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Campaigners face uphill struggle to save redundant Victorian church

10 July 2020

Deb Brownlee

St John’s, Dudley

St John’s, Dudley

CAMPAIGNERS who are struggling to preserve a redundant Victorian church as a community asset are appealing for cash donors after the coronavirus lockdown halted all its fund-raising activities.

“We need £2000 a month just to stand still,” Deb Brownlee, who chairs the preservation group for the Grade II listed St John’s, Kates Hill, in Dudley, said. “We have enough cash to last till the end of July; but then we face a £9000 insurance bill.”

The group has launched an appeal for 400 donors to pledge £5 a month, and so far 70 people have signed up.

When St John’s opened, in 1840, it was at the heart of a semi-rural Black Country community, but the area is now one of the most deprived in the region. The church closed in 2002 on safety grounds. The preservation group was launched in 2007, and, the next year, the church was declared structurally safe and repairable, securing listed status in 2009. The group took on the lease in 2016, and holds six services a year. It also runs a series of events — including twice-weekly bric-a-brac sales — to raise funds.

“Everything we do requires a connection with people,” Mrs Brownlee said. “But all that has ground to a halt. The last day we opened the saleroom, we had just one customer. We are left high and dry with no income at all.”

St John’s is known for its 2.5-acre churchyard, which is frequently visited by boxing fans to see the grave of William Perry, a 19th-century heavyweight prize-fighter, known as the “Tipton Slasher” for what a contemporary described as his “fearful right-handed visitations”.

The grounds also contain the graves of Marion Richardson, a 20th-century educationist; several members of the local Hanson brewing family; what is believed to be the only known gravestone to bear the name of the dead person’s murderer; and Sgt-Major Walter Chiverton, who was said to have the longest service record in the British Army: 77 years.

The campaigners say that the church is basically sound, but needs repairs to its guttering, drainage, and wiring. They wish to create a visitor centre, convert the brick undercroft into a café and business cubicles, use the 90-foot tower as a viewing gallery, and establish a family-history resource among the box pews of the gallery. Allotments by the graveyard would become a nature reserve.

The preservation group is finalising a business plan to back approaches to funding bodies. “If we do all that we would like to do, the total bill could be in the hundreds of thousands,” Mrs Brownlee said, “but that will be over a very long period.”

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