For most of the last thousand years, the town of Harrow had its centre at the top of the hill, where St Mary’s Church was consecrated in 1094. It was only in the nineteenth century that the village of Greenhill grew sufficiently—to a population of about 400—to require a church of its own, which was built on the present site in 1866. This small brick church, sometimes called the “candle snuffer” from the shape of its tower, was staffed by assistant curates from St Mary’s, and in 1885 Rev. Thomas Smith (known to all as Tommy) was licensed as curate in charge of St John’s. The Victoria Hall, a parish hall rather than a church hall, but with close connections with the church, was opened on the site of the shops at the west end of the church in 1888. (It was rebuilt in its present position in Sheepcote Road in 1963.) Greenhill became a separate parish in 1896, with Tommy Smith as its first vicar.
Greenhill was growing—the population in 1902 was 4,892—and the brick church was beginning to subside, as well as being too small. The current building was begun in 1904 from designs by the architect John S. Alder, extended in 1925 and finished in 1938, to a modified design by the architect Martin Travers. It has recently been made a Grade II listed building. Tommy Smith had made the building up of the parish and the completion of the new church his life’s work; he however resigned because of ill health in 1933, dying later that year. The completion of the building took place under the second vicar, Rev. H. Wolferstan Beck (vicar 1933–44). Since then St John’s has had nine more vicars. Two of the vicars went on to become bishops: George Ingle (vicar 1944–48) was later Bishop of Fulham and of Willesden; and Joost de Blank (vicar 1948–52) was later Bishop of Stepney and Archbishop of Cape Town.
The work of St John’s has changed greatly over the last hundred years. Until about thirty years ago the continuous building of houses and flats meant that the parish was mainly residential: the church’s electoral roll reached its peak in 1957 with a total of 1,369 members. Since then, the growth of the shopping centre and changes in the make-up of the population mean that the church’s ministry is increasingly to shoppers and town centre workers, and to people of other faiths or of none. Co-operation with the other churches of central Harrow has grown considerably, with many joint activities and services. The size of the building means that it is often in demand for civic services and other major events such as ordinations.
St John’s people have never believed that the task of ministering to those who live and work in Harrow is to be left to the clergy. In the 1940s and 1950s the parish was divided into areas, each with a leader to look out for those in need and welcome newcomers. In our own decade the church is again open for some part of every day, stewarded by volunteers.
St John’s has also had a strong musical tradition, allowing the choir to offer its own music as part of the worship while leaving plenty of opportunities for the congregation; and for the last forty years there have been fortnightly lunch-time concerts on Thursdays, attracting into the church many people we would not otherwise see. As well as worshipping God in music, we use the beautiful building we have inherited, with its stained glass windows, and the flowers which often decorate it, as ways to give God glory by offering the best of what we can do with what he has given us. But buildings and flowers and music are only means to an end. Our aim is to love God and seek his Kingdom: to tell others of what he has done and so to live with him in this life that we will be with him for ever in the next. Will you join us?