St Peter’s Church, Bury St Edmunds was the first ‘church-plant’, or mission church, to be established in Bury since the parish system was created in the Anglo-Saxon period. Historically there were two parishes, St Mary’s and St James’s, with Abbeygate Street and the present Kings Road marking their division.
In 1841 a new parish of St John’s was carved out of the northern part of St James’s. Between 1801 and 1851 the population of Bury increased 45% from 7,655 to 13,900, of which only 60% could be accommodated in any place of worship. At the western end of St Mary’s parish was an expanding area of industry, institutions and housing. There were chalk and lime workings either side of the eventual site of St Peter’s. Further west were the West Suffolk Hospital of 1826, the Thingoe Workhouse of 1836 and extensive chalk workings. Housing was being built along Out Westgate, Horringer Road and Cemetery Road (now King’s Road). Robert Boby’s iron foundry (now the site of Waitrose) was established in the area in the 1860s.
The Vision and Provision
The Reverend Charles Phipps Eyre, Vicar of St Mary’s since 1842, had a vision for a District or Mission church to serve this expanding area of the parish. He obtained a grant towards this from the Church Pastoral Aid Society in 1843. However matters were put on hold, as a major restoration had to be undertaken at St Mary’s during 1843 – 44, which required the raising of massive sums of money.
While concerns over the outstanding debt on the restoration of the church were diverting the church officials, the Lord was working in the hearts of others in the parish and the debt was paid of by a specific legacy.
Following the death of their father, Dr Thomas Smith M.D. in 1848 his three daughters Frances, Jane and Ann gave the Vicar £3000 for the ‘…spiritual interests of his parishioners’. Their £3000 was sufficient to build St Peter’s and today would represent £1.8 million.
The land where the church and Thomas Clarkson Centre now stand belonged to a charity founded by Revd John Crosier of Barrow in 1570. The 1st Marquis of Bristol of Ickworth, who also owned most of Barrow, not only offered the charity other land in Barrow, but gave the Bury land as a site for the new church.
John Henry Hakewill of London was employed to design the church. The foundations of the church were begun in August 1856. The walls were nearly up to the window-sill level when the foundation stone beneath the east window was laid on Friday 3 October 1856.
As part of the Vicar’s vision for St Peter’s, all the seats were to be free and thus there were to be no social distinctions within the congregation. He hoped that in the future St Peter’s should be independent with its own district or parish, but at present it would be a chape-of-ease to and served by clergy from St Mary’s. The foundation stone can be seen outside under the east window, carved with the cross keys of St Peter tied to a floriate cross, the symbol of Christian Life in Jesus. The other sides of the stone have inscriptions, two of which are embedded in the wall.
The Vision Opened
St Peter’s opened on Thursday 2 September 1858, nearly two years after the laying of the foundation stone. The building work, except for the spire, had been finished in January 1858. The site was then levelled and fenced in August. At the time of the opening, the spire had not been added, the tower being capped with a tiled roof. No evidence exists to show when the spire was added, although it was there in 1863.
St Peter’s, 1863
Revd Charles Phipps Eyre had left St Mary’s in July 1857, so the first morning service, attended b the Mayor and Corporation, local clergy and ‘principal inhabitants’, was led by the new Vicar Revd John Richardson.
From the outset open-air services were held in the churchyard and at the corner of Westgate Street. The hearty singing and direct challenging preaching gave rise to a new name, still used by older Bury residents, ‘Hell Fire Corner’.
The church was opened and furnished with Communion table and rails, a combined stone pulpit, lectern and reading desk, a font and pine benches.
A pipe organ was given by Edward Green M.P. in 1866, a Communion set and a Credence Table in 1883. The organ and its successors stood in the eastern bay of the aisle until 1996.
The Vision Developed
Like most churches in the Victorian period St Peter’s underwent various alterations and renovations. In 1885 the church held a fund raising Fancy Fair at the Athenaeum. This included drama, concerts, sales of works and a ‘living’ waxworks exhibition. The funds were spent in 1886 on a new organ by Gildersleeve; painting the waggon roof of the chancel ‘Cambridge blue’ with gold bosses, and laying black and white tiles in the Sanctuary. The panels of the nave roof, then with exposed arch braces, were painted grey-green and the nave walls distempered pink with a darker dado.
Since 1858 the northern end of the bay occupied by the organ had been used as a vestry. The second period of restoration in 1898 included building the present vestry at the west end of the aisle. A gate was also placed in the iron railings, between the church and school, to give a separate entrance for the clergy and choir (just as today). A new organ was purchased costing £176. This organ was dismantled and moved to Freckenham in 1996.
To commemorate the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 stained glass was placed in the east window. The cost of £150 was raised by 650 individual donations.In February 1903 the church was lit by electric light. During a sacred concert in July the ‘cut-out’ fused and the insulation caught fire. There was no danger, but the church was quickly cleared by the light of candles. Despite this event the churchwarden was able to report in 1904 that ‘…electric light had a better appearance compared to gas, and resulted in a saving of £3 on the year’s bill. In 1908, in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the church, a fete and sale of work was held with the aim of raising money to beautify the east end of the chancel and to add to the Endowment Fund to finance a clergyman for St Peter’s. As a result, in 1909 a wooden reredos was commissioned. The Cross on the Table was given in 1919 as a thank-offering for a son who returned safely from World War One and a Roll of Honour was unveiled.
In 1929 the spire was struck by lightning, splitting open the north side, removing the cross and two feet from the top.
The railings and gates along Hospital Road were sold as part of the war-effort in 1944. The Roll of Honour was erected on the north side of the nave in November 1948. A second stained-glass window was erected in 1955.
The Centenary celebrations were held in 1958, at which two prayer-desks and a lectern were made and given.Two altar vases were given in memory of Maud Watson who died in 1954. The cedar shingle tiles of the spire & the tiling on the nave roof were also replaced in 1958.
The Vision for Today
In 1982 the pews were removed from the aisle, the floor lowered and carpeted. The creation of this flexible space, which could be used in a variety of ways for worship and social uses, began the vision that between 1996 and 2007, resulted in the re-ordering of the entire interior of the church.
Another catalyst was the conversion of the former St Peter’s School, then St Mary’s Special Unit, into a Parish Centre, the Thomas Clarkson Centre.
The Thomas Clarkson Centre (formerly St Peter’s School)
For some years St Peter’s had debated taking on the school as a church centre. In a bold step of faith it was decided in 1993 not to renew the lease with Suffolk County Council. The congregation worked together to transform the building into a modern facility. What they had done with the Victorian school they saw, with God’s help (and architects’ and builders’) they could do with the Victorian church.
Work began on the chancel in October 1996. Originally the floor was one step higher than the nave, with fixed choir benches, the Sanctuary a further two steps higher and the organ in the eastern bay of the aisle.
The organ was taken to Freckenham church; the electronic organ, installed on the south side of the chancel, including the beautiful gallery speaker-screen on the north wall, made out of the original vestry/organ screen in the aisle. The choir benches were removed to allow flexibility in the use of the chancel for drama, music and worship.
By Spring 1997 the new heating system had been installed. The combined reading desk, lectern and pulpit, which extended to the central aisle, was re-modelled and the lectern re-sited on the north side. The four metal painted boards, which had formed part of the 1909 reredos and had been moved to the aisle, were now placed on the west wall.
Next the floor of the chancel was raised two steps to the level of the Sanctuary. The red and white Victorian pamments of the now empty aisle and front of the nave were removed, the floors levelled and re-laid with concrete and screed.
Among the improvements in this first stage were the creation of a kitchen and toilet in the vestry, the serving hatch, repairs to window tracery and porch buttresses and the creation of a Garden of Remembrance for Cremation burials. All this work was dedicated and celebrated at a Thanksgiving Service and Flower Festival in July 1998.
2007 saw the culmination of the vision. All the pitch pine pews of 1856 were sold. The Victorian pamments were lifted, the platforms for the benches removed, the floor levelled and laid with concrete.
The font was moved from the centre of the aisle, just west of the porch door, to the south-west corner. The War Memorial was moved to this special corner of the church.
All the changes, have been undertaken in order to make St Peter’s a building fitting for the worship of God and to serve the local community. The space is flexible and adaptable for different forms of worship and for community activities including concerts and exhibitions, such as the ‘Life Exhibition’.
A service of Thanksgiving for the blessings of the past and Dedication for the 150th anniversary year, was held on 13 January 2008. Greetings were given by Revd Michael Rees representing the Hyndman Trustees, Patrons of the Living and the sermon preached by Rt Revd Clive Young, Bishop of Dunwich.