St Stephen’s Church was built by Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), grand-daughter and heiress to the banker, Thomas Coutts. She intended it as a memorial to her father, Sir Francis Burdett, a former brilliant and radical Member of Parliament for Westminster. With the encouragement of her close friend, Charles Dickens, she chose to build it in a very poor area on the edge of the notorious Devil’s Acre on land donated by the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey.
The chosen architect was Benjamin Ferrey, a pupil of Pugin, and the foundation stone was laid on 20 July 1847.
Miss Burdett-Coutts took the closest interest in the building, often suggesting improvements with no expense spared. The school in nearby Rochester Street which still bears her name, was included, as was a vicarage which has now disappeared.
The style of the building is 14th century, and the exterior is built of Bargate ragstone from Northumberland near Blyth, with Morpeth sandstone quoins and dressings. The interior is Caen stone, now painted.
The completed church was consecrated with great ceremony on 24 June 1850, the Festival of the nativity of St John the Baptist.
In 1904 the chapel on the right hand side of the choir was dedicated on St Stephen’s Day as the Tennant Chapel in memory of Angela Tennant, daughter of the first vicar, the Revd William Tennant. Its mosaic panels depict Saints Stephen, Paul, Peter and Edward the Confessor. The window just outside the Tennant Chapel is by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1890).
Miss Burdett-Coutts, believed to be the richest woman in Europe after Queen Victoria (who created her a Baroness in 1871 in her own right, the first woman to receive such a title), always felt she must use her great wealth to help the poor and extend the mission of the Church.
She not only built other churches, but endowed three overseas dioceses in Australia, Canada and South Africa whose coats of arms can be seen in the present East Window. She enriched the almshouses for elderly people opposite the church with her gifts, and endowed a college on the Vincent Square side of the church to help local citizens emigrate to the colonies, particularly to British Columbia where she established two villages. She also helped many individual families in the parish. In much of this work she was helped and encouraged by Charles Dickens.
The church received a direct hit during the Blitz when the original East window was destroyed, to be replaced by the current one. The top half of the spire suffered damage and was removed in the mid-20th century and for many years St Stephen’s was known as the church with half a spire. But in 1994 a fibre glass replacement on a steel frame was erected, coloured to look like the original stone.