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Late Georgian Churches: ‘Absolutely Wretched’ or the Triumph of Rational Pragmatism?

  • Christopher Webster

This article considers the late Georgian church and argues that this huge group of buildings, involving almost all the country's major architects, has never been properly assessed by historians. This is principally a result of the opprobrium heaped on these churches by the Ecclesiologists who needed them to be marginalised in order to promote their own agenda of church design and worship, and the view that they are largely worthless lives on in places, even today. The article proposes their re-evaluation, suggesting that judging them by the standards the Ecclesiologists applied retrospectively is both illogical and inevitably destined to produce verdicts of failure. Instead, it seeks to place these buildings within the context of late Georgian society, religious attitudes and especially the period's building world. It argues that the best of them, especially the big ‘town’ churches, display a high degree of intelligent, functional planning and a fascinating exploitation of new materials and structural innovations that do great credit to their designers.

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1 The figure of ‘around 1,500’ is not offered as a definitive but the available evidence suggests it is a reasonable calculation. Gilbert, Alan D., in his Religion and Society in Industrial England (London, 1976), p. 28 , shows that, 1,289 churches were added to the Anglican stock between 1801 and 1841. In addition, this writer's research has identified 63 churches that were either built or rebuilt between 1790 and 1801, and over 150 churches were rebuilt between 1801 and 1840. The notoriously unreliable 1851 religious census states that there were 1,095 additional churches in the period 1801–41, 194 less than Gilbert's estimate but including a further 2,118 where no date of erection is shown, some of which would, surely, have been built in the 1801–41 period. See Mann, Horace, Census of Great Britain. 1851, Religious Worship (London, 1854), pp. 106–07.

2 In purely numerical terms, Gilbert correctly states that rather more Nonconformist chapels were built than Establishment churches; Religion and Society, pp. 28 and 34. However, while some fine chapels were erected, many in his calculation were exceedingly modest and, in the context of this study, cannot be classed as ‘major public buildings’.

3 The Ecclesiologist, 11 (1851), p. 174 .

4 Goodhart-Rendel, Harry S., English Architecture Since the Regency (London, 1989), p. 50 .

5 Friedman, Terry, The Eighteenth Century Church in Britain (New Haven, London, 2011).

6 See Porter, Roy, Enlightenment (London, 2000), pp. 96129 : ‘Rationalising Religion’.

7 The following offer a summary of attitudes: Overton, John H., The English Church in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1894), pp. 158–59; Summerson, John, Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830 (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 515 ; Clarke, Basil F.L., The Building of the Eighteenth Century Church (London, 1963), pp. 12 .

8 Brittain-Catlin, Timothy, Bleak Houses (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2014), p. 39 .

9 The Ecclesiologists regularly referred to their endeavours as a science’, e.g. The Ecclesiologist, 7 (1847), p. 234 . An early example is Montague, Richard, Articles of Enquiry Put Forth at the Primary Visitation (Cambridge, 1841), p. xxxv .

10 This fascination with ‘industrial’ buildings and building techniques is amply illustrated in the comments about innovative English structures by the following: re the French architect François-Joseph Belanger, see Diestelkamp, Edward, ‘Building Technology & Architecture 1790–1830’, in Late Georgian Classicism, ed. White, Roger and Lightburn, Caroline (London, 1988), pp. 7391 (p. 73); re the German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, see Bindman, David and Riemann, Gottfried (eds), Karl Friedrich Schinkel ‘The English Journey’ (New Haven, London, 1993), pp. 2, 175 and 188; re the German prince Herman von Puckler-Muskau, see von Puckler-Muscau, Herman, A Regency Visitor: The English Tour of Prince Puckler-Muskau (London, 1957), pp. 3 and 237; re the American architect Thomas Walter, see Thomas U. Walter, ‘European Notebook’, MS (1838), Walter Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia; and re the French-American merchant Louis Simond, see Simond, Louis, Journal of a Residence in Great Britain , 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1817), I, p. 31 . The writer is grateful to Dr Jennifer A. Amundson for alerting him to the Walter material.

11 Britton, John, Salisbury Cathedral (London, 1814), p. 2 .

12 Neale, John P., Views of the most Interesting Collegiate and Parochial Churches , 2 vols (London, 1825), II, ‘The Abbey Church, Shrewsbury’, n.p.

13 Yates, Richard, The Basis of National Welfare (London, 1817), pp. 146 and 157.

14 Yates, Richard, The Church in Danger (London, 1815), p. 51 .

15 Best, Geoffrey A., Temporal Pillars (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 354–56; Hole, Samuel R., Pulpits, Politics and Order in England 1760-1832 (Cambridge, 1989), p. 199 . Yates saw a thriving Church of England as being of ‘very high importance to the stability and prosperity of our constitutional government’: Yates, Church in Danger, p. 3.

16 Quoted in Port, Michael H., 600 New Churches: The Church Building Commission 1818-1856 (Reading, 2006), pp. 8588 .

17 Ibid., p. 32.

18 Proceedings of a Meeting … For the Purpose of Forming a Church Building Society, p. 24, quoted in Visitations of the Archdeaconry of Stafford 1829-1841, ed. Robinson, David (London, 1980), p. xvii .

19 Lambeth Palace Library, ICBS, file 666.

20 An important exception is a series of articles by Edward J. Carlos in the Gentleman's Magazine through the 1820s and 1830s.

21 Church Building Commission, Pudsey file, no 16,039.

22 Wren, Stephen, Parentalia or, Memoirs of the Family of the WRENS (London, 1750), p. 320 .

23 Port, 600 New Churches, pp. 61–62.

24 Wren, Parentalia, pp. 320–21.

25 Nicholson, Peter, Dictionary of Architecture, 2 vols (London, 1819), II, pp. 810–12.

26 Elmes, James, Memoirs of … Sir Christopher Wren (London, 1823), pp. 429–32.

27 Soane's written advice to the Commissioners of the 1818 Act, as quoted in Port, 600 New Churches, p. 63.

28 White, John, Some Account of the Proposed Improvements of the Western Part of London (London, 1814), pp. 7789 , ‘On the Proposed New Churches’. A second edition ‘with additions’ appeared in 1815.

29 Ibid., p. 86.

30 Ibid., pp. 86–87.

31 Enfield, William, The History of Liverpool (London, 1774), pp. 4546 .

32 Champness, John, Thomas Harrison (Lancaster, 2005), p. 85 .

33 Sopwith, Thomas, All Saints Church, in Newcastle upon Tyne (Newcastle, 1826), pp. 7071 .

34 Quoted in Paul F. Norton and Mary Hill, New Saint Chad's and its Architect (Shrewsbury, n.d. [mid-twentieth century]), p. 5.

35 Ibid., p. 8.

36 Quoted in Stillman, Damie, English Neo-Classical Architecture, 2 vols (London, 1988), II, p. 442 .

37 Gentleman's Magazine, 66:2 (1796), p. 993 .

38 The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Latrobe, ed. Van Horne, John C. and Formwalt, Lee W., 2 vols (New Haven, London, 1984), I, p. 406 ; quoted in Friedman, Terry, ‘The Octagon Chapel, Norwich’, Georgian Group Journal, 13 (2003), pp. 5477 (p. 72).

39 White, Account, p. 82.

40 Saunders, George, A Treatise on Theatres (London, 1790).

41 Colvin, Howard, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 (New Haven, London, 2008), p. 903 .

42 Saunders, Treatise, p. x: ‘In designing a theatre, the first question that naturally arises is in what form does the voice expand? To me it is a matter of surprise that so simple a question should not yet have engaged a serious examination.’

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., pp. 52–53.

45 Ibid., p. 8.

46 Church Building Commission, Surveyors Report Book 1, p. 133.

47 Liscombe, Rhodri, ‘Economy, Character and Durability: Specimen Designs for the Church Commissioners, 1818’, Architectural History, 13 (1970), pp. 4357 (p. 46).

48 Wilkins, William, The Civil Architecture of Vitruvius (London, 1812), pp. 132–33.

49 Cockerell, Charles R. et al. , Antiquities of Athens, (supplementary volume) (London, 1830), pp. 37 and 39.

50 Pocock, William F., Designs for Churches and Chapels (London, 1819). There were subsequent, identical editions in 1823 and 1835. There was also Hamilton, George E., Designs for Rural Churches (London, 1836), but the designs are so inept they can hardly be taken seriously.

51 Pocock, ibid., p. 9.

52 Ibid., p. 10. The wording is somewhat ambiguous as it is not clear if by ‘the extremity’ Pocock means the wall in front of, or behind, the speaker. Surprisingly, there is only one relevant design in the book and this contains both.

53 Ibid., p. 11.

54 For this interesting aspect of late Georgian worship see Webster, Christopher, ‘Patterns of Church Seating from Waterloo to 1850, and the Role of the Cambridge Camden Society’ in Pews, Benches and Chairs, ed. Cooper, Trevor and Brown, Sarah (London, 2011), pp. 197210 (p. 203).

55 A phrase much used by smug Ecclesiologists, e.g. ICBS, file 4359, Lambeth Palace Library.

56 RIBA Drawings Collection, 66540.

57 Church Building Commission, file 18074, pt I; quoted in Liscombe, Rhodri W., William Wilkins (Cambridge, 2010), p. 142 .

58 Blackburn Mail, 28 June 1826.

59 Ibid., 12 September 1827.

60 Leeds Intelligencer, 24 December 1836.

61 The brick tax (1784–1850) made first-class bricks expensive, but a wall of inferior bricks, covered in stucco, was still significantly cheaper than stone. See Crook, J. Mordaunt, The Architect's Secret (London, 2003), p. 61 .

62 Whiffen, Marcus, Stuart and Georgian Churches (London, 1947-48), p. 57 ; Saint, Andrew, ‘The Building Art of the First Industrial Metropolis’, in London – World City 1800–1840, ed. Fox, Celina (New Haven, London, 1992), p. 56 .

63 Saint, ‘First Industrial Metropolis’, p. 56.

64 Busby, Charles A., West Elevations of the Intended Churches at Leeds and Oldham (London, 1821), p. 1 .

65 An example is Lewis Vulliamy's St John the Divine, Richmond-on-Thames (1831); RIBA Drawings Collection, SC117/1(9).

66 Perhaps the earliest example of this sort of composite truss appeared in Pain, William, The Practical House Carpenter (London, 1788), plate 6. There were nine further editions to 1823. See also Yeomans, David, ‘Early Carpenters’ Manuals’, Construction History, 2 (1986), pp. 1333 .

67 Published London, Thomas Kelly, plate XXVI and pp. 128 and 157. Nicholson was a prolific publisher and, although the titles of his books might change, the same plates re-appeared, many well into the second half of the century. Similar diagrams of trusses, along with the dimensions of their components, appeared in Hoskins, William, Treatise on Architecture and Building (Edinburgh, 1832), plates CLI–II, p. 154.

68 Nicholson, Peter, New Carpenter's Guide (London, 1826), plates LXXXIV and BB. Plate BB, which gives three different designs for church roofs supported by arcades, first appeared in the 1808 edition.

69 Port provides much useful information about the use of iron in Commissioners’ churches; Port, 600 New Churches, pp. 129–76.

70 Saint, Andrew, Architect and Engineer (New Haven, London, 2007), p. 70 .

71 Enfield, Liverpool, p. 47.

72 Hughes, Quentin, Seaport Architecture and Townscape in Liverpool (London, 1964), p. 7 .

73 Diestelkamp, ‘Building Technology’, p. 75.

74 Port, 600 New Churches, p. 63.

75 Osborne, Ray, ‘Cast Iron Windows in Anglican Churches 1791-1840’, Construction History, 24 (2009), pp. 4647 . Neither the architect nor founder at Wetheral has been identified. The article contains much useful information on its subject.

76 See Friedman, Eighteenth Century Church, p. 166.

77 For Porden, see Geoffrey Tyack, ‘William Porden’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, at (accessed 30 March 2017).

78 For the beginnings of Rickman's career in Liverpool, see John Baily, ‘Thomas Rickman Architect and Quaker. The Early Years to 1818’ (doctoral thesis, University of Leeds, 1977). I am grateful to Dr Baily for permission to quote from this].

79 RIBA Drawings Collection, SC117/2(8).

80 See Brandwood, Geoff, ‘Anglican Churches before the Restorers: a Study from Leicestershire and Rutland’, Archaeological Journal, 144 (1987), pp. 383408 (p. 405).

81 Plaw instructed the contractor to use timber ‘properly framed and braced and Iron Tyres, Straps and Screws’; see Friedman, Terry, ‘“Acrobatic Architecture”: St Mary Paddington’, Westminster History Review, 2 (1998), pp. 2327 (p. 24).

82 Godwin, George, The Churches of London, 2 vols (London, 1839), II, p. 2 (but not consistently paginated).

83 RIBA Drawings Collection, VOL/50f.13.

84 Port, 600 New Churches, p. 80.

85 RIBA Drawings Collection, Shelf B4, Francis Edwards volume.

86 Wightwick, George, Nettleton's Guide to Plymouth (Plymouth, 1836), pp. 1617 .

87 Foulston, John, Public Buildings in the West of England (London, 1838). The book includes numerous illustrations of the construction of the theatre, along with the author's explanation of the principles he used.

88 Jenkins, Frank, ‘John Foulston and his Public Buildings in Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 27 (1968), p. 128 .

89 Picton, James A., Memorials of Liverpool, 2 vols (London, 1875), II, p. 74 .

90 Baily, ‘Rickman’, p. 160.

91 Ibid., p. 169.

92 Cragg, James, Remarks on the Gothic Style of Building (Liverpool, 1814). It seems unlikely that Baily knew of this very rare pamphlet in the 1970s.

93 Ibid., p. 6. He proceeds to rehearse the standard argument that the cathedrals like York produce ‘impressions of awe and pleasure’ not found at St Paul's.

94 Ibid., pp. 10–11.

95 Ibid., p. 15.

96 Ibid., pp. 16–17.

97 These are the six ‘elephant’ portfolios produced by John Carter between 1795 and 1813 and published by the Society of Antiquaries containing surveys of Durham, Exeter and Gloucester cathdrals along with Bath Abbey and St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster.

98 Cragg, Remarks, p. 19.

99 For more on the Cragg–Rickman relationship, see Brown, A.T., How Gothic Came Back to Liverpool (Liverpool, 1937).

100 Rickman, Thomas, An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture, (London, 1817).

101 Baily, ‘Rickman’, p. 168.

102 Saint, Architect and Engineer, pp. 74–75.

103 On the Effect which should result to Architecture, in regard to Design and Arrangement, from the general Introduction of Iron in the Construction of Buildings’: Architectural Magazine, 4 (1837), pp. 277–87 (p. 284). The author signed himself ‘M’. Pickett's, William V. A New System of Architecture (London, 1845), was urging the development of a new ‘system’ of architecture exploiting iron as the nineteenth century's contribution to architectural development. The text claims the system would have been equally applicable to secular and religious buildings, although the book contains no illustrations.

104 Eastlake, Charles L., The Gothic Revival (London, 1872), appendix, p. 63 .

105 A Few Words to Churchwardens (Towns) (Cambridge, 1841), p. 5 .

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