Throughout the 18th century Chichester’s tiny medieval parish churches heaved at the seams but their restricted city sites made rebuilding impossible. Eventually everyone agreed that a new church was urgently needed, but none of the parishes would agree to lose area.
The solution was to build a non-parochial church in the form of a proprietary chapel, owned and run by trustees and funded by donations and pew rents. A site was provided in a new development being built in the city, called Newtown.
To secure the agreement of the existing parishes, the new church would be barred from conducting baptisms, weddings or funerals, which were important sources of income for parish priests.
Construction began 1812 to a design by James Elmes, a London-based architect who was Surveyor of the Cathedral. The plan is a rectangle with the corners cut off to form octagonal ends. The west end has a little bell turret on top, modelled on the famous Choragic Monument in Athens.
The inside is designed for preaching in the Low Church tradition, with pews and galleries looking towards the pulpit, positioned high on a barley-twist column so everyone in the church can see the preacher.
Desks for the minister and clerk are placed on either side of the pulpit. Originally, they were in front of it in the classic ‘three-decker’ arrangement – it is not known why they were altered.
The communion table is hidden behind the pulpit and under the gallery, used once a month in a communion service held as a sort of afterthought to morning prayer.
The untouched Georgian interior is a very rare survival. The Victorian passion for ritual caused almost all of them to be swept away and replaced with new chancels designed for elaborate eucharists.
Proprietary chapels faded away as well, made unnecessary by reform of the parochial system.
Originally, they had been a useful way of creating places of worship for Anglicans outside the mainstream, both low and high church. Unfortunately, they also became useful operations for the less scrupulous such as the Rev Dr Alexander Keith, who conducted instant marriages for eloping lovers at his chapel in Mayfair at a guinea a time. The practice was outlawed, which is why elopers had to flee to Gretna Green thereafter.
The Rev Dr William Dodd had huge success as a preacher at his two West End proprietary chapels, but his enormous income failed to cover his gambling habit and he unwisely forged a cheque to pay the bookies, for which he was publicly hanged in 1777.
St John’s itself was eventually absorbed into the parish of St Pancras, and closed in 1973. Today, it is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.
Only a few proprietary chapels survive. One is St John’s Downshire Hill, Hampstead and another is the controversial Emanuel Church in Wimbledon, which maintains the tradition of the proprietary chapel as a non-parochial home for evangelicalism to this day.