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St John’s marks 150 year anniversary of famous College Chapel

A programme of special services will take place on Sunday, May 12

Celebrations have begun to mark the 150th birthday of the famous Victorian Chapel of St John’s College - an iconic feature of the Cambridge skyline.

Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the great Gothic Revival architect, the building replaced a relatively modest Tudor chapel which was itself a rebuilding of that of the 13th century Hospital of St John which predated the College’s foundation in 1511.  

At the time the Chapel was the tallest building in Cambridge as it towered over the city at 164ft high.

The Chapel from First Court St John's Chapel as seen from First Court

Guests travel from all over the world to attend Evensong to hear the famous St John’s Choir sing

A programme of special services will take place on Sunday, May 12 – 150 years to the day of the Chapel’s official consecration in 1869. The opening was a significant local event and 900 people attended including Bishops, MPs, the Mayor of Cambridge, alumni, academics and students.

Since then the Chapel has played an important role in the life of St John’s and hosts around 250 services every year including student matriculation and graduation events. More than 600 people attend the annual Advent carol services and guests travel from all over the world to attend Evensong to hear the famous St John’s Choir sing.

The chapel is 175ft long and 75ft wide and it took nearly three years to build. It was a controversial project which cost the College £78,319 – a particularly significant sum 150 years ago.

Consecration processionThe consecration procession enters the new Chapel on 12 May 1869

After the new Chapel was built, the old one was knocked down – a circumstance which many College members regretted afterwards

The building replaced a smaller chapel which had been built as part of the original construction of the College courtyard (now known as First Court) and dated back to the early 16th century. By the 1800s the old chapel, at a mere 100ft long and 25ft wide, was considered by many at St John’s to be too small for the College which had greatly increased in student numbers since its original construction.

After the new Chapel was built, the old one was knocked down – a circumstance which many College members regretted afterwards. But the wooden Tudor pews were saved and relocated into the new Chapel where they remain today, meaning that some of the seating is older than the building itself.

The Chapel was not originally intended to have a tower but alumnus Henry Hoare offered to pay for cost of adding one to the designs and the College accepted.

Tragically a few years after he promised the money to St John’s, Hoare was killed in a railway incident - having only paid £2,000 towards the £6,100 he had promised. As work had already begun, the College obviously had to pick up the bill. This surprise cost is one of the reasons the Chapel has a bell tower but no bells, because the College had no money left to install any.

The Chapel interiorInside St John's Chapel

One Fellow memorably said the new Chapel looked like “a burly man mounted on a Shetland pony

Despite the construction challenges, the tower of the St John’s Chapel is a considered to be a remarkable piece of architecture. It is no longer the tallest building in Cambridge - Our Lady and the English Martyrs Church on Hills Road with its 213ft spire holds that record - but it is 6ft taller than the University Library tower.

After its construction the new Chapel received both praise and criticism, one Fellow memorably said it looked like “a burly man mounted on a Shetland pony”. One of the undeniable benefits of the Chapel is that it is an excellent acoustic environment for music. For this reason the Choir of St John’s record their albums inside the Chapel itself, including their latest album Locus Iste which commemorates the Chapel’s 150th anniversary.

CeilingThe painted ceiling inside the Chapel features significant religious figures and College members including Wilberforce and Wordsworth

The celebratory event on Sunday (May 12 2019) will feature a 9.30am Eucharist sung by St John’s Voices, the College’s mixed choir, and a Cantata Evensong with St John’s Sinfonia at 4.30pm.

Evensong on Saturday 25 May 2019 will also feature the first performance of a new piece of music by Julian Anderson commissioned by St John's in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Chapel.

The services are open to all and no tickets are required.

Read more about the history of the Chapel - Part One, Part Two.

Old Chapel East end

The east end of the original Chapel of St John's

Published:  10/05/19

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