Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Just beyond the Southwark borders in Lambeth, All Saints Church is a Grade I listed building in West Dulwich. It is a massive, extravagant, perhaps over-fussy, late Victorian building that towers above its more modest suburban surroundings. Built in the gothic revival style, the west elevation facing onto Rosendale Road and the main body of the church are built of red brick. By contrast, the east elevation that fronts onto Lovelace Road is understated with a simple curved stone arch leading into the entrance of the church.
The origins of All Saints Church lie in a corrugated iron building erected in Croxted Road in 1877. This was able to hold a congregation of 700 and served the increasing population of the area that was growing as a result of the newly built railways. The West Dulwich New Church Building Committee formed in 1887 and campaigned for a new church. Within a short space of time they were presented with the site in Rosendale Road by the Governors of Dulwich College. The architect selected was George Fellowes Prynne who designed many churches throughout the country. The foundation stone was laid by the Bishop of Rochester in October 1888 and the completed part of the churched opened under licence three years later. The cost of the church was paid for by local residents but it seems they were unable to raise sufficient funds to turn George Fellowes Prynne’s whole vision into reality as the west wing designed by Prynne was never built due to shortage of funds. It seems too the congregation had to borrow money as the church was not consecrated until 1897 when the debt had been cleared.
Due to the vast size of the church and its unfinished appearance, a legend grew up that is still repeated, that it had originally been intended for All Saints to become the Cathedral for the newly formed Diocese of Southwark. When instead St Saviour’s parish church on Bankside became Southwark Cathedral, the story goes that work on building the new church in Dulwich ceased. The truth is more prosaic, the project just ran out of money.
The church suffered bomb damage in World War II and until the building was restored in the early 1950s, services took place in the crypt. A bell tower was also installed during this restoration in memory of the parishioners killed during the war at the point where Fellowes’ Prynne had originally intended a tower that had never been built.
Tragedy occurred again in June 2000 when a fire caused by an electrical fault gutted the entire building and destroyed the roof, leaving only the walls left standing. Fortunately the building was insured and full restoration works, costing £6 million, were carried out. Internally, the church was transformed from having a dark, gloomy interior, perhaps in keeping with the gothic exterior, to a large, open-upped space bathed in light. As a reminder of the fire, the walls and pillars still bear the burn-marks left by the fire and a cross, situated in front of the choir and congregation, has been formed from charred roof beams.