St John’s has been rightly described as an architectural ornament to the town and in some ways could be regarded as the cathedral of English Methodism on the North Wales coast. In addition, the history of its foundation and construction is unusually interesting.
Its early history is largely the story of two men – Rev. Dr William Punshon and Rev. Frederick Payne. Dr Punshon was one of the foremost figures of Wesleyan Methodism in the 1870’s and was the creator and inspirer of the project. After Dr Punshon’s early death in 1881, it fell to his friend, Rev Payne, (who was the minister at Rhyl but had also been appointed “North Wales Coast Missionary” in 1879 by the Wesleyan Methodist Conference) to carry out and supervise their plans for St John’s. They had already worked together to establish Methodist churches along the North Wales Coast to cater for the growing population brought about by the rapid development of the new holiday resorts. Over a five year period Dr Punshon had raised £10,000 for the quaintly named “Watering Places Fund”. Helped by financial support from this, by 1880 they had founded churches in Prestatyn, Rhyl, Llandudno and Bangor. However, they had decided that the most significant building project should be in Colwyn Bay. This showed great foresight, since at the time Colwyn Bay was still a small settlement with a population of less than 4,000. Nevertheless they correctly believed it would develop into a flourishing town, and St John’s was planned to meet the spiritual needs of its new inhabitants.
It was an ambitious scheme, aiming to create on the 2 acre site a complex almost unique in Methodism – combining as it did a large church, schoolroom and manse on one site. The architect was Robert Curwen, and the builder was T Foulkes ,whose son was to become the distinguished local architect Sidney Colwyn Foulkes. Work started in 1881 and by early 1883 the manse and schoolroom had been built, and the foundations of the church dug out. The boundary walls and the impressive lych gate had also been completed. However at that stage money ran out and work ceased for four years. Local residents nicknamed the site “Wesley’s Folly”, as they thought it had been ridiculous to try and build such a large and majestic church complex in Colwyn Bay. However, Rev. Payne did not give up and, after much assiduous fundraising, the church was finally completed in early 1888, opening for the Easter services of that year to great rejoicing and thanksgiving by the local congregation.
The early interior decoration of the church was much more dramatically decorated than its current relatively plain appearance. On the central arch over the nave was written in large letters “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts” and the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes were displayed on the side panels above the reredos. All these inscriptions were in large letters of gold, red and blue and would have had quite a dramatic visual impact.
The next major building work was in 1907, when the schoolroom was extended to provide a ladies parlour and a kitchen, which has since been further upgraded in recent years. The site also incorporated the first convalescent home in the country for Methodist ministers (called Edenfield), although this was not actually part of the St John’s complex.
St John’s has also always had a strong link with Christian education. As well as organising the building of St John’s, Rev Frederick Payne was heavily involved in the foundation of Penrhos College for girls in 1880 and Rydal School for boys in 1885, both Methodist foundations in Colwyn Bay. Consequently pupils from both schools attended the services at St John’s until Penrhos College opened its own chapel in 1925 (see article on Former Penrhos College chapel). Interestingly they entered and left by different gates, so that there should be no danger of the boys and girls meeting each other! This curious detail is known, because by some oversight Rydal used the wrong entrance one Sunday, and Rydal still has a record of the letter of protest it received from the headmistress of Penrhos – unfortunately we don’t know the wording of the headmaster of Rydal’s reply!
As further evidence of the strength of these links, there are two stained glass windows commemorating important heads of both schools. The one in the north transept choir commemorates Miss Rosa Hovey, who was headmistress of Penrhos College for 34 years, whilst the stained glass window above the altar is in memory of T G Osborne – the founder and first headmaster of Rydal School. These strong links have continued to the present day and the Church now shares the building with Rydal Penrhos School, allowing them to use the church for daily assemblies and the ancillary buildings for other activities, thus continuing St John’s Christian witness to young people.
In the war six or seven additional services needed to be held on Sundays to accommodate the needs of the evacuated ministries from London, increased even further later in the war by the American and Canadian troops billeted in the Colwyn Bay area.
Many great figures of Methodism have preached in St John’s over the years – for example Dr. Sangster, Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, Lord Soper and countless presidents of the Methodist Conference. In 1963 the congregation was privileged to hear an address by Gladys Aylwood, the famous missionary to China celebrated in the Hollywood film “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness”.
In recent years the church has been joined by the members of the Union Church, reflected in its changed name of “St John’s Uniting Church”. However the church has now closed for services and its long term future must be uncertain.
St John’s Church, a Grade II Listed Building, occupies an important location on the corner of Conway Road and Pwllycrochan Avenue. The tall noble spire is a prominent local landmark, especially as one approaches the town centre from the west or looking at the church across the adjoining Queen’s Gardens.
St John’s is a substantial building constructed on a grand scale with considerable presence. In overall terms the church, the schoolroom, lych gate and boundary walls form an interesting complex which makes a significant contribution to the character and appearance of this part of Colwyn Bay.
The church is built of small pieces of polygonal granite carefully fitted together, resting on a sandstone plinth which in turn is supported on limestone foundations. The roof is of slate with red ridge tiles. The nave is flanked by narrow lean-to aisles. The church has a transept and an apsidal sanctuary at the eastern end.
Studying the church from Pwllycrochan Avenue, note the tower and the tall spire. The spire, of broach design, is built in sandstone. Note how it has been designed with wide bands of smooth ashlar masonry and contrasting bands of rock faced masonry. The tower itself has limestone and granite buttresses with sandstone cappings and is distinguished by the large louvred vents and the windows with their sandstone dressings. Note also the double doors with the ornate strap hinges and the richly moulded pointed arched doorway.
Other features of interest visible from this side include the attached schoolroom with its octagonal spire, complete with louvred vents with quatrefoils and fish scale shaped slates.
Returning to the junction of Conway Road and Pwllycrochan Avenue note the richly decorated lych gate, probably also designed by Robert Curwen. The lych gate, also Listed Grade II, is of granite and sandstone with a moulded arched entrance with ornate gates with decorative ironwork. This entrance is flanked by buttresses which terminate in pinnacles. Words have been inscribed on both sides of the lych gate – the lettering now becoming somewhat weathered and difficult to decipher.
The north elevation of the church is notable for the large porch at the main entrance, with its large boarded door and elaborate strap hinges. There are three bays between the porch and the north transept. Two large windows fill much of the north transept gable with a circular window above.
The boundary walls, of limestone and granite, enclose the churchyard. The walls are raised at intervals with lancet like recesses below the coping stones. Large pillars mark the entrances to the churchyard but unfortunately the gates have been removed. The large beech trees close to Pwllycrochan Avenue add a sylvan feel to this part of the town.
Our thanks to L. Colin Williams for the use of his research into the history of St John’s Church.