The Belgravia Estate – the name is taken from the title Viscount Belgrave, one of the titles of the Dukes of Westminster, and refers to the village of Belgrave in Cheshire – was built in the period of the 1820’s – 50’s by the architect Thomas Cundy at the direction of the 2nd Marquis of Westminster, Richard Grosvenor. The new estate was designed to rival Mayfair and extended into the marshland of Pimlico. To serve the new estates Cundy designed the churches of St Paul, Knightsbridge, St Michael, Chester Square and the Pimlico churches of St Gabriel, St Barnabas and St. Saviour.
The parish of St. Gabriel was taken out of one of the wards of St George, Hanover Square, our mother church with whom we continue to have a supportive relationship. The church was built by subscription, with the £5,000 given by the Marquis as the lead donation. An Act of 1850 made financial provisions for the new building and on the 12th May, 1853 it was consecrated for divine worship by the Rt Rev’d Charles Blomfield, Bishop of London. The Illustrated London News of 14th May, 1853 recorded the event and reproduced a picture of the new building.
St Gabriel’s is a middle-pointed building in decorated Gothic style. The graceful tower of 160 ft was hung in 1855 with a peal of eight bells. These are still rung today. Bath Ragstone with Caen stone dressings was used throughout, despite these materials already falling out of favour with the Victorian builders. In 1887 the tower was rebuilt after stonework fell off it, narrowly missing a member of the congregation, and much of the Bath stone was then cut out and replaced. Today the majority of the stonework is discoloured and damaged by pollution (especially smoke from Victoria Station) and water ingress.
The nave is a central aisle formed under the 60 ft high pitched slate roof, originally with one aisle to each side and wooden galleries along their whole length. The side galleries were removed in 1895-6 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. The West End gallery is of oak and made by Bridgeman of Lichfield, who also carved the elaborate incumbent’s stall. The ribs of the gallery are supported by carved elephant trunks. The twelve columns supporting the nave are capped with heads of the twelve apostles and combine delicacy and strength. The pulpit (1875) is made of brass, supported by granite pillars and was given as a memorial to the 1874 London Mission. Repairs have begun (2020) to restore it after bomb damage (1941). The fine chancel gates were given by Fr Ellison, the second incumbent, in memory of his wife (1893).
During the 1890s a series of improvements were made to the church. A new high altar based on a retable at Westminster Abbey was installed (1890), designed by Bentley, architect of Westminster Cathedral. The original pews were replaced with more comfortable pews and the original stone floor replaced by wooden blocks (1892). The next year the organ was replaced (see below, Recent History). The aisles and galleries were extended and reconfigured (1895-6) (see above, Description). The East window designed by Kempe and showing Christ the King surrounded by saints and angels, was dedicated on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1895. A letter survives from Kempe in which he writes that the Vicar had wanted a crucifixion scene but he had preferred something less gloomy. Electric light was brought in 1897.
The crowning glory of these works was the chancel (1897-8), funded in the main by Lord Edward Pelham-Clinton in memory of his wife, Matilda. The whole chancel was lined with alabaster by Powell and with Italianate mosaic and tile designs which feature the Old Testament forerunners of Our Lord. The floor was laid in red and white marble squares with solid marble steps. There was a new credence in alabaster and a reredos painting of the Crucifixion by an unknown artist replaced the original reredos which was transferred to the Lady Chapel. The oak sedilia from this time was refurbished in 2019.
The Lady Chapel was added to the south of the chancel as part of the 1896-8 works. Some of the reredos of 1877 (Salviati mosaic thought to be by Gilbert Scott (??)) from the original high altar was installed there. The chapel is approached through a fine wrought iron screen. A small bust of Fr Belcher, the first vicar, can still be seen though it has sustained some damage. Above the altar there is a fine alabaster relief of the Annunciation, given by Fr Belcher’s wife, and transferred there during the incumbency of Fr Skeoch.
Garden for the Maundy Thursday Vigil in the Lady Chapel, the original reredos at the back wall.
Second World War
The church was hit by five bombs during the Blitz. Fortunately, only one exploded, largely destroying the Lady Chapel. Most of the church’s glass was lost, except the East window which Fr Morris, the incumbent, had had the foresight to remove to safe keeping. The only stained glass to have been replaced with new stained glass is that of the West window (1952). It features the Holy Trinity, the four archangels, cherubs and seraphs. Today the building shows cracking caused by the shock of the bombing. The bomb damage to the pulpit canopy was repaired in 2020.
A choir vestry was added in 1887-8 and this has been used on and off as a church hall alongside the St Gabriel’s Parish House in Glasgow Terrace (1901). For many years that building on what is now the Churchill Gardens estate has been an important centre for the church’s social life and mission.
From the East Window
After an internal decoration of the church in the 1950s the next major work to the building came with the restoration and cleaning of the tower under Fr Irvine-Capel. These works were supported by a number of charitable trusts, most especially English Heritage. At the same time a number of the front pews were removed and a large platform put in place for a Nave altar and for concerts (2012). The lighting of the church was reordered in the following year.
Damp (high and low level) has continued to be a major problem affecting the stonework. However, we have now begun a major programme to renew the original drains and extend the upper level water clearance which combined with recent work to fix slates and a programme of planned maintenance should see the building dry out (2021-3), at which point we hope to complete a major internal redecoration. The current works also include improved access to and within the building, additional w.c.s and the renewal of the curtilage wall.
This (2021) it is intended that the organ will receive a complete overhaul. The original version by Binns dates to 1893. This was revised in 1970 by Walkers. In 2021 Nicholsons will return the organ to its original configuration and add extra pipes. The Blomfield casing will also be renewed.
Panel from The Chancel