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ST JOHN’S, LEEDS

The Church of St John the Evangelist, New Briggate, Leeds  

  In Leeds city centre, behind Allders department store on the Headrow and surrounded by shopping developments and offices, is St John’s Church. Together with its surprisingly peaceful churchyard (ignore the traffic), it is easily missed or ignored by motorists hurrying down Merrion Street, nightclubbers making for Uropa or workers going about their business.

It dates from 1634 in the reign of Charles I and was built at a time, following the controversy of the settlement of the Church of England by Elizabeth I, when few new churches were in fact built. It is in the Gothic Survival style (for those who understand these things). Anyway, its contemporary interior fittings, including decorative plasterwork, screen, pews, pulpit and tester, do indeed survive.

It is no longer an active church but is looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, formerly the Redundant Churches Fund, a registered charity set up by Parliament and the Church of England. This ‘cares for over three hundred churches of outstanding historic, architectural or archaeological importance which are no longer needed for regular worship’. More to the point, St John’s is lovingly cared for by a handful of enthusiastic individuals who preserve this treasure for us in the heart of Leeds.

Pevsner describes it as ‘the only church at Leeds of more than local interest’, which isn’t really fair. The Church was built and paid for by John Harrison, a rich merchant. It is in many ways architecturally unique, having both Laudian and Puritan influences. Harrison supported the King during the English Civil War, meeting him when he visited Leeds (hence King Charles Street). After the war Harrison was tried for supplying the Royalist army with two horses. Though found guilty, fortunately because of his age he was only fined.

Among John Harrison’s many other acts of generosity and benevolence, he provided land and new buildings for the town grammar school. His name lives on as one of the houses of Leeds Grammar School, now on a new site at Alwoodley Gates, north of Leeds on the Harrogate road. Today’s generation of schoolboys, like past and future ones, daily use the name Harrison.

John Harrison is buried in the Church to the right of the altar. The Church is open to visitors other than on Mondays. If you do visit it, be sure to sign the visitors’ book; funding will only continue if sufficient people go to the Church.

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