About Us - Past
The church was built between 1458 and 1500 and is composed of irregular flints intermixed with bricks and fragments of stone from earlier buildings. The building was a Chapel of Ease to Barking until it was elevated to the status of a Parish Church in 1901. It may have been built as a place of prayer for pilgrims traveling to the shrine of St Edmund at Bury St Edmunds. Another theory is that, because going to worship at Barking Church meant a walk of over a mile, it was more convenient for the people of Needham to attend services here. The church is set alongside the main road and is on a line running south east/north west, rather than the customary east/west orientation, making it another unusual aspect of the church.
The church was built at the expense of Bishop William Grey of Ely and his coat of arms can be seen in the exterior stonework above the priest's door at the east end of the building. The porch with its 'spirelet' was added in 1883 to replace the original. The weather vane was rescued from 'Highlands', a large house on Stowmarket Road when it was demolished in 1992. Although it is not known to have had a tower, early photographs do show a timber bellcot attached to the west end of the church and this may explain the outlines in the brickwork above the vestry. The single storey vestry was added in 1909, but in 1991 a second storey with a pitched roof was added.
The hammerbeam roof is described as "the climax of English roof construction" and "the culminating achievement of the English carpenter", and so it is. Nikolaus Pevsner in his "Buildings of England" says that the hammerbeam roof achieves the unique effect of "a whole church with nave and aisle and clerestory seemingly in the air". If the visitor lies on his back to view the roof he will be rewarded with the impression of gazing down a ship's hull. Some writers have suggested that shipwrights came inland to use their expertise in crafting church roofs. The roof was hidden until 1880 by a barrel vaulted plaster ceiling, but fortunately when the roof was restored it was discovered that the hammer beams against the west wall had not been touched, and therefore it wasn't difficult to restore the roof to its original glory so that we can see this piece of mediaeval ingenuity as it was first conceived.
The angels on the hammer beams were added in 1892 in memory of Major William Dods of Uvedale Hall. Looking above the organ to the left of the second beam you will see a carved head. 'Jack in the Green' was a man or boy dressed in a covering of green leaves, a reminder of pre-Christian rituals depicting a tree spirit, symbolising the coming of summer.
St. John's was in general a magnificent achievement, and visitors come from all over the world to admire it as a unique part of our heritage.