On 28 May 1861 the Fellows of St John’s agreed to mark the seven hundredth jubilee of their college by building a new chapel and on 27 January 1862 Sir George Gilbert Scott was appointed to carry out the work. As at Exeter College, Oxford, the large increase in student numbers meant that the old chapel was completely inadequate but Scott was reluctant to destroy the old chapel and suggested that it should be retained as an aisle to the new building. A previous Master, Dr James Wood, had bequeathed the huge sum of £20,000 towards providing a new chapel so there was enormous pressure for a new building. At a meeting on 2 May 1862, where Scott presented his enlargement scheme as well as an alternative design for an entirely new chapel, The Fellows chose the new chapel which they said should not cost more than £40,000.

The intention was that the new chapel would be built behind the north range of the first court which contained the chapel and when the work was completed, the range would be swept away revealing Scott’s chapel as the new north side of an enlarged court with the hall on the west side extended up to it. The problem was that the north range contained the entrance to the combination rooms and the staircase and vestibule of the Master’s Lodgings which stretched westwards along the upper floor of the second court. Scott’s first proposal showed the Master housed in a new building projecting at right-angles from the rear of the second court but it was later decide that it should be a free-standing house with its own entrance in Bridge Street to the north of the College. Scott presented his final plans and a report on 24 November 1862 and on 5 December the college authorities agreed that they should be adopted provided that the cost limit of £40,000 was not exceeded. They seem to have failed to notice that Scott had already estimated that the chapel would cost £36,000, the Master’s Lodge £7,500 and that the extension to the hall would cost another £3,000.

Scott’s chapel is unusual for Cambridge with its wide ante-chapel across the western end forming transept-like projections on the north and south sides. The chapels of seven Oxford colleges have this arrangement, including Merton and New College, but Scott in his report is anxious to disclaim any intention that he is introducing the Oxford model into Cambridge and proposes this arrangement ‘because it happens to be particularly well suited to the position’. As with most of his chapels, Scott considered the Sainte Chapelle the basis of his design, and although St John’s chapel has tall windows filling each bay and a high roof, it possesses none of the soaring verticality of the French chapel. It is a long seven-bay building with blank arcading below Geometric windows and Scott had intended that there should be a fleche over the crossing between the ante-chapel and the chapel. Jackson and Shaw submitted a tender to build the chapel in Ancaster stone on 1 June 1863, for £34,586 and the Master’s Lodge for £7,200. This was accepted by the college three days later and the work started in the summer with W. M. Cooper as the Clerk of Works. His first weekly report on 7 September 1863 stated that the concrete foundations were then being laid but bad weather and industrial disputes slowed the work and only sixteen courses of masonry were in place by 6 May 1864 which was the date chosen for a great foundation-stone laying ceremony.

The foundation-stone was to have been laid by the Earl of Powis, the High Steward of the University and for who, Scott had designed a memorial to the Earl’s father in Welshpool Church near Powis Castle in 1852. The Earl was a student at St John’s and became an early member of the Cambridge Camden Society and Vice-President in 1857. It is possible that he was behind Scott’s appointment and he certainly would have approved of Scott’s proposal to ‘adopt the best variety of pointed architecture … which belongs to the latter half of the thirteenth century’. On the day of the stone-laying ceremony, Scott must have been disappointed that his patron, the Earl, was ill and his place was taken by Henry Hoare a former scholar of the college. However, this change turned out to be extremely fortunate for Scott.

The Hoare family are wealthy city bankers and Scott had already carried out work in Devon for Henry Hoare’s brother-in-law, Peter Richard Hoare, when in 1862 he built a chapel close to Hoare’s house, Luscombe Castle. It is a typical Scott single-cell lancet design with a high pitched roof and an apsidal east end. But a year after completing the chapel, Peter Hoare’s wife died and Scott designed him a highly ornate screen to surround what became the family burial place in nearby Dawlish churchyard. Peter Hoare also owned Kelsey Manor in Beckenham which has since disappeared under the sprawl of south London suburbia but in 1869 Scott was to design him another chapel adjacent to his house there. This was demolished in 1921 but seems to have been very similar to Luscombe.

Clearly Henry Hoare would have known about the work that Scott had carried out for Peter and three months after laying the foundation stone at St John’s, Henry offered to erect a stone tower in place of the fleche. He said that he would pay for this by a series of annual contributions of £1,000 throughout his lifetime. Scott produced three alternative schemes and the college accepted the most expensive option which was for a 163 feet tall tower. Six months later Jackson and Shaw priced the additional work at £6,100. Scott must have been delighted with the college’s decision to proceed with the tower as it gave him the opportunity to provide a great focal point to the college buildings as well as enhancing the famous skyline of the university from The Backs. It is said that his design for the tower was based on the fine Decorated tower of Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire where, between 1862-4, Scott was carrying out a general restoration.

The tower had not risen much above the adjacent roofs when Henry Hoare died on 16 April 1866 having paid only £2,000 of the £6,100 promised. The college failed to secure any claim on Hoare’s estate and his son Henry Hoare, although a recent graduate of the college had no such generous feelings towards his old college. He went to see Scott and told him that he would only pay for the completion of the tower if the college handed over to him the living of the parish of Staplehurst in Kent, which it owned and where his family lived. He could then appoint his brother, the Reverend Walter Marsham Hoare, to be the Rector. That the young Hoare should have dropped his bombshell on poor Scott rather that the Master of the college, perhaps indicated Scott’s more kindly nature. So it was left to Scott to act as a go-between in an affair which was beyond his control. In the end the college had to pay for the completion of the tower but it retained the living of Staplehurst, enabling the Senior Bursar, Dr George Fearns Reyner, to retire there.

The tower was completed in December 1867 and it was decided that the chapel should be consecrated in May 1869. This provoked a great frenzy of activity in an attempt to get the interior completed by that date. The existing stalls were taken out of the old chapel and fitted into the eastern part of the new chapel by Rattee and Kett and at the same time Clayton and Bell were installing stained glass windows and painting the ceiling with an elaborate scheme of old Johnians from the past. Some old monuments were transferred into the new chapel but the old chapel was still standing in front of Scott’s new building when the consecration took place on 12 May 1869. The most famous living Johnian, Bishop Selwyn, preached the sermon but Grimthorpe, who was not a Johnian, managed to be invited and, as to be expected, was not impressed with what he saw. He wrote that he thought the chapel had ‘bad proportions and bits of mongrel Gothic’. He later said that it would have been ‘better for Scott’s fame if Hoare had never offered the tower’.

The old chapel was finally demolished on 18 September 1869, revealing Scott’s new building in all its incongruous glory, as well as a large gap between the north end of the entrance range and the apse of Scott’s chapel. He partly filled this gap in 1871 with an elaborate iron screen made by Potter of South Molton Street, while the rest of the gap was filled by a new two storied extension, containing lecture rooms, on the end of the entrance range. On the opposite side of the court, Scott carried out a thirty-foot extension to the hall between 1864 and 1868, in a style and materials to match the old college buildings but destroying a combination room dating from 1511-16. This extension became possible after the Master had moved into the new house that Scott had designed for him on land to the north west of the chapel. The Master’s House was carried out by Jackson and Shaw at the same time that they were building the chapel. Here Scott again acknowledges the old college buildings with its battlements and diaper brickwork but, compared with the Rector’s House at Exeter, he takes advantage of its more isolated position to enable the house to have a dignity appropriate to the station of its occupant. The building is particularly interesting as a miniature version of Scott’s grand country house style. It incorporates both its weaknesses, such as the poorly sited front doors and the long dark central corridors of Kelham and Hafodunos, as well as its benefits, such as the careful planning of the interior to suit the status and life-style of the occupant, and the informal placing of doors and windows on the exterior to reflect internal arrangements. Jackson and Shawl finished the house in 1864. It cost £8,991, which was an addition of £1,791 to the original contract price. As at the chapel, the stone carving was carried out by Farmer and Brindley.

The final cost of the chapel was £51,369, which added to the cost of the Master’s House and Scott’s other work, including his fees of £1,753 and Cooper’s wages of £1,060, produced a grand total of £78,319. The tower debacle obviously added to this cost but the almost doubling of the final figure over the £40,000 repeatedly emphasized by the college authorities as their maximum outlay, can only be explained by the college introducing new requirements during the course of the work, perhaps in response to various benefactions.

Scott’s work at St John’s is undoubtedly one of his finest achievements but it was carried out in the face of an awkward and demanding client. Dr Reyner, the Senior Bursar, chided Scott when extras occurred without his consent, was furious at late deliveries and dealt directly with tradesmen and craftsmen. Cooper was reporting directly to him and Scott must have wondered who was in charge of the work. On hearing of Cooper’s death in 1882, Reyner haughtily remarked that Cooper ‘never struck me as being a specially good man’. It is not surprising that the work cost so much more than Scott’s initial estimates.

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