Nostalgia: The Leamington priest who built a church

John Craig
John Craig

Ten thousand people lined the streets of Leamington in 1877 for the funeral of the town’s vicar, the Rev John Craig, who was responsible for building the new parish church.

The town’s “turbulent priest”, Craig was one of the great characters of mid-Victorian Leamington.

Historian Alan Griffin has told the story of “Johnny” Craig in his book Leamington Lives Remembered (Feldon Books, £6.95).

A tall, sparse figure with a tottering and unsteady gait, Craig had a habit of talking to himself and gesturing whilst doing so. He seemed to take great pleasure from engaging in discussions and full-blown arguments. During his long incumbency in Leamington he carried on lengthy exchanges with various individuals and bodies through letters to the Leamington Courier which, if published today, would be libellous.

John Craig was born in Ireland in 1805. His father was a Scot who, when he died, left his son £20,000 and an estate which produced £1,300 a year.

He came to Leamington as vicar from Fetcham in Surrey in 1839 after an exchange of livings with the Rev Robert Downes to whom he paid £1,00 to compensate for his loss of income from pew rents.

It soon became obvious to Craig that the piecemeal enlargement of the small medieval church that was then being carried out would in no way meet the requirements of a rapidly expanding population.

In 1842 Craig embarked on an ambitious plan to build a new church to his own design which he would fund mainly out of his own pocket in return for the income from renting pews. The proposed church would be one of the largest parish churches in England.

But his magnificent conception would not be completed for another 60 years and long after Craig had gone to his eternal rest. He fell out with 11 different architects and for lengthy periods no building work was done.

The first phase was completed in 1851 but during the 1850s Craig was embroiled in a number of disputes about money. He was in Warwick jail for a month for contempt of court.

Craig’s personal life was filled with sorrow. His three wives died young and his only son Robert died from consumption.

In old age the irascible but irrepressible cleric developed gangrene and had to have his right foot amputated. Loyal parishioners carried himn to All Saints’ each Sunday to preach.

He died aged 71 and the funeral crowds were the most impressive ever seen in the town.