The East End of London experienced a huge increase in its population after the Battle of Waterloo and the Commission for New Churches responded with a flurry of church building. The commissioners appointed the eminent architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), designer of the Dulwich College Art Gallery, to draw up plans for St John on Bethnal Green, the third of his three London churches. The foundation stone was laid on 6 June, 1826. The church, especially the vestibule, staircases and crypt, are fine examples of Soane’s restrained and elegant style. The original plans survive and can be seen at Sir John Soane’s Museum (www.soane.org), while copies are in the Local History Department of Tower Hamlets Library (277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ).
On 16 February 1870, the roof and interior were destroyed by fire, though the west end was largely untouched and Soane’s graceful staircases remained intact. The architect responsible for the restoration was a local man, William Mundy, who gave the church a hammer beam roof and wooden galleries in keeping with the neo-Gothic fashion of the time. The building reopened on 25 March 1871. At that time, the church acquired its bells, cast at the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry (www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk) where the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and “Big Ben” were also made. G.F. Bodley extended the chancel in 1887. Despite these later interventions, most of St John’s retains the beautiful proportions of Soane’s original design and the nave is still as light and airy as he intended.
From the Boer War till 1945, St John’s was the regimental church for the East London Regiment of the Royal Engineers, a link attested to by five brass plaques in the south aisle. During the war of 1939-1945, a bomb destroyed the vicarage and damaged the church. Services were held in the crypt which also served as an air raid shelter for part of the war. The vicarage was not rebuilt till 1969 and in the intervening period the land was used for allotments. After World War II, the population of Bethnal Green declined and parishes were amalgamated. In 1978, St Bartholomew’s church was closed and a new parish of St John with St Bartholomew was created. Since 1985, the church has simply been known as St John on Bethnal Green. St John on Bethnal Green has now embarked on a comprehensive repair programme which seeks to restore the crisp, clean lines of Soane’s original building and to ensure the church remains at the heart of community life in Bethnal Green.