Many have visited St James’ Church, the city’s oldest, in North Delhi’s Kashmere Gate to pray, get married, and sightseeing. But few know that this early 19th Century church was born out of a vow and prayers of a nearly dead soldier lying wounded on a battlefield.
According to the church’s website, in 1800 AD, as James Skinner lay on the battlefield of Uniara, amid the sound of jackals preying among bodies, he prayed for survival and promised to build a chapel to honour God if he made it. Skinner, who was a professional soldier hired to serve in the army of the East India Company, would become a Lieutenant Colonel and establish the Skinner’s Horse cavalry regiment. Skinner was of mixed parentage, with a Rajput mother and a Scottish father.
“In one of the battles, he had been let down by treacherous, disloyal soldiers, was badly wounded and left to die without water and medical attention. He lay unattended for almost 48 hours. Skinner prayed for safety and vowed to build a house (Chapel) of God to glorify the Lord if he lived through the nightmare,” it says.
And then, almost as if in answer to his prayers, “a Dalit woman arrived on the battlefield with a basket of bread and a pot of water. Thus was saved the wounded and James Skinner. He fulfilled his vow and built a Chapel… which cost him in the early 1800s, a sum of almost Rs 90,000,” the website says.
Construction started in 1826 and was completed in 1836, with Major Robert Smith as architect. Skinner died in 1841. In the revolt of 1857, the Walled City saw violence during which the church too was attacked, with its early records destroyed.
The original structure is a good example of early 19th Century colonial classical architecture. Its foundation was made of rubble masonry up to the plinth level while the remaining parts were done in Lakhori brick masonry in lime mortar. Redstone was used on the roof and some parts of the flooring while the doors and window panes were made of glass.
In November 2022, restoration of the 187-year-old church was taken up by the Delhi Development Authority with support from INTACH. It was finally restored and re-dedicated on August 6.
The building is steeped in history from an earlier era too.
“The land on which St James’ Church stands, within Kashmere Gate, belonged to the chief consort of Shah Alam II, Qudsia Begum, in the early 19th Century. David Ochterlony, the British Resident of Delhi at the time, bought it from her and developed a wholesale market within it in partnership with Harsukh Rai, a prominent merchant,” said author Swapna Liddle.
“The market was known as ‘Nasirganj’, after Ochterlony’s title, ‘Nasir-ud-Daula’ or defender of the state. It did not last very long, since in 1807 — once Ochterlony left Delhi — the government bought the land and stationed troops on it. These troops too were moved out in the 1820s and quartered in Daryaganj,” Liddle added.
In her book, The Broken Script, Liddle wrote: “James Skinner, who had built a house south of Chandni Chowk, sold it to Nawab Ahmad Baksh Khan by the early 1820s, and shifted to another house near Kashmere Gate.” His great social and architectural coup, Liddle wrote, came when he began work in the mid-1820s on St James’ Church. “Consecrated in 1836, the church became the place where all of British officialdom worshipped,” she writes.