Since starting this blog a couple of years ago, I’ve been meaning to get into the town’s Victorian churches. In particular, I’ve always been fascinated by the sheer size of St Barnabas’ -a church that I had never even been into.
Last week’s Heritage Open day gave me the chance and it didn’t disappoint. My title may be a typical exaggeration, but this is a surprisingly large and impressive building inside. I take most of my photographs normally in landscape mode, but in every one of these, I found myself flipping the camera round to take in the height of the structure.
There was an interesting historical exhibition, but in my excitement taking pictures I did not get an explanation of why the Victorians chose to make this church, the one built for the poor of the town, the biggest and most ornate.
Local historian Geoffrey Copus was there helpfully guiding people around. He has written an interesting history of the church on their website which gives me my answer. St Barnabas’ was a successor to an earlier short lived Church called St Stephen’s. This last was built by a wealthy Victorian Reverend for the town’s poor who felt unwelcome amongst the rich of nearby St James’. The congregation soon outgrew the original building and so a replacement was constructed.
In Geoffrey’s history there is also explanation of religious strife in Victorian Tunbridge Wells. The town’s church life was dominated by a fire and brimstone protestant preacher called the Rev Edward Hoare who was the vicar of Holy Trinity (now the arts centre.) Tunbridge Wells at that time was being dragged by Hoare and his followers away from it’s reputation as a party town for hedonistic visitors from London. Hoare tended to his parishioner’s souls with low protestantism with little ostentation. St Stephen’s and then St Barnabas had a very different version of protestantism with candles and elaborate vestments which made it seem to Hoare and his followers as dangerously “popish.” So the size of this heretical church in their midsts was maybe partly a deliberate irritant to the local protestant worthies.
The heretical vestments are still on display in 2016:
If I’d read his helpful article first, I would have talked about all of this with Geoffrey. Instead he showed us around the mortuary beneath the church, a surprising feature again thoughtfully built by the worthy Victorians as a place where the poor could lay out their dead with dignity: