St John’s Church, Smith Square at 300

The file, deed and map rooms are full and provision of further storage space… urgently necessary.’

 Words from the minutes of the Estates and Finance Committee of the Church Commissioners in May 1955 that may be all too familiar to archives and records professionals.

Space, it would seem, is always an issue. How to get more of it, and how to better use that available is a recurring discussion for people from all walks of life. In London, space is of a premium. Cramped into the city, space becomes a currency and a commodity to be traded. ‘Head space,’ ‘breathing space,’ ‘living space,’ ‘working space;’ the right kind of space is always the question.

In the mid Twentieth Century the Church Commissioners were becoming increasingly concerned about their space. Needing room to house their expanding collection of records, the Commissioners were for a time keen to pursue a plan under discussion by the Diocese of London to convert a damaged church into an Ecclesiastical Records Office for London.

St John’s Church, Smith Square, is today a renowned concert hall and in May 2014 will celebrate 300 years since its first corner stone was laid on 14th May 1714. The church was built as one of the ‘fifty new churches’ or ‘Queen Anne’ churches built for London. Designed and built by Thomas Archer, the church was seriously damaged during the Second World War and a scheme was proposed to convert the church into a records office and archive for the Diocese of London, in which the Commissioners would rent space. Plans were drawn up by Robert Atkinson for what would have been an impressive space. The plans make provision for an exhibition area, several private study rooms, staff offices and plenty of natural light.

The plans to turn St. John's, Smith Square,  into a record office.
The plans to turn St. John’s, Smith Square, into a record office.


Cross section looking east.
Cross section looking east.

In the end, it was the classic coupling of time and money that ended the Commissioners involvement in the scheme, and they formally extracted themselves from any agreements in 1955. As St John’s get ready to celebrate their 300th birthday, it’s interesting to contemplate the twists and turns and the paths not taken on the road to becoming an acclaimed classical music venue.




Related material:

CC/SEC/T/4 Proposed Ecclesiastical Record Office at St John’s Smith Square: correspondence and papers. Church of England Record Centre

MSS 2690-2750 Commission for the Building of Fifty New Churches (The Queen Anne Churches). Lambeth Palace Library

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