The Church

The church building

When the Building Committee had to select an architect for the new church in North Oxford, they chose a local man whose buildings were well-known in the district. H. G. W. Drinkwater produced a great variety—The Horse and Jockey pub, the School in Leckford Road, the Vicarage in Woodstock Road and many private houses in the vicinity. What style would he use for the church? The answer was a version of the decorated style c 1300–1330. It works well.

Drinkwater was asked to provide a church that would seat 500 people. His building is light and airy, with spaces large enough to be useful without being overpowering or dogmatic. In addition to a wide Chancel and nave, there are broad aisles, North and South, and an ample Lady Chapel which has the advantage that it can be used as part of the Nave or not, according to need. The East End provides a fine climax to the church with its High Altar, large Triptych and colourful Jesse Window.

Tuesday 8th May 1883 fell during the week following Ascension Day. The Oxford Times reports that the weather was ‘unpropitious’. Miss Bonner in her manuscript collection of historical paragraphs called it ‘a miserable, wet day’. Nevertheless a large gathering assembled in the afternoon for the laying of the foundation stone. Happily the date was the 21st anniversary of the consecration of the parish church, St Philip and St James.

The Vicar, the Revd. E. C. Dermer, had invited a former parishioner to travel from his home in Hampshire to perform the ceremony. Mr J. A. Shaw-Stewart had been Bursar of Keble College and lived and worshipped in the parish for four years or more.

The foundation stone weighed nearly two tons and was inscribed ‘Una pretiosa margarita 1883’ (One pearl of great price). In the cavity beneath the stone was placed a bottle containing a copy of the Gospeller, the Morning Post, the Order of Service and some silver coins of the year.

The choir led the singing, which included Psalm 122, the hymn ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’, an Act of Dedication, Collects and the Benediction. The Vicar said, ‘Here let true faith, the fear of God and brotherly love ever remain; let this place be set apart for prayer and for praise of the most holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who ever liveth with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end.’

Afterwards all went to the School for tea and speeches. Finally there was evensong at St Philip and St James Church. The first lesson was read by the Vicar of St Giles, the second lesson by the former vicar of the parish, the Revd Dr J. B. Gray, and the sermon was preached by the vicar of All Saints Church, Clifton, Bristol, the Revd. R. Randall on the text ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and earth’. The collection was £17.14s which went straight into the Building Fund for the new church.

After that beginning, the building took nearly ten years to complete. The service of consecration was conducted by Bishop Stubbs on 22nd November 1893. Then in 1899 a new tower, which has never been finished (probably because the ground was unable to take the weight proposed) and which was designed by G. F. Bodley, was started. On an occasion which at the time of writing could just be remembered by one or two the foundations of the tower were laid by Princess Louise. In 1908 a fine parsonage house was provided next to the church, also designed by Drinkwater, bringing the building programme to an end.

The interior is handsomely furnished. Much was designed by the famous team of G. F. Bodley and his partner Cecil Hare. They provided the Rood Screen, Pulpit, Reredos and Aumbry, and the Choir Stalls. The font which stood in the church from 1896 was a gift from the City Church of All Saints. But in 1914 it was replaced by a new one, designed with an impressive cover by Cecil Hare, who also added the Baptistry Screen.

There is good stained glass in the church. Among the earliest is ‘The Good Shepherd’ window in the north wall of the sanctuary. It is nicknamed the Children’s Window because it is a memorial to the man who worked so hard, before the church was opened, to build up the congregation, the Revd C. A. Janson. The window is by Bell and Beckenham. The five figures in the clerestory came from the workshop of Burlison and Grylls.

The most interesting glass, however, was designed by F. C. Eden. At the East End, his Jesse Window replaced a larger window in 1911, in order to accommodate the great reredos triptych below. The earlier glass from the East Window was at one time in the West Window, but sadly most of it has disappeared. Well worth a close look is the series of three windows Eden designed for the south wall of the Lady Chapel. They are based on an iconographic theme ‘The Plan of Salvation’ and picture the Nativity (Incarnation), the Crucifixion (Atonement) and Pentecost (the gift of the Spirit to the Church).

The organ was first used on Easter Day 1892. Electric lighting was installed in 1901. Some later additions to the furnishings, after 1918, were made by F. C. Howard.

Three major fabric projects were carried out during the period following the centenary celebrations. Dry rot in the roof was dealt with and hazardous wood-block flooring replaced in 1987–88. In 1996 the font was moved from the Baptistry at the West end to a position near the main entrance and thus within the nave for the frequent Baptisms at the Sunday morning Eucharist, and the Baptistry room roofed over and sound-proofed to provide a crèche area and meeting room. In 1998–99 the heating system, long unequal to its task, was comprehensively overhauled and reinforced.

During the speeches at the ceremony of laying the foundation-stone, a century ago, Mr Shaw-Stewart praised St Margaret’s because it was to be ‘free and open’. He added that ‘he trusted those living about it would use the advantage of their proximity, and not leave it to others from a distance to fill the church.’ At this all the company said ‘hear, hear!’ In modern jargon, St Margaret’s was to be a neighbourhood church. This remains its strength.