Wonderful Wolverhampton

St Johns Church

a Grade II listed Church

St Johns Church

St John's Square
West Midlands

01902 422642

St John's Church

The church was built between 1758 and 1776 to designs of either William Baker or Roger Eykyn. It was a response to population pressures resulting from the industrial revolution and to the perceived threat of Dissent and Roman Catholicism in an area where Anglican ministry was limited by a unique ecclesiastical structure.

St John's was built as a chapel of ease of St Peter's Collegiate Church. The latter was a Royal Peculiar, entirely independent of the local Diocese of Lichfield. Its deans and chapter formed a college, a corporate body within canon law that had ecclesiastical control over a wide tract of Staffordshire in and to the north and east of Wolverhampton. The dean and chapter were absentee clergy who resented any threat, real or imagined, to their extremely lucrative monopolies: especially that on burials throughout the extensive parish and that on pews within the town of Wolverhampton. The deanery of Wolverhampton had been united with the far more prestigious deanery of Windsor since the late 15th century, encouraging the deans to be absentees - a situation that applied also to most of the prebendaries. However, Peniston Booth, dean from 1729 to 1765, took the unusual step of establishing a home in Wolverhampton and became more susceptible to local pressure for reform.

The population of Wolverhampton itself and of the towns to the east was growing rapidly as manufacturing took hold. There was a growth of Protestant Dissent, particularly as Methodism was preached in the town from about the middle of the 18th century: in 1761 John Wesley himself preached at an inn-yard in what he called "this furious town" of Wolverhampton.Catholic recusancy was strong in the surrounding countryside, under the leadership of the Giffard family of Brewood, who succeeded in building a Catholic chapel in the guise of a private house, just to the west of St. Peter's. The threat to the dominance of the Church of England seemed urgent and Booth bowed to pressure to authorise the building of new chapels of ease at St Thomas' Church, Wednesfield, St Giles Church, Willenhall and St Leonard's Church, Bilston. With considerably more persuasion, and after a major public campaign fronted by Lord Grey, Booth finally acquiesced in the building of a new chapel of ease in Wolverhampton itself. It was authorized by a private Act of Parliament in 1755, and the fine Neo-Classical church of St John quickly rose on a site enclosed in a square, at that time on the southern edge of the town.

St. George's Church, Wolverhampton.
Initially, the building of St Johns greatly relieved pressure on space at St Peter's, but continued rapid population growth made it necessary to build two more very close to St John's within a few decades. (St Paul's was demolished in 1960 to make way for Wolverhampton Ring Road, and St George's was transformed into a Sainsbury's superstore in the 1980s.) All were initially chapels of ease, dependent on St Peter's, although the circumstances of their foundation gave their lay sponsors considerable influence, as the clergy were largely dependent on the generosity of lay benefactors for an income and for maintenance of the church building. One of these sponsors was the musical Sir Samuel Hellier, known for the Hellier Stradivarius; the minister at the time, Thomas Shaw, was his heir and changed his name to Shaw-Hellier. One of his daughters, Parthenia, married the then-current minister in 1820.

St John's remained a redoubt of the high church tradition, like St Peter's itself, while the other new foundations were low church and increasingly centres of Evangelicalism. The Royal Peculiar was widely seen as corrupt and inefficient, and was out of keeping with the reforming spirit of the 19th century. Financial reforms introduced in 1811 left the clergy of St Peter's better-paid but still dependent on St John's and the other chapels for a large part of their income in fees. Friction came to a head in the 1830s, when the perpetual curate of St Peter's was the particularly quarrelsome Dr Oliver. The Cathedrals Act of 1840 decreed that the deanery should be suppressed on the death of the current dean Henry Hobart, who expired in 1846. In 1848, the Wolverhampton Church Act abolished the ancient College of St Peter altogether and transferred all its assets to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The Commissioners set up St John's the other chapels of ease as independent parish churches, within the Diocese of Lichfield, and gave their clergy a large and much-needed pay rise.


The organ dates from 1684 by Renatus Harris. It was probably built for the famous battle of the organs at Temple Church. When rejected, it was sold to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and from there it was sold to St. John's church in 1762. There have been many rebuilds and restorations since it was originally obtained. A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register.