Modernism in Amersham-on-the-Hill

by Alison Bailey March 2022

Façade of St John’s Methodist Church with its copper needle spire and cross
Façade of St John’s Methodist Church with its copper needle spire and cross

Completed in 1960, St John’s Methodist Church on Woodside Road, with its distinctive copper needle spire, is a rare example of mid-century modernist architecture in Amersham. Also see Woodside Junior School. Conceived as a place of worship and a centre for community life the church was designed by architect Alister MacDonald, the eldest son of the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald who had a weekend home in Chesham Bois. According to Pevsner, Alister MacDonald was influenced by Basil Spence, the architect of Coventry Cathedral. In 1985 the Sir Basil Spence Partnership designed the replacement rectory in Old Amersham.

In the brochure for the opening of St John’s, MacDonald described how “viewed from the main road, this grouped composition in brickwork of blending colours with its paved and rose-bedded central area seen through a modern cloister, immediately draws the passer-by to contemplation. It does not need a label to proclaim that this is a community group of buildings having a religious purpose.”

Interior of St John’s Methodist Church courtesy of amershammethodist.org.uk
Interior of St John’s Methodist Church courtesy of amershammethodist.org.uk

The church was named for St John because some of the money for the building came from compensation for war damage after the bombing of a Methodist church in St John’s Square, Clerkenwell. Further sums of money came from the Joseph Rank Trust, the sale of the Woodside Road chapel site and from the local congregation. The fund-raising scheme, “Amersham Adventure”, suggested a variety of ways in which people could help, including purchasing bricks for £5, stones for £50 or pillars for £100 each. The building contractors for the project were Comben and Wakeling Ltd. Stanley Comben and his wife Stella, who lived close by in Dial House, Sycamore Road were committed Methodists and hosted many fundraising events for the new church building.

Detail of cross intended “to depict Suffering, Creation, Richness and Simplicity”
Detail of cross intended “to depict Suffering, Creation, Richness and Simplicity”

Methodists had worshiped in Amersham Common from at least the mid-19th century, meeting at Loudhams farm in Burtons Lane where the worship was followed by an excellent tea. Eventually the society had funds and was given land for a small chapel by Sir William and Lady Elderton, who lived where Stubbs End Close now is. This land was near the junction of Chestnut Lane and New Road. In 1924 a larger chapel was built on Woodside Road, not far from Plantation Road but according to the church’s anniversary brochure from 1981 “the stoke-hole flooded, the slow-combustion stove belched smoke, the roof began to spread and the walls to crack”! In comparison, the move “up-the-road” to the bright modern building of St John’s, with its church and rooms set on three sides of a central garden must have been a delight.

Sadly, the Amersham Methodist Circuit will shortly stop holding services of worship at St, John’s. However they will remain open for all other activities whilst the future role for the building is explored.

Sources

Home (amershammethodist.org.uk)

Obituary: Alister MacDonald | The Independent | The Independent

Alister Gladstone MacDonald – Architect | Architects of Greater Manchester (manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk)

 

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