In the 1840s, 50s and 60s Pimlico was a rapidly expanding residential area and in each of these decades at a least one new church was built, ours in 1852-3. The Marquis of Westminster, who then owned all the land, granted £5,000 and the freehold of a plot at the south-western end of Warwick Square for a church. It was to be designed by Thomas Cundy Junior, the Surveyor of the Grosvenor Estates covering all of Belgravia and Pimlico. It would complete Cubitt’s vision for this most majestic of city squares, dominating the skyline as it still does today.
Cundy also designed our neighbouring churches, St Barnabas and St. Saviour’s as well as St Paul’s, Knightsbridge; all beautiful buildings but none of them matches the cathedral-like proportions of St Gabriel’s.
To finance the construction, funds were subscribed from the new residents, coming fortunately right in the middle of Victorian zeal for church building in London. The parish of St. Gabriel’s was carved out of one of the wards of St George’s, Hanover Square, with whom we still have a relationship as our mother church, and the Church of St Gabriel’s, Pimlico was consecrated on May 12th 1853. The Illustrated London News recorded the events with satisfaction.
It is a middle-pointed building in decorated Gothic style with a graceful tower of 160 feet, into which in 1855 went a peal of eight bells, which we still ring occasionally today. The building is all Kentish Ragstone with Caen stone dressings – despite these materials already falling out of favour with the Victorian builders for the reasons that we can easily see now – the discolouration and decay of the stone caused by London’s corrosive atmosphere. The tower had already started to deteriorate as early as 1887 when, after a falling stone nearly killed a member of the congregation, it had to be taken down and rebuilt!
Originally the nave was a central aisle formed under the 60’ high pitched slate roof and one aisle each side, with wooden galleries over their whole length. The side galleries were removed in the 1890s reportedly to improve the ventilation and acoustics, and outer side-aisles were added to replace the lost capacity, making the exceptionally wide and open nave we have today. However it wasn’t so light – the whole nave was lit by stained glass windows.
A church hall was also added, but this was soon to become a choir vestry at the St Gabriel’s Parish House in Glasgow Terrace (a few minutes’ walk away in the present-day Churchill Gardens estate) became the centre of church social life and mission.
Immediately following on from all this work came a period of magnificent improvements in the chancel, funded in the main by Lord Edward Pelham-Clinton. A new high altar had been installed, designed by Bentley, architect of Westminster Cathedral, and now the whole chancel was lined with alabaster by Powell with Italianate mosaic designs. The floor is of red and white marble squares with solid marble steps.
The Lady Chapel was added to the south of the chancel and some of the original reredos (thought to be by Gilbert Scott) from the original high altar, installed there. Crowning it all was the new East Window by Kempe, one of the great Victorian stained-glass window designers, depicting Christ in Glory with Saints.
Second World War
After all this activity little was done for decades. St Gabriel’s was lucky in the 2nd World War – although a bomb blew out most of the windows, miraculously the East Window was spared. In the event, the result of clear glass windows is an exceptionally light and airy interior. In fact only that one bomb did any significant damage – there was structural damage to the Lady Chapel too – whereas there were actually four other bombs, virtually one at each corner, which didn’t explode.
Since then, it’s been a case of holding back the tide. After a many problems with water ingress (which is responsible for much of the deterioration of the interior today) much work has been done in the last twenty years on the roofs and rainwater drainage and they are now sound. A great deal of financial help has been given by English Heritage for this. With their help we’re about to embark on another tranche of work to the troublesome tower, and are saving up what we can to tackle the interior as we can afford to do so. We’re also embarking on a programme of facilities improvements which will better equip St Gabriel’s to become more attractive to people in the 21st Century, and to encourage more community involvement.