St James the Less was built in the late 1850s by three sisters, Jane, Penelope and Mary, to honour the memory of their father, Bishop James Henry Monk. The parish of St James was a poor area, housing about 31,000 people in a collection of slums and tenements. The Monk sisters acquired land from Westminster Abbey and commissioned George Edmund Street as the architect, who was later to design the Law Courts (in London, on the Strand) and Bristol Cathedral.
The stained glass is primarily by Clayton and Bell, well-respected glassmakers in the Victorian period. One of the most striking pieces they created is in the East window. It portrays both the Old Testament and New Testament versions of several incidents from scripture, one above the other. The two clerestory windows to the right and left of the chancel arch were designed by Street himself. Above the arch to the chancel is the mosaic known as ‘Christ in Glory’ by Watts. Originally this was a mural of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but it deteriorated over a period of twenty years and was replaced by Watts in the form of the current mosaic. Another notable piece is the pulpit, designed by Thomas Earp, and ornately carved, although rather damaged by water: it is hoped to restore it in the coming years.
There are also two interesting wall plaques. The first commemorates the Monk sisters and another pays homage to Canon Thorndike, the vicar at St James the Less (and father of actress Sybil Thorndike), who died during an evening service in 1917. He is not the only vicar to have died in the church: Geoffrey Pollard died in September 1986 after conducting an evening service.
Originally in 1861, when the church was consecrated, SJTL favoured the Anglo-Catholic, high-church style of worship and praise. It had developed into a ‘broad’ church by 1960, shortly before proposals were made for its closure due to a decline in attendance. It is the late Sir John Betjeman we have to thank, amongst others, for the series of appeals and protestations which ensured our church was formally united with the neighbouring St Saviour’s church and not shut down altogether.
By 1991, St Michaels, Chester Square, in Pimlico, which had a vibrant Church of England congregation, was embarking on a building project installing heating under the floor of their church. Their three congregations had to find alternative places to worship and congregation ‘C’ found a nearly disused church on Vauxhall Bridge Road. Jeremy Crossley was a curate at St Michael’s and he led congregation ‘C’ as it started to flourish at St James the Less. Eventually the bishop gave him licence to become the vicar at St James.
Jeremy Crossley left in 2000 to serve at St Margaret’s, Lothbury and was replaced in Autumn 2001 by Richard Dormandy who served as Vicar until 2009 when he became Vicar of Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill. In 2010 the Reverend Lis Goddard became Vicar of St James the Less.