LOOK BACK WITH LITTLE: St John’s windows

The central lights of the stained glass window in the sanctuary, St John
the Evangelist R C Church, Banbury' NNL-160324-091832001
The central lights of the stained glass window in the sanctuary, St John the Evangelist R C Church, Banbury' NNL-160324-091832001

The Banbury Guardian for March 17 2016 highlighted an appeal for financial support in respect of the stained glass windows at St John’s Roman Catholic Church which are in need of urgent restoration work.

Today I want to explore the historical background to the appeal; the character and quality of the sanctuary windows; the association with a renowned 19th century architect; and in particular their significance for the town as a whole.

The completion of St John’s Church can be dated to 1838. It was built on land formerly in the possession of the Cobb family, who at that time were resident at Calthorpe Manor.

This should have been part of an auction of estate plots scheduled for March 15th 1833.

However it appears that Catholic needs were met by the purchase by private contract of the land close to South Bar.

Until the 1830s the centre of Roman Catholic worship was a small chapel at Overthorpe though by the late 1828 a Banbury mission had been established and mass was said in a ‘lecture room’ most probably at the Market Place home of John Kalabergo who made one of the largest contributions to the fund for a new church.

St John’s Church was designed in the Gothic style by Oxford-based architects Hickman and Derrick, who were intent on making the building an important landmark in the town.

Most of the stone was donated by John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, a great benefactor of the church, from quarries at Heythrop.

He, Ambrose Lisle Phillipps and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin were the Catholic lay leaders of the day and it is to Pugin we almost certainly owe the design of the beautiful sanctuary of which the windows are part.

Augustus Pugin was a pioneer of the Gothic revival and unsurprisingly his work can be found in many churches as well as many buildings of national importance - he famously assisted Sir C. Barry with the Houses of Parliament.

He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1834 and was a great friend of Dr William Tandy who came to Banbury in 1835 and was the priest responsible for seeing through the completion of the church.

Any doubts as to Pugin’s involvement in the design of the sanctuary must surely be dispelled by significant references in a 2001 publication entitled The Collected letters of A.W.N. Pugin edited by Margaret Belcher.

In one of these letters he refers to Banbury writing ‘I am making several additions to the church – in the shape of stained windows’.

The beauty of the windows also owes much to the manufacturing skills of William Wailes who forged a partnership with Pugin.

It is especially notable that in 1851 he was one out of only 25 stained glass manufacturers who exhibited at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition.

It is conceivable the original inspiration for the windows was the stained glass in another church elsewhere, most likely All Saints Church in North Street, York, which has the kind of images that William Wailes was trying to reproduce at St John’s.

As can be seen in today’s illustration Pugin’s stained glass in the sanctuary depict in the centre lights Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus, with to the left St John the Baptist and on the right-hand side the church’s patronal saint, St John the Evangelist.

Interest is also generated by the inclusion of a diversity of features notably the yellow eagle alighting whilst holding a scroll in its beak.

Anyone who has seen and studied the stained glass must surely agree with William Ponsonby Johnson’s comment in his 1859 Stranger’s Guide through Banbury that these window panels ‘harmonise well with the tone and general character of the building’.

The completed church, which was formally opened on June 19th 1838, was received with great acclamation.

This was reflected in reporting on behalf of the Oxford Herald.

The newspaper commented ‘the Romanists held a grand celebration of Mass on the occasion of the opening of the new chapel’.

l I am grateful to Antony Beak for detailed information. Campaign details are on the church website www.banburycatholicchurches.org.uk