The first church, 1873
Watford was for many centuries an agricultural community with some cottage industry. Its parish church of St Mary the Virgin, built in 1230 on the same site as an earlier Saxon church, served the small population well.
In the 19th Century, brewing, printing and the railway (which began with a staff of eleven) started the growth of the town. Another church was needed for the newly developing area, and St Andrew's was dedicated in 1856. Watford now had two parish churches.
In 1871, the ancient parish church of St Mary was extensively restored. The building could not be used for worship while the work was in progress, so a temporary iron building was erected in the churchyard. When St Mary's was re-opened, this iron building was no longer required. Some ground in Sotheron Road (now called Sutton Road) was given to the churchwardens of St Mary's for use as a site for a new church. The iron building was moved to this site, and on the 23rd November 1873, St John's began.
The current building, 1893
The total population of Watford at this time was less than 8,000. The first priest-in-charge of St John's was the Reverend J. Henry White. This temporary building, with seating for 450, was affectionately known as "The Tin Church". It attracted a growing number of people, and was considered very 'High Church' for its day - many of the things that we associate with catholic worship were yet to come, however. The roof of the Tin Church was unfortunately not waterproof, and it was quickly apparent inside when it was raining outside! The idea of a permanent building was mooted, and there followed a period of great activity to raise the necessary money.
The design for the church was ambitious, with lofty nave and chancel inside, and imposing tower and spire which would be visible from throughout Watford.
Many people were most generous - more land was given, plans were drawn up and approved and eventually the foundation stone was laid on 17th July 1891. Two years and two days later, on 19th July 1893, Wogan Festing, Lord Bishop of St Albans, dedicated the fine building. It cost £m11,000 to build - a huge sum in those days. The building, as dedicated in 1893, did not fully match the architect's original plans - the tower and spire were not completed, presumably due to lack of funds - in their place a more modest belfry stands.
A parish church, 1904
In May 1904 St John's became a parish church in its own right. Fr James (appointed priest-in-charge in 1898) became the first Vicar. Watford, with a population approaching 35,000, now had three parish churches.
St John's has always been considered to be one of the leading anglo-catholic churches in the South of England. Many things which are now taken for granted were considered then to be dangerous innovations - wafer breads and vestments were introduced in 1904. Four years later, on the Feast of the Epiphany, incense was used for the first time.
Fr James, later Canon James, but called affectionately behind his back 'Reggie James', was vicar of St John's for fifty years, helped - as he himself has said - by many fine assistant priests. He served the parish well through the heartbreaking years of two world wars. In the 1914-18 war, all the choirmen joined up, and all, save one, were killed in action. Canon James officiated at the weddings of many youngsters he had baptised. In the 1950s, he saw to the building of a Vicarage for St John's, and in 1954 he resigned, seeing the Cure (ie, the care) of Souls pass to the Reverend S.J.Forrest, a former assistant priest.
Fr John Forrest is perhaps better known as a writer of poetry centered around the church, and the seventh Station of the Cross at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is dedicated to him.
St John's has a fine organ built in 1911, when the foundation stone of the church hall was also laid. Many gifts of fine plate silver, vestments, copes, stations of the cross, crib figures, Madonna statue, glass, and woodwork have been received over the years - photographs of many of these can be seen through the on-line tour of St John's.
Restoration in the 1960s
In more recent times, much has been done to repair and restore the church inside and out. Much maintenance work has to be left undone during the war and the years of restriction which followed. The restoration, beginning with the cleaning of the chancel and sanctuary, had just been put in hand when Fr Forrest resigned in 1961. The Reverend Richard Salter was inducted as St John's third Vicar at the beginning of 1962. The nave and aisles were cleaned and redecorated in memory of Canon James who died in 1966. The cleaning and repair of outside stonework was done in 1973 for the church's centenary. Fr Richard Salter left the church in 1998, and in the following year the present parish priest, Fr James Cope arrived.
The 21st century
In 2007 Fr James left to become the incumbent at the Parish Church of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Castle Vale, Birmingham. During the interregnum St John's was blessed to be cared for by Father Edward Lewis, Chaplain to Her Majesty The Queen. On 25th March 2010, Fr Edward was licensed as Parish Priest of St John's, on a half time basis; he left in 2011, and was inducted as Vicar of St Mary's Kenton by The Rt Reverend Peter Wheatley, on 20th May 2011.
On 6th October 2011, Fr David Stevenson was inducted and licensed by Bishop Paul Hertford as Priest in Charge at St John's. Fr David lived in Watford for a number of years, and visited St John's as the result of a bet made in a local pub. He found his vocation, and subsequently trained at St Stephen's House, University of Oxford. He was ordained first as deacon, and then as priest, at Norwich Cathedral, in 2008 and 2009 respectively. After serving as Assistant Curate at St John's Church, Timberhill, Norwich, Fr David returned to Watford in 2011 as St John's new priest in charge.
In light of the clear signs of growth, mission and community engagement which followed Father David’s arrival at St John’s, he was appointed Vicar of the parish in April 2013. This position (which has both legal and practical distinction between his original appointment as Priest in Charge) shows strong commitment from the Diocese of St Albans for his work within Watford, and marks a turning point in the life of the parish.
Fund raising started in 2013 for extensive work to the church building, including repairs to the organ and flooring, and new lighting and heating systems. In addition, discussions began with the diocese and Department for Education about the possibility of establishing a new church school within the parish.
In 2016 St John's Church of England Primary School opened, the first Church of England school in central Watford.
Fr David was appointed Rector of St James' Church, Bushey in 2023; thus St John's Church moved into a vacancy. Regular discussions continue with diocesan representatives to find a new vicar.