Birtley is in Deanery of Chester-le -Street and the Diocese of Durham.
Until the mid 19th century, the Anglican needs of the community of Birtley were served
by the Parish and Church of Chester-le-Street. In 1847, a decision was made to create
a new Church to this rapidly growing industrial village and its surrounding hamlets.
The need for a new Church shows both the growth of Birtley and the need of the Church
to meet rapidly changing communities at the time (largely due to the industrial
The site chosen was a large plot adjacent to an existing burial ground and in a prominent
position above the town.
Work began in 1848, moved at quite a pace and has been well recorded:
April 24th - Site marked out
May 15th - Building work began
Dec 3rd - Church opened for worship. - quite an achievement.
Further work continued in 1849 with the building of a vestry and installation of
an organ. The Church was finally consecrated by the Lord Bishop of Durham on August
On January 8th 1850 St John's was given a it's own ministerial area and the Parish
of Birtley was born with the Rev Francis Bewsher appointed as it's first Vicar.
Vicars of Birtley
1847 - 1881 Francis William Brewsher
1882 - 1889 William Guest Williams
1889 - 1907 Reginald Hart Yeld
1907 - 1914 Frederick Brookes
1914 - 1934 Leonard Lancelot Barclay
1934 - 1956 Alec Miller Stephens
1957 - 1962 Hector Horobin
1962 - 1979 William Portsmouth
1980 - 1989 Matthew Alexander Whitehead
1989 - 1997 Frank White
1999 - Gareth Lloyd
Over 2006, the Church Council embarked on a new project to repair and restore our
stained glass. To get up to date with the latest on this, turn to windows restoration.
By 1880 the town population had almost doubled to nearly 3600 and it became necessary
to extend the Church building. Two transepts were added to the sides of the nave
giving the building it's present cruciform (cross shaped) layout. Two more vestries
were also added at the West end.
The Church door had originally been in the west wall of the tower. This was moved
to the south west corner of the nave and a porch added. The west end of the building
overlooks the wide, shallow valley in which Birtley lies with little obstruction
in front, even now, and present day experience in windy conditions shows the wisdom
(and likely reason) for moving this door!
In 1899 a new organ replaced the original 1849 one to celebrate the Church’s 50th
In 1911 a new clock was installed to commemorate the coronation of King George V
and peal of 6 bells was also donated the same year. ...more on Clock & bells
Apart from a Lady Chapel being created within the North transept during the 1930's,
little significant change took place to the building until the mid 1960's.
In 1962 the Rev William Portsmouth took over the incumbency of St John's.
Rev Portsmouth was a keen supporter of moves at the time to involve the people more
in the worship and embarked the Church on a major plan of re-ordering the interior.
The scheme involved removing a number of the front pews and creating a sanctuary
and altar in the Nave. The Lady Chapel in the north transept was also removed and
the Chancel and original east altar rededicated as the Lady Chapel. St Johns was
one of the first (if not the first) 'traditional' Churches in Durham Diocese to be
re-ordered in this way.
The new altar was made of concrete panels with a Welsh slate top and surrounded with
a wooden Communion rail. A modern style pulpit, president's chair and clergy stalls
were also added to furnish the new area.
Photo on right shows the new rectangular Sanctuary area and stone altar. The new
pulpit and clergy stalls can be seen to the left.
In 1979 Rev Canon Portsmouth retired.
Post 1960’s re order
During the 1980's, under the next vicar, Rev Alex Whitehead, some minor alterations
were made to the Nave Sanctuary. The stone nave altar was exchanged for the wooden
east altar and the rail re-aligned to make the area more flexible. This opened up
more space which allowed additional (moveable) seating to be installed and the Choir
to be moved out of the Chancel and into the Nave area. The more open area can be,
and is, used additionally for religious drama and music concerts.
A new gas fired heating system was installed to replace the quite old oil fired boiler
which had become temperamental, inefficient and potentially dangerous to operate.
A sound system was also added giving microphone facilities to the Lectern, Pulpit,
Clergy stalls and nave altar.
In 1989, Rev Whitehead moved to a new appointment as Vicar of St Peter’s, Stockton
St Johns pre 1960’s re order
By the early 1990's the Church needed some serious structural repairs - completely
re-roofing, stonework repairs, rewiring, redecorating - little things like that.
Under the guidance of the next Vicar - Rev Frank White (now Assistant Bishop of
Newcastle) - a working party was set up which became called the 'Towards 2000 Group'.
It’s brief was ' Restoration and Renewal' - to oversee the essential repairs and
bring the Church building into the 21st Century.
Over the following 9 years something in region of £200,000 was raised, some by donation
from charitable trusts, but mainly from the generosity of the congregation, people
of Birtley and other friends and supporters. Through this, the nave was re-roofed
and other work progressed steadily, with the goal of completion for St John's 150th
anniversary over 1998-1999.
Nave c 1984
Along with the essential structural repairs, the opportunity was taken for some
further re-ordering, mainly of the entrance area and tower.
A new, large, glazed interior porch was constructed inside the main door which gives
better protection from the weather whilst providing an open and light entrance to
the Church Nave.
The old Font was re-sited from the tower to the new porch - minus it's stone plinth. Although
not really intended for use, this still serves as a symbol of Baptism as entry into
An additional floor was installed in the tower lowering the ceiling height and creating
a storage room above. The central heating boiler was moved up here and, as rewiring
took place, the new electrical distribution boards also.
A new glazed screen was fitted to isolate this upper floor and allow the ground
floor area to be used separately from the main Church if required.
The adjoining clergy and choir vestries were also refurbished and this now gives
three flexible rooms which are regularly used as small meeting areas for various
groups and activities.
West end after re-ordering 1996
The sound system was also upgraded with the addition of a a hearing aid loop and
a radio microphone, both kindly donated by St Johns Mothers Union.
Although Frank left Birtley in 1997 to be Archdeacon of Sunderland, the Church Council
and Towards 2000 Group continued with ongoing and proposed work. By 1999 the Chancel
and organ chamber had been re-roofed and this also gave the opportunity for some
cleaning and maintenance of the organ.
This completed the major building works and was finished autumn 1999, just in time
for the arrival of our present Vicar and the culmination of our 150th anniversary
celebrations. Redecoration was then completed in autumn 2001.