The earliest history of the church in Eton is very obscure. The care of the Parish appears to have been in possession of the monks of Merton Priory in Surrey. There is a legend that there was a church in King's Stable Street. Later a church existed on or very near to the site of the present College Chapel, probably on the south side of the churchyard, as records show that this was being used when Henry VI was building his chapel, begun in 1441. In about 1487 this early church was pulled down and from then on the College Chapel served as the Parish Church, the Provosts of Eton being Rectors of the Parish, and responsible for the spiritual care of the people of the town.
At that time Parishioners had a right to seats in the ante-chapel of the College Chapel, but this soon became inadequate and there is evidence that the spiritual care of the townspeople was neglected. To remedy this situation a 'Chapel of Ease' was built in the High Street near the entrance to the present church, at the sole expense of the Revd William Hetherington, a member of the College. This church was consecrated on September 8th, 1769 and stood until 1819. At the same time College undertook to allow for the provision of a Minister to officiate. This little building soon became too small and in 1819 the Provost and Fellows re-built it on a larger scale. This second Chapel of Ease stood right on the street, the Parish Watchman's box being against its east wall. It contained galleries and high pews which faced the pulpit at the west end, so that, except in the Communion service, the people turned their backs on the altar! Services were conducted by Chaplains of the College.
The middle years of the 19th Century witnessed a revival of church life generally. The foundation stone of the present building was laid on October 21st 1852 by Prince Albert. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gave £100 towards its cost. The original church was large: its was 156ft long, the nave (now the College Sanatorium) being 103ft long; the roof was 66ft high; and the tower and the spire (now demolished) was 160ft high. The architect was Mr Benjamin Ferry and the building was built to accommodate 1100 people at the cost of £10,456.
In 1954 the spire was demolished and rebuilt as a tower. A number of pews were removed from the west end of the old church and the space obtained used to build new vestries The church attendance suffered a serious decline at that time and the fabric needed a great deal of attention. The cumulative result was that the church was closed for public worship in 1981 and the building was offered for alternative use. Various schemes were considered but the problem of access was a severe limitation. Demolition was a distinct possibility. Eton College then came forward with a most imaginative proposal, which resulted in the form we see today. The nave completely modified to provide a sanatorium for the school, along with flats for masters and other College employees. The tower was converted to create accommodation for nursing staff. The original Sanctuary and Chancel have been split horizontally. On the ground floor is the Medical Centre for the town and on the first floor is the present church. This was re-dedicated for public worship on 13th September 1991 by the Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Revd Simon Burrows.
Eton Church History
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