Few people who came to High Wycombe after 1966 will have heard of the parish church of Christ Church in the town. It was demolished at a time when many of Wycombe’s older buildings were being cleared to make way for modernity. There is not a brick left of the building and its fabric, memorials and furnishings seem to have disappeared without trace.

This Church was situated half way up Crendon Street (originally called Crendon Lane) on the right (eastern) side, going towards the station. Directly opposite it were the Friends’ Meeting House and the Crendon Lane Congregational Chapel.

Origins of the church

For some 800 years the only parish church in Wycombe was All Saints. The original church on the site was of Norman origin, possibly built around 1087. It was cruciform in shape with a central tower. Some of the building materials came from the ruined Roman villa on the Rye, these can still be seen in the outside walls. Over the years the church has been extensively remodelled and rebuilt, including a major restoration in Victorian times.

In the early 1870s a number of residents of High Wycombe became disillusioned with the High Church leanings of All Saints parish church. A group led by the prominent Wheeler family left the congregation and began meeting separately. Determined to formalise the group, they held an inaugural service on November 30, 1873 at the Friends’ (Quaker) Meeting House in High Wycombe. After three months of services, the congregation decided that they should join the Free Church of England. This had been created as a denomination in 1863, by break-away evangelical and Low Church clergy from the established Church of England.

Free Church members supported the general Church of England but not the Victorian tendency towards High Church. The Church of England has always tried to be the national church for England by embracing differences in preferences for style of worship. Since its creation there have been those traditionalists who preferred the centuries-old style of worship, and those reformers who wanted to change it more. Congregations which placed a high emphasis on ceremony, vestments, ritual, liturgy became known as “High Church”. Those who placed a low emphasis on them, preferring a freer style of worship with a greater emphasis on preaching became known as “Low Church”. Some people like John Wesley in the eighteenth century could happily be evangelical in theology and High Church in practice.

Establish own premises

At a meeting on February 24 1874 the organising committee of the new church decided that they should establish their own premises and appoint a full-time minister. The committee consisted of John Emerson (Secretary), Francis Wheeler (Treasurer), and S C Furrnston, J G Peace, C Strange, and George Wheeler (Churchwardens). They estimated the annual cost of a Minister and general expenses would be not less than £250. At this time their income from collections at services was only £125, so fund-raising activities commenced.

In September 1874 a plot of land in Crendon St was leased to the church by Thomas Wheeler, who joined the committee in place of Emerson. The annual rent was £10. Contracts were then signed with an architect Mr Simms and a builder Mr Vavasseur for the erection of an “iron” church building on the land. This was formally opened on February 25 1875 and on the same day the Rev H Webb was appointed as the first Minister at an annual salary of £200. The committee agreed that when Webb was away on holiday that they would meet the cost of supply preachers from their own pockets !

The church was to be known as the “Free Church of England in Wycombe”, although in common parlance it came to be nicknamed “The Wheelers Church” due to the dominance of the Wheeler family in its formation.

There appears to have been no ill-feeling between the new Free Church and All Saints parish church. This is illustrated by a request made to the All Saints organist to accompany the Free Church organist to London to inspect and advise on the purchase of an organ. One was bought for £85.

The Wheeler Family

This Wheeler family arrived in High Wycombe when Robert Wheeler moved here from London in 1808. He soon started to make a name for himself, being instrumental in building up the family brewing business and was involved in countless organisations in the town.

He was mayor nine times and his son Thomas was no less a figure in the life of the town, being mayor six times. When he died in 1853 Robert Wheeler was buried in an enormous tomb next to the porch in All Saints churchyard.

He was one of the local “Pioneers of Progress” honoured in 1911 in a large stained-glass window in the Oak Room at the Town Hall in High Wycombe.

To be continued.