St Mary of Bethany church was built to serve a rapidly expanding population in the new town of Woking.
Rev William Frederick Tucker Hamilton moved from a curacy in Eastbourne to St John the Baptist church, St Johns as its second vicar in 1886. At that time a corrugated hut known as an ‘iron room’ was being used as a church at Woking Station; what is now Woking town centre. After a year's fund raising a new church was built to replace the ‘iron room’. William Hamilton moved there, Christ Church, to be its first vicar. With the town expanding outward, especially to the south of the railway, around 1900 William Hamilton could see a requirement for a new church. William was a very wealthy man and purchased two plots in Mount Hermon Road in 1896 and one plot in York Road in 1899 when farmland was offered for sale for development. He probably also put some of his own wealth into the building of Christ Church and later St Paul's in Maybury.
After the early death of his wife at 38 in 1900 and suffering a serious illness himself he was appointed vicar of Cromer in Norfolk in 1905. As a parting gift to the parish he paid for the building of a church on the plots of land in Mount Hermon Road, in memory of his wife.
The Hunter organ console
The foundation stone was laid in 1906 and the church was consecrated in 1907 as a Chapel-of-Ease to Christ Church. He named the church St Mary of Bethany, after Mary of Bethany who features in the gospels. The architect was W D Caröe, famous for his “Arts and Crafts” style of house design. The church follows the style and is noted for its large windows and light and airy interior. In 1907 it was an early user of electricity for lighting. Caröe's design allowed for later north and south aisles and a baptistry with main entrance on the west wall. The north aisle was included in the initial building but the other additions were never built. The reredos was carved by the well known sculptor Nathaniel Hitch. When initially installed it was decorated in bright colours but was given a lighter woodgrain effect in 1956. The stained glass east window was made by Heaton, Butler & Byrne. An harmonium was donated and used until a Hunter organ was installed in 1914. The choir stalls in the chancel were for men and boys only. Later a third row was added for women.
Although William Hamilton came from a wealthy and aristocratic family he tried to mix classes. Pew rent was the normal way for the more wealthy members of the congregation to make regular offerings, which went directly towards the incumbent's stipend. The standard arrangement was for rented seats to be spread across the front rows of pews. However, Hamilton allocated the rented seats in the centre aisle and free seats in the aisles either side. In 1911 a hall was built in the Kingsway on land also donated by William Hamilton. The harmonium was moved to the hall in 1914 and was still in use until the Kingsway Hall was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1972.
The Hemingray backdrop
St Mary of Bethany became a separate parish in 1923 when the proposed parish population reached 3000. William Hamilton selected the first vicar, Rev Stanley Phillips, as he had requested in his offer of 1905. A small entrance porch was built on the west elevation in 1956 replacing what had been a temporary door on the south wall. In 1960 a hall was built on the south wall on the area envisaged by Caröe to be a future south aisle. The hall was dedicated to William Hamilton. The porch was demolished and a large extension was built linking the Hamilton Hall to a new main entrance, office and teaching rooms in 1974. In 1994 a major redesign of the interior of the church was carried out and the seating was turned through 90°, facing a new dais built on the south wall. The backcloth was designed and made by Juliet Hemingray. Other works include a new enlarged kitchen in 2000 and a refurbished vestry in 2002.
St Mary of Bethany church was Grade II listed in 1984.
For more on St Mary's history, we'd refer you to Richard Langtree's book, Both Sides of the Bridges: The Story of St Mary of Bethany Parish Church Woking, 1907–2007, ISBN 978-0-95557748-0-5. Copies are available at £5 from the church.