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.

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.

National Rural Crime Network survey

Police at churchSadly, our beautiful places of worship are sometimes victims of crime.

Thanks to the many dedicated organisations helping to care for and support places of worship much progress has been made in keeping heritage crime, including attacks on places on worship, on the national police agenda. However, we need to keep up the good work.

In response to concerns from people living and working in rural areas, the National Rural Crime Network is launching the biggest ever survey of rural policing and crime, and we hope that the results will provide evidence to support our pressure to make places of worship as great a priority as farm theft and other issues with which the police are more familiar.

The National Rural Crime Network survey has received Home Office funding to undertake the rural crime and policing survey. The on-line survey will run for about five weeks and it is hoped that the findings will help shape and inform:

  • awareness of crime in rural areas
  • appropriate crime prevention
  • government policy
  • policing and partnership activities

The survey provides an opportunity to raise public awareness of crime and anti-social behaviour within the historic environment and to provide data to  help the police to integrate heritage crime into their core business and working practices. Although it is a national project and clearly not aimed specifically at places of worship it does give everyone the chance to make their case and it would be good if the places of worship perspective could be well represented in responses.

If you care for a place of worship in a rural area, please consider taking part in the survey:

http://www.nationalruralcrimenetwork.net/research/internal/national-rural-crimes-survey-2015/?member=NorthYorkshire

 

For more information about security and personal safety in places of worship please explore our new website Resource Centre.

And for some recent good news from the Churches Conservation Trust, showing that stolen items can indeed be recovered by Police if they have enough information.

Church buildings: burden, blessing and an asset for mission

Together with many Dioceses and some other national organisations we were lucky enough to receive funding from English Heritage for a Places of Worship Support Officer. Although this programme has now finished many regional PoWSO’s have been kept on by Dioceses and are continuing to give much needed support and advice to the churches they work with.

Here we welcome guest writer Andrew Mottram to introduce a new report written jointly by PoWSO’s in the West Midlands area. A discussion document based on their experience in the Dioceses of Hereford, Lichfield and Worcester from 2009 to 2015, the report is full of content and ideas which may be relevant to churches and those who care for them across the UK.

St Luke, Reddall Hill, Cradley Heath (Andrew Mottram)

Since 2011 up to seven PoWSO’s in West Midlands and Wales have met regularly and found that there were common problems frustrating their work to support Church congregations struggling with their buildings.

In addition to a widespread lack of understanding about the benefits of preventative maintenance, the main issues are the Church of England’s structures and legislative requirements – from the appointment of clergy to the closure process, all of which can hinder the effective management of church buildings.

In 2014 “I wouldn’t start from here” was produced by the four West Midlands PoWSO’s as a discussion document shared with other PoWSO’s in England. There was general agreement that the problems identified were common across the country but there were innovative solutions being considered in some dioceses.

CBBBAM is a summary of the previous discussion document and offers solutions to the issues raised. In summary there are too many buildings for the people available to manage them. This leads to neglect and to assets becoming liabilities. There needs to be a strategic approach to managing buildings, ensuring that there are creative solutions to surplus buildings and effective support for parishes in the management of their buildings.

Andrew Mottram

Download the report here.

The perfect beeswax polish

In a guest blog, Steve Whatling of Cambridge Traditional Products tells us about how to make the perfect beeswax polish. If you are a church that wants to use beeswax polish to restore old pews, choir-stalls and natural wood carvings please see the bottom of this post to find out how you can obtain it free of charge from Cambridge Traditional Products.

Beeswax

Beeswax

Cambridge Traditional Products Ltd. was established in 1979 by Adrian Perkins, a retired teacher, and part time beekeeper. Adrian had discovered an original Victorian recipe for beeswax polish, and when he tried it, he realised he had something special. He started producing polish from home, and within a few years the popularity of his polish necessitated a move to proper premises and full time production.

For more than 35 years we have produced polish to that same recipe. This means that apart from pure filtered beeswax, our polish also contains Pure Gum Turpentine. This is something we are particularly proud of, as most other producers of similar products switched to white spirit a few years ago when the price of turpentine rose dramatically. We made a decision then to stick with the original ingredients – I did not feel we could describe the polish as “traditional” if one of the key ingredients was a modern substitute. My belief was that people would be prepared to pay a little more for real quality. Fortunately this has proven to be the case.

Bottling polish

Bottling polish

Turpentine is a sustainable organic product, tapped from pine trees, like rubber once was. It has a much more beneficial effect on wood than white spirit, which is a by-product of the petroleum industry. For more on this, see my blog.

Cambridge Traditional polish is a cream, as opposed to a paste polish. Paste polishes tend to come in a tin, and are quite hard, like shoe polish. A cream polish is easier to use, as a little can be applied at a time and, generally, less elbow grease is required to buff it up.

Creating a cream polish presents its own challenges, as it involves making an emulsion. This can be quite tricky to get right, as various factors contribute to the quality of the end product. Firstly, the beeswax has to be of the correct specification, or it will not emulsify properly. The key ingredients are then heated in separate tanks. In one tank the waxes are dissolved in turpentine, and in the other, raw soap is dissolved in water. The two heated mixtures are then mixed into a stirring vat to cool.

Bottling the polish

The following day, we “bottle” the polish into jars, which are then weighed and labelled by hand and packed for shipping.

We produce a neutral beeswax polish, and a brown version. The neutral polish is the most popular, as it can be applied to any kind of bare wood. (I always emphasise “bare” wood, as there is little point in using our polish on something that has been varnished or lacquered; the real purpose of a traditional beeswax polish is to soak in and feed the wood).

The brown polish is great for enhancing the grain on darker woods. It is also useful as a subtle stain on light wood such as pine, and is remarkably effective when used to hide staining damage, such as can be caused by sun bleaching, or the effect of a hot cup being placed onto a table top.  View examples

We also produce pure beeswax sticks, which have a remarkable range of uses. One of these is as a traditional protection for zips , particularly in the sub-aqua industry, which led to the development of “Zip-Slip”, our specialist zip lubricant.

Another specialist product, related to the polish, is our “Timber Reviver”. This was developed at the request of a builder working for English Heritage, and is a beeswax and turpentine solution designed to be brushed onto old dried out timber beams, to protect and enhance the wood.

Wood in churches

Yorkkshire, HUDDERSFIELD, St Peter (Sarah Crossland 2012) #067In an article by the British Antique Furniture Restorers Association about the  care of historic furniture and fixed woodwork in churches.it states: “Only use a good quality, unstained beeswax with Turpentine polish”. It is the perfect thing for preserving and enhancing pews, decorative carvings or any other old wood in churches.

Some time ago, Adrian and I travelled to St-Mary-Le-Tower church in Ipswich. An old friend of Adrian’s was using our polish to renovate some amazing 19th century carvings in local oak, by Theodore Pfyffers. The carvings on the choir stalls, of angels playing musical instruments, and the Evangelists in their symbolic animal forms, are particularly impressive, and the effect of the polish is striking. See photos

Seeing the work being done, and feeling proud that our polish is being used to enhance such beautiful carvings inspired an idea. We currently have quite a bit of polish stored that we refer to as “factory seconds”. This polish is every bit as good (in terms of what it does) as the polish we sell, it just doesn’t look as good in the jar, and we have very high standards. So we decided to make this polish available, free, to charity renovation projects. There is more info on this on our website

How to apply for polish
If you would like to apply for some of this polish please contact us at  www.cambridgetraditionalproducts.co.uk and tell us about your project.

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