Valuing Victorian church architecture

In a special guest blog, Connor McNeill, writes about how best to find solutions to the sometimes vexed issue of restoring or re-ordering a Victorian church. Connor is the Interim Churches Conservation Adviser at the Victorian Society.

When at Kings Cross railway station, I always try to take a look at Sir George Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Midland Grand Hotel. This Gothic Revival masterpiece is one of the fullest expressions of the Victorian mind and its architectural aspirations in the country.

Yet go to almost any city, town or village, and you will find a church that has something from the Victorian era, whether it be a pew, stained glass window, or tiled floor. The Midland Grand Hotel may be spectacular, but the churches of our country are the much loved, gentle reminders of how much the Victorians affected our built landscape.

The Victorian Society receives over 850 church related consultations a year. In any given week we can receive applications ranging from new gutters to masterplans for the redevelopment of city centre churches. We try to do two things in our responses to these consultations: preserve Victorian buildings, and increase their appreciation.

Compared to the early days of the Society our work has changed. Now there is a statutory obligation to consult us on many proposals, and appreciation of Victorian and Edwardian architecture has increased greatly. However, in many cases although Victorian architecture may be thought beautiful, it is not often valued in the same way as Medieval and Georgian architecture and continues to be at risk.

Pews and fittings

St Matthew, Edgeley

The lack of appreciation for Victorian architecture is probably strongest in our church casework. Our defence of Victorian church fittings where appropriate, especially pews, has given us a popular reputation of stubbornness and obstinacy.

Some church fittings may appear unremarkable as individual pieces of furniture, but they almost always form a valuable part of a church’s Victorian character. A large minority of churches possess fittings of a high, and often underappreciated, quality. To be true to our aims of conservation and appreciation of Victorian architecture sometimes we have to defend strongly churches that are underappreciated and their fine fittings.

If there is disparity between the views of the Victorian Society and a parish when we are consulted it can go two ways. If we are contacted early in an application a discussion can be started, we can share our expertise on the church’s Victorian features whilst learning about the parish’s needs. Often a compromise is found.

Such an example would be St Uny’s, Lelant, where we learnt more about this fine church restored by J D Sedding, but the parish also grew to appreciate the important Victorian features in the church. However, sadly it is more often the case that we are contacted towards the end of an application when a parish have invested time and money to finalise their proposals. Naturally, our opposition at that point is unwelcome, and yet we must act if the importance of what will be affected hasn’t fully been assessed and it would be damaged by the proposals.

St Uny’s, Lelant

Unfortunately, this can give rise to an adversarial atmosphere and each side is felt to be stubborn: the Victorian Society opposing change, the parish which will not listen our advice. Often arguing over upholstered chairs and carpet, things which official Church guidance is clear are not acceptable. Such situations can sometimes only end in the unpleasantness and cost of a consistory court hearing.

Finding solutions, not obstacles

No consultation of the Victorian Society need be like this. We would urge anyone: priest, parish council member, or congregant who is involved in a faculty application which may affect Victorian architecture or fittings to contact us as soon as possible to start a conversation.

Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel was saved from demolition in 1967, after a campaign led by the Victorian Society. Just over 50 years later anyone who visits this building would wonder why demolition was ever contemplated. This is a testament to the change of attitude to Victorian Architecture, something the Victorian Society is thankful for.

However, there is still much work for the Victorian Society to do. So, if you are considering changes to a church, even if you do not personally like the Victorian fittings, work with us to find a solution that works best for both your mission, and these special buildings that continue to interest and entrance worshippers and visitors alike.

Contact The Victorian Society.

Discovering Art in a Churchyard

In 2001, Mary Blanche noticed that some of the older headstones in the churchyard of her local parish church St. John the Baptist, Reedham, Norfolk were deteriorating. She wanted to record these stones for future generations before more were lost due to erosion and delamination. In special guest blog, Mary writes about her findings which are featured in her new book entitled ‘Discovering Art in a Churchyard’.

“I have often felt when folk visit churches, they marvel at the architectural features, glass, memorials and rood screens, but often overlook the churchyards. If only they knew how much artwork there is to be discovered.

Just before the first COVID-19 lockdown, I began to photograph many of these old headstones at St John the Baptist churchyard. They were so beautifully sculpted by stonemasons of the past, some as many as two centuries ago and my interest was truly captured.

Great symbolism

I learnt much about the meaning of the symbolisms of the flowers and leaves, angels and trumpets sculpted with such artistic input. This headstone of a man, who died in 1885, shows a sculpted rope, indicating his binding connection with God. In the circle, a wreath of roses represents beauty and virtue.

I noticed that Headstones in this particular churchyard before 1858 all had the same shape, with slightly arched tops. It was also a popular time for angels and they have been sculpted in various ways.

Quality of the stone

From the beginning of the 1800’s draped urns started to appear. No sculpted flowers, bouquets, willow trees or palms during this period. What was striking and significant was the quality of the stone. Far superior than many of the later headstones. They definitely are the survivors, even though they were the oldest in this churchyard.

After 1890, Stonemasons began to sculpt the soft-flowing Art Nouveau style onto headstones as shown on the image below, left. It was a new beginning and an exciting time ahead.

As the Art Deco period emerged, the Stonemasons used that style to decorate headstones with sleek, simplistic lines and lots of sharp edges; even carved roses lost their soft shapes. See image below, right.

Works of Art

As I examined the headstones, I felt, there was some competition going on between stonemasons. And why not; that’s the way to learn and expand your skills. 

On the left we see a large passion flower. The five stamens – the five wounds of Christ on the Cross. The ten petals – the ten faithful apostles with the whipping of Christ represented by the tendrils. A work of art; the lichen make it even more beautiful!

One of the most beautifully sculpted Headstones and one of my favourites is this one which reminds me of one of the sayings of Jesus: ‘I am the Vine; you are the branches’ John 15:5

Enhancements from nature

There is also a natural artistry to be found on the headstones. Over the years nature has provided the headstones with many different colours in the form of lichens.  The most common is the yellow lichen but there are reds, orange, green and whites. On some of the stones it looks as if a painter has been cleaning his brushes on the stone, and this shows even more after rain and in the sun.

I hope, that my churchyard findings may inspire you to have a wander round a churchyard, wherever that may be – at home, on a visit or a holiday, as all churchyards have an abundance of art to show us with the work of stonemasons of the past.”

Details on how to buy “Discovering Art in a Churchyard’, can be found on Mary’s website

Churches are treasure houses of history. Learn what to look for, discover the meaning behind objects and architectural features and uncover their historical significance on our church tourism website ExploreChurches

The oldest steeple jack in Britain?

Peter Harknett is a steeple jack of great renown working in the counties of Sussex Hampshire and Surrey. An active Octogenarian, he has spent half his life sitting in a Bosun’s chair dangling repairing and restoring churches.

Until the lockdown in 2020 , Peter could be found assailing heights, far and wide. 

Simon Smith of W L West and Sons Ltd shares with us just a few snippets of the life of Peter, probably Britain’s oldest steeplejack, and the joy he gets from working on some of the tallest steeples in the land.

Masters of their trade

Steeple jacking really came into being  in the 16th century where travelling acrobats with their poles and ropes with no fear for heights started to carry out the work. To advertise how brave they were,  they would swing off a church spire for the amusement of local people and found there was more money in repair work than in performing. 

Steeple jacks are a fearless bunch of highly skilled workers who are masters in lead , copper, iron and timber  and masters in using ropes, levers and cantilevers and use their own specialised jargon.  

Scaling tall buildings using ladders and ropes using the Bosun Chair rather than erecting expensive scaffolding can save a huge amount of money on church spire repairs.

Perils of the job

Peter joined Bertram Mills Circus as a rigger after his National Service.  One of his first  jobs after leaving the circus to become self-employed was fixing a Gothic school tower in Surrey  which needed re-slating.  

He recalls working on the top corner bobbing in the wind when a gust caught him and the safety ‘Fall Rope’ he tied wrapped round his leg because it was getting in the way!

The gust of wind knocked him against he building and he fell over eighteen feet and the manilla rope rubbed across his shin and rubbed into the bone.  His first aid kit was a bit of old rag and insulation tape! Then back up the ladder and back to work on the Bosun Chair.

Peter’s red ladder, as shown, was an impressive sight indeed!

Oak shakes can last over 80 years

Timber roofing tiles have been around since pre Roman times and they are still very common in parts of Europe for roofs in Austria and Germany.

Peter is a leading authority on oak shakes for church spires. A shake is cleft from a roundel cross cut from a log into a disc.  They are cleaned flat so they sit well on the spire.   Using a three layer tile constructions they are nailed to a sarking board.  

Oak is very durable and can last well over 80 years if laid up correctly.  It is also very hard and off-putting to woodpeckers, birds that can easily destroy a wooden shingle spire.

Peter used to cleft his own shakes from roundels we cut in our yard but now he works with a family firm called Rapold GmbH and Co  based in Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria.  We now distribute these hand cleft oak shakes for all manner of church and building cladding.

Peter, a pipe smoker, is a great raconteur, with a wicked sense of humour to this day – ask him the off items of ladies’ underwear he has retrieved off weathervanes!

Until recently he used to cycle round the square steeple at the very top of Guilford Cathedral – no safety nets. 

“Every day is a school day,” Peter often remarks and he loves sharing his knowledge with others. What a boon to all of us involved  in conservation and restoration.

This lovely insight into Peter’s work has been provided to us by Simon Smith of W L West and Sons Ltd, timber merchants who specialise in church steeple repair and restoration. They are also a member of our Professional Trades Directory which contains over 200 companies, all experts in their own field of work. More details can be found on our website.

Churches – where people seek to do good.

In a special guest post, Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, Priest at Holy Trinity church, Sloane Square, London, shares with us his views on the church as a place where people have always and continue to, do good within their communities.

‘Yea because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good’ Psalm 122, Verse 9

“I have a desk in church. Sometimes I wonder, especially if I ever glance across a bank statement in the midst of my work, whether this is wicked of me. Would Christ come in today and over turn my desk for a furtive look at my online banking app?

I hope not – for I am not alone in my appropriation of God’s house but instead am surrounded by legacies of this building’s rich and varied use. The high altar stands in front of its rich marble reredos as a statement of the centrality of sacrament rendered in stone and in the corner behind me boxes of toys and books sit as testament to the role of new life in inheriting and learning the ancient faith in their new generation.

Brass plaques and stained glass speak, in rich Victorian prose, of lives lived in august splendour and next to them temporary notices about hand wash and distancing whisper of the strange confines of the lives we must needs live now.

All of these are, I suppose, marks of people. All these fixtures and fittings were planned and paid for, used and loved, wept over and celebrated, by creatures of flesh and blood.

Living stones

It has been a worryingly popular false dichotomy circulating of late which would suggest that people and buildings represent an ‘either/or’. That either the building or the people are ‘The Church’. Of course it is more complex than that. The church is a building, but one quite unlike any other: that is to say it is living stones. It is a building shaped entirely by people; by their hopes, their grief, their prayers. By people, and by their relationship with their God.

Holy Trinity church, Sloane Square, London

Our churches, therefore, are monuments to interconnectedness. To the idea that – to quote the priest-poet who had oversight of perhaps our nation’s most famous church, St Paul’s – ‘no man is an island, entire of himself’. Rather, we are linked by our history, common human tragedies and joys, and by an incarnational faith, which undergirds the whole. ‘Because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good’: that vision of the church is one that grounds it in relationship and community. The house of God is a sermon on ‘love thy neighbour’ wrought in brick and mortar.

Many churches seek to do good to their communities. I look from my desk in church today, cold though it is and in the midst of this lockdown, which for so many had proved more bitter than any flurry of winter snow, I see a house where people have long sought to do good. The very walls seem patched together with memorials- some to my taste, others less so- but all to those who sought to do good. There are less explicit memorials here too: the slight wearing of a pillar, its stone gently touched each week by one who loved its specific place, the shallow trough in the paving where the gate bolt has dragged for well over a century- a gash in the stone itself standing testament to gates open and welcomes extended.

Small ordinary goodnesses

Despite our present situation, it is a house where people still seek to do good today: lavatories are open as a clean and safe place for those who spend their day on the streets, a collection for our local foodbank is ready to be delivered, careful preparations are underway for a funeral, so that the dead might be commended to the eternal with the love by which they were known whilst alive. Small, ordinary goodnesses perhaps- but ones to which it is ever more important that we cling in times as drear as these.

Our church is very typical in this regard. It aspires to be a house of good because it is first and foremost a house of prayer and across the nation I see and hear of churches doing exactly the same, each and every day. As we seek to rebuild our society, seek to be more aware of where it is we might do good, the houses of the Lord our God- and the people who make them what they are- will be as important as ever. When I leave my cold desk in a moment I shall pray for them all just before I leave, and for all those- the National Churches Trust in particular- who support them.”

We thank Fergus for sharing his thoughts. Thousands of churches and chapels across the the UK currently seek to do good work within their communities, as documented in our House Of Good report produced last year which highlighted the social and economic value of church buildings.

As well as being a clergyman, Fergus is also author of ‘A Field Guide to the English Clergy,’ a Best Book of the Year for The TimesMail on Sunday and BBC History. More information available at One World Publications.

Churches are a photographer’s dream

In a guest post, Julian Guffogg shares with us the joy and excitement he gets from photographing churches and the treasures hidden within their walls, be it the stained glass of an East Window, a delicately carved memorial or intricately carved stonework. Julian’s photo library is available to view on Flickr and Geograph.

“As a child both my parents were religious, so we attended church every Sunday. As I grew up. I was expected to attend every week until I was a teenager. To me, church was somewhat boring, usually cold with hard seats and lots of old people! And of course there was the musty smell that only churches seem to possess.

Occasionally we would make a trip to Tewkesbury Abbey and it was always impressive with the incense, ceremony, and the wonderful organ music.

Over the years my faith waned, and I would sometimes pop into churches as a tourist on holiday, but it was not until I started participating in the Geograph project (whose aim is to photograph something in each of the 1 km squares as seen on ordnance survey maps)  that I started looking more closely and photographing churches.

The challenge of getting inside

Most were easy to photograph from the outside, but the problem was getting inside and finding the points of interest. The challenge was intensified by the fact that many churches were locked; usually a keyholder could be found, but this was not case for all of them.

At first my interest was in monuments, especially those from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, usually showing a kneeling couple either side of a prayer desk dressed in their finery complete with ruffs and hats. Often they were shown holding a skull – what did that mean? Below the couple there were often whole rows of kneeling children, boys facing one way, girls facing the other, and even swaddled babies at their feet.

Quite often these monuments were brightly coloured and had strange Latin inscriptions (unfortunately I did not do Latin at school) and also coats of arms. A good example of this is at Saint Mary’s church, Bottesford in the Vale of Belvoir which has multiple monuments to the Earls and Dukes of Rutland.

One of my most memorable church visits was in Herefordshire. It was mid-December and there had been a lot of rain which had caused the River Wye to flood. I wanted to visit Holme Lacy church which is situated remotely, near to the river. When I turned off the main road to the access road to the church I was dismayed to find it was all flooded. Closer inspection showed that it was only a few inches deep and I could proceed with caution.

I finally arrived at the church and it was quite magical when I pushed open the door and stepped into the gloomy nave in silence. There was a wide south aisle and north transept, and at the end of the chancel was a gorgeous east window. There were also several excellent monuments from the eighteenth century complete with putti and flaming urns.

As time went by, I developed an interest in stained-glass, ranging from very old medieval glass to the most modern. I also perfected my photographic technique, as photographing some windows can be quite challenging. This is now my main interest and I have been lucky enough to photograph quite a lot of stained glass  – from the ancient windows at Canterbury (when I first saw these at the Cathedral I was in awe), to the windows of Coventry Cathedral from the 1960s.

Many stained glass windows have recurring religious subjects, and my religious education has proved helpful in understanding these scenes.

Visiting more churches

In 2015 I moved from Sussex to Lincolnshire and was able to visit more churches and take more pictures, especially of Lincoln Cathedral. The Cathedral has some very good roof bosses with highly detailed carvings. They are so high up they are difficult to see in detail, nevertheless, the artist who created them gave as much attention to detail as if they were at ground level.

Over time, one gets to recognise certain styles and periods of history, although I regard myself as still a novice. It is always inspiring to think of the work that has gone into these buildings, even the humblest church usually has an interesting history, and I can imagine the bands of stonemasons travelling round the country doing their work. Indeed I can sometimes recognise similar styles of work carried out by particular masons where those with a certain style to their work have visited.

It is great to know that the work is still being carried on by stonemasons today. At Lincoln Cathedral, and at others, there have been many new grotesques and figures added to the fabric.

COVID-19 has made it very hard to visit churches and cathedrals, but I intend to carry on adding to my photographic archive and posting images online as soon as I can. ” 

We thank Julian for allowing us to share this edited version of his article about visiting churches. Julian’s photo library is also available to view on Flickr and Geograph.

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