the screen was such that all the stresses and thrusts were borne correctly by the structure of the building and pillars.

In this respect Fellowes Prynne had mastered the engineering competence of his mediaeval forbears.

The screen can be seen best in the image of the interior, from Examples of Modern Architecture, above.

The screen is shown here in a close-up from the architect’s design as published in the journal Academy Architecture and Architectural Review of 1893, and then in a grainy photo taken from the gallery.

This article in the Architect’s Journal of 7 June 2007 describes how the church has been rebuilt following the devastating fire. https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/home/the-building-still-bears-the-scars-of-the-blaze-and-these-have-become-part-of-its-history/126827.article