Situated on the corner of a busy intersection of the Rochester Way and the South Circular Road in SE London is a remarkable building; St Barnabas Church. Remarkable because it was physically rebuilt brick by brick and then survived serious bomb damage in the Second World War.
St Barnabas started life as The Royal Woolwich Dockyard Chapel built in 1856-58 in the Early English Gothic style of red brick with black bands. Designed by George Gilbert Scott, who was one of the most prolific Victorian architects, and possibly the most unsung. He later went on to design the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Station. So, St Barnabas is a real Victorian Gothic gem in this part of London.
By the 1860 the future of the Royal Dockyard was in doubt as it didn’t have the facilities to build ironclads. The future of the church was also uncertain and it closed for a period. From 1899-1923 it was adapted and used as the Royal Arsenal’s Ordnance Chapel but from 1923 it again fell into disuse.
The Royal Arsenal workers who lived on the new Garden City Estate (later re-named the Progress Estate) had erected a wooden hut (1917) in Arbroath Road to use for church services. In 1932 it was decided to take the Dockyard Church building down and to re-erect it in a reduced form as the local church for the Progress Estate. An ingenious piece of recycling. It was reconsecrated as the Church of St Barnabas. During a bombing raid, March 1944, it was seriously damaged and only the walls were left standing. The church was repaired and re-dedicated in June 1957.
The church’s current location, so close to the main busy road, makes it difficult to get a good view and a building designed for contemplation can be too easily overlooked. George Gilbert Scott was a devoted follower of that other Victorian architect Pugin and one of his buildings is close by, Sir Peter’s Church in Woolwich. It’s not easy to contemplate this building either as the carbuncle that is the new Tesco over-shadows it.
Next to St Barnabas is a community hall which is named after the comedian Frankie Howerd who was a former Sunday School Teacher at the Church. It’s said that the hall had a stage where he did his first performance.