The New Chapel
The existing Chapel was built between 1866 - 69. The design owes much to the Decorated or 'middle pointed' period, which was then almost universally held to be the only correct style for all ecclesiastical buildings. By a happy chance for George Gilbert Scott, who was selected as architect and who was one of the strongest advocates of this view, it reflected the style of the old chapel, then in the course of demolition.
The plan was for an antechapel placed in a transverse position to the main chapel. This was to solve the overriding requirement of a chapel occupying the distance from the street to the front of the Hall with a southern projection, the south transept, giving access from First Court. The apse terminating the east end was a departure from the usual square end. On the grounds of cost Scott had chosen an arched timber ceiling for the chapel, but for aesthetic and practical reasons a stone-vaulted ceiling for the antechapel. His estimate for the chapel was £36,000, excluding any statues and stained glass windows. Work commenced in the late summer of 1863, and Mr W. M. Cooper was employed as Clerk of the Works, at a salary ranging between £10 and £14 per calendar month.
The walls were faced with blocks of stone 6 to 9 inches deep. The core of the wall was usually brickwork and the inner face stone of a softer nature. Bricks arrived on the site ready to be laid, but stone arrived in uneven boulders straight from the quarry to be sawn by hand into the appropriate size for each course. The speed of the building was of necessity slow, absorbing a large number of artificers with varied skills.
On 19 December 1863, when the work of the chapel was beginning in earnest, 43 stone masons, 14 bricklayers, 49 labourers and 12 carpenters were working on the site - a total of 118 men. As the work proceeded, as many as 60 masons were employed, later to be joined by stone carvers when the time for ornamentation arrived; In October 1866 there were 27 stone carvers working on the site.
Scott's plans for the Chapel included only a small 'fleche', not the 163-feet-high tower that was eventually built. But after work had already begun a former member of the College named Henry Hoare offered £3,000 down and £1,000 a year for five years to finance the building of the tower. The offer was accepted, but despite the urgings of the Bursar the College failed to insure Mr Hoare's life - he was, after all, a young and healthy man. Two years later he died as a result of a railway accident, leaving the College with a Chapel Tower and a large debt. Scott prepared several drawings of a tower, one restricted in height, terminating in a pitched roof with two gable ends pierced by circular windows, costing approximately £3,000, and a second similarly restricted but terminating in a pointed slated roof pierced by small dormer windows, costing £2,500. But it was the third drawing, a square tower 42 feet on the north to south side and 41 feet on the east to west side and 163 feet high, terminating in balustrade and four pinnacles not unlike Pershore Abbey, that attracted the College.
In 1868, now that the Chapel had a potential belfry, Dr Reyner contemplated the installation of a peal of bells. He consulted E. Becket Denison who was the highest authority in the country on the subject of bells and clocks. Becket Denison's estimate was that a good peal of eight with hanging machinery would cost £1,300. The cost was prohibitive at the time, and there the matter rests awaiting a possible resurrection.
From the turn of the century until quite recently, Victorian architecture and the decorative arts had been ignored by the general public who for the most part neither knew or cared, and treated with scorn and derision by the cognoscenti who tended to regard everything after 1830 with ill-concealed contempt. Worse still, they caused or connived at the needless destruction of countless buildings of great merit, churches, schools, town and country houses and public buildings, and where this proved impossible for one reason or another, went to extraordinary lengths to deface and disguise them.
St John's Chapel came in for as much abuse as any of its contemporaries, and loud were the critics in condemnation of the building itself and its architect. Fortunately theirs was a passive campaign, never translated into action, and today the chapel stands intact and largely unaltered. Sounder and more reasonable judgements now prevail, the atmosphere has changed, and the work of such architects as Gilbert Scott, G.E. Street, J.L. Pearson and G.F. Bodley is held in high regard, and in this more enlightened climate St John's can be justly proud of having what must be regarded as one of the finest and most successful Gothic Revival chapels in the country.