Category Archives: Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture

Pugin’s Gem

St Giles' Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church, Cheadle, Staffordshire

Of all the architectural work that Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin carried out for John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, the finest and most complete is the Catholic parish church of St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire.   (The Anglican parish church in Cheadle is also dedicated to St Giles.)

The Earl was keen to provide the finest of parish churches for the Catholic community in the nearest town to his Alton Towers seat.  As an enlightened Victorian landowner, he specified that construction should be entrusted to “resident artisans of the village” so that “all his dependants should…be benefited by the effects of his munificence”.

His architect set out to present “a perfect revival of the English parish church of the time of Edward I, decidedly the best period of pointed architecture”.

There were a few compromises, especially after the £5,000 budget overran, but in essence St Giles’ represents the physical embodiment of the architectural ideals of the first and greatest of Gothic Revival designers.

He set out his basic principles in The True Principles of Pointed Architecture (1841):

The two great rules for design are these:  first, that there should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety;  second, that all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.

St Giles’ dominates the skyline for miles around Cheadle, and impresses at close quarters, because the structural features, particularly the 200ft-high tower and the buttresses, are in fact larger than they practically need to be.  Pugin also tweaked the west-east orientation to make best use of the site and to align the west door with the street opposite.

The interior of St Giles’ takes the breath away.  Every inch of wall and column is coloured and gilded.  Each of the windows has tracery of a differing design.  The floor is tiled, and the roof is of English oak.  The painted decoration has tremendous impact:  the ground colours of the north aisle (blue) and the south aisle (red) represent respectively Our Lady and Our Lord.  The glass, floor-tiles, woodwork and ornaments were designed by Pugin, who closely supervised their manufacture.

St Giles’ is special because it is almost entirely the vision of one superbly talented designer.

By the time of the consecration on St Giles’ Day, September 1st 1846, Pugin was putting himself under the stress that five years later led to a complete physical and mental breakdown.

It seems as if he was destined for a short life of brilliant achievement.  He adored the place – “my consolation in all afflictions” – and in many ways it is his finest monument.

He would demur, and no doubt assert that it was built ad majorem Dei gloriam – for the greater glory of God.

A guided tour of St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Not that sort of hospital

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Parish church of St John the Baptist and Hospital, Alton, Staffordshire

Photo:  Maureen Mannion

Alongside the spectacular dwelling at Alton Castle, George, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury commissioned Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin to build a complex of philanthropic buildings that came to be called Alton Hospital – certainly not a medical facility as the word is now used, nor entirely what we’d now call a “hospice”.

It was to be a hospital according to the medieval concept,– that is a complex including a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which Pugin came to describe with his customary enthusiasm as “a perfect revival of the true thing”.

Pugin was an artistic genius and an irrepressible personality.  As a convert to Roman Catholicism he had developed a rigorous aesthetic philosophy that Britain, as a Christian country, should maintain the traditions of the pre-Reformation Church, in its architecture as much as in religious observance.  To Pugin, Gothic was a matter of purity and integrity, and not merely a decorative style.

He had come to the Earl’s attention, and was entrusted with significant extensions to the main house at Alton Towers, as well as Alton Castle and the Hospital.

Though his architectural legacy is entirely serious, Pugin himself was flamboyant.  Apart from Gothic architecture, his other enthusiasm was sailing.  He once declared, “There is nothing worth living for but Christian architecture and a boat.”

Pugin had begun his career, before his conversion, as a theatre set-painter at Covent Garden, and at the height of his powers he was perfectly capable of throwing what we’d now call a hissy-fit:

I implore and entreat your Lordship, if you do not wish to see me sink with misery, to withdraw that dreadful idea about the alteration to the hospital.  I would sooner jump off the rocks than build a castellated residence for priests.  I have been really ill since I read the letter…for heaven’s sake, my dear Lord Shrewsbury, abandon this suggestion which must be a device of the Devil to spoil so fair a design.

The Earl, a sincere and indulgent man with a fat cheque book, was inclined to indulge his brilliant protégé’s striving for perfection.

The design of Alton Hospital consists of three sides of a quadrangle, with the Guildhall, comprising a school and village institute, almshouse accommodation, latterly used as a convent, and a chapel, which now serves as the parish church of St John the Baptist.

Pugin and the Earl died within two months of each other in 1852 and the earldom and the Alton Estate soon afterwards passed to a Protestant branch of the family.

Nevertheless, the buildings survived intact and in use, and are now part of a Catholic residential centre administered by the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

A guided tour of Pugin sites in Alton village is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Stately pre-fab

Hill Bark, Frankby, Cheshire

Hill Bark, Frankby, Cheshire

Robert Spear Hudson (1812-1884) was the man who first popularised soap powder, working from his modest shop in West Bromwich. He eventually moved his business to a factory in Bank Hall, Liverpool, and went to live in Chester.

His son Robert William Hudson (1856-1937) became extremely wealthy and sold the business to Lever Brothers in 1908.

He commissioned the distinguished local architect Edward Ould to build a Black-and-White Revival house in 1891 on a site near Bidston Hill on the Wirral.  It bears more than a passing resemblance to Little Moreton Hall, near Macclesfield – but built in reverse. It was named Bidston Grange.

Typically of its time and its style, Bidston Grange contained sumptuous glass by William Morris, and architectural bric-a-brac with antique associations – dining-room doors from a tea-clipper and a fireplace dated 1577 reputedly from “Sir Walter Raleigh’s former home”.

It was apparently the model, or at least the inspiration, for Cecelianhof, the Potsdam residence of the Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, built c1911 and subsequently the site of the signing of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945.

In 1921 Bidston Court was sold to Sir Ernest Royden (1873-1960), one of a dynasty of shipbuilders and shipowners.

Because Lady Royden disliked the way its setting was encroached by housing [] the 1891 structure was dismantled and re-erected a property she had inherited five miles away at Frankby.

There it replaced a house of 1868-70, originally built for Septimus Ledward JP, which took its name ‘Hillbark’ from a stone barn that had stood for several centuries.

The Roydens’ transplanted residence became known as Hill Bark.

The original site at Vyner Road South, Bidston, is now a public garden.

When Sir Ernest Royden died in 1960, Hill Bark was purchased by Hoylake Urban District Council and converted into a residential home for the elderly.

It was sold in 1999 for £300,000 and converted first into a catering-facility specialising in weddings, opened in 2000, but using only the ground-floor rooms. In 2002 it was restored as a luxurious 19-bedroom five-star boutique hotel:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Leasowe Castle

Leasowe Castle, Cheshire

Leasowe Castle, Cheshire

One of the most distinctive places to stay on the Wirral is Leasowe Castle, which was in fact never a castle, though it has been put to many uses in its four-hundred-year history.

Leasowe Castle is identified with the “New Hall” built by Ferdinando, 5th Earl of Derby in 1593, the year of his accession to his title, possibly as a stand from which to watch horse-racing on the flat shore.

A datestone bearing the Stanleys’ triskelion, the three-legged symbol of the Manx kingdom, is now in the Williamson Museum & Art Gallery in Birkenhead.

Ferdinando, Earl of Derby’s original structure was an octagonal tower with walls three feet thick, to which were later added four square towers, possibly by William, 6th Earl, in the early seventeenth century.

By the late seventeenth century the building was derelict and known locally as “Mockbeggar Hall” and for much of the eighteenth century it was used as a farmhouse.

In 1802 was sold to Margaret Boole, “the kind old lady of Leasowe Castle”, which she had made a refuge for the victims of shipwrecks and wreckers on the Wirral coast.

She set up Dannet’s Rocket Apparatus on the shore in an attempt to prevent shipwrecks and the pernicious activities of the local wreckers, who would show false lights in an attempt to lure vessels ashore.

Margaret Boole died in 1826 as a result of a carriage accident, and the Castle passed to her daughter and heir, Mary Anne, the wife of Col Edward Cust.

Colonel Cust converted the Castle to a hotel with the intention of establishing a resort in the grounds, and when this ambitious project failed in 1843 he turned back it into a residence which he kept until his death.

Edward Cust added most of the features of the building as it now stands –

  • the perimeter wall and entrance gateway
  • the Battle Staircase, its 84 wrought-iron balusters each carrying a painted nameplate commemorating a British victory
  • the dining room panelled with wood ostensibly taken in 1839 from the original Star Chamber in the Exchequer Buildings of the Palace of Westminster
  • the supposedly haunted library fitted with oak timbers from the submerged forest at Moels

– and possibly the oak Canute’s Chair, now lost, which stood above the high-water line, carved with the motto “Sea come not hither nor wet the sole of my foot”.

One of Col Edward Cust’s successors sold the Castle in 1891 to the Leasowe Castle Hotel company.

The original Star Chamber panels are reported to have been sold in the contents sale which took place on September 16th-20th 1895: the existing ones may be reproductions.

In 1910 the Castle was bought by the Trustees of the Railway Convalescent Home and, apart from an interlude during the First World War when it housed German prisoners of war, it remained in their hands until 1970.

In 1982 it returned to hotel use:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Gothic survival: Staunton Harold Church

Staunton Harold Church, Leicestershire:  detail

Staunton Harold Church, Leicestershire: detail

We live in an age when religious extremism causes conflicts that sometimes prove fatal.

So it was in the seventeenth-century, when the repercussions of the English Reformation set Anglicans against Puritans to the point of civil war.

At Staunton Harold, on the border between Derbyshire and Leicestershire, Sir Robert Shirley, 4th baronet, chose to build opposite his hall a new parish church that looks, for all practical purposes, as if it was one or two centuries earlier than its actual date.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England: Leicestershire & Rutland describes it as “completely Gothic, not simply a continuation of the Perp[endicular] style but Gothic in a more conscious and general way”.

Above the west door is an inscription – added in 1662-5 – that is an unambiguous statement of defiance:

In the year 1653

when all thinges Sacred were throughout ye nation

Either demolisht or profaned

Sir Robert Shirley, Barronet,

Founded this church;

Whose singular praise it is,

to haue done the best things in ye worst times,


hoped them in the most callamitous.

The righteous shal be had in everlasting remembrance.

For his pains, the Commonwealth government imprisoned Sir Robert in the Tower of London, where he died in 1656.

After the Restoration, the church was completed for Sir Robert’s heir, Sir Seymour Shirley, 5th Baronet (1647-67).

The interior is consistently Jacobean with panelling by William Smith of Melbourne and a nave ceiling signed by Samuel and Zachary Kyrk and dated 1655. The communion plate dates from 1654.

The wrought-iron chancel screen is slightly later, and thought to be by the ironsmith Robert Bakewell.

Staunton Harold Church, which is Grade I listed, is now in the care of the National Trust:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Gothic survival: St John’s Church, Briggate, Leeds

St John the Evangelist Church, Briggate, Leeds

St John the Evangelist Church, Briggate, Leeds

The term “Gothic Revival” is familiar to anyone with the remotest interest in architecture, but “Gothic Survival” is much rarer.

There’s a splendid example of a Gothic church built after the Reformation but still in the medieval tradition at the end of Leeds’ main shopping street, Briggate, opposite the Grand Theatre.

It was needed because in the early seventeenth century Leeds was expanding as a centre for the wool trade, and the parish church, St Peter’s, became overcrowded.

The church of St John the Evangelist was paid for by Alderman John Harrison (1579–1656), a cloth-merchant and much-loved philanthropist who also provided a market cross, alms-houses and land and a building for the Leeds Grammar School. Leeds’ first historian, Ralph Thoresby, notes that Harrison fitted his doors and wainscots with holes “for the free passage of cats”.

When St John’s was built, 1632-4, it was fully a hundred years since church-building had been commonplace, and the folk-memory of the old masons had faded. The window-tracery is quirky, as if improvised, and the layout is odd: what might be the south aisle is the same size as the nave.

This double nave, with a central arcade, was practical because the preacher was positioned at the centre of the north wall. An elaborate screen separates the chancel area, where communion was celebrated “as in times past”.

St John’s looks superficially like a medieval church, but the panelling, the pulpit and the screens are distinctively Jacobean, with strapwork and obelisks, and the Royal Arms are those of James I & VI, who had died in 1625.

In its layout and decoration, this was a church that followed the ritualistic principles of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573–1645).

The religious turmoil of the time flared up on the consecration day, September 21st 1634. In the morning John Cosin, chaplain to Richard Neile, Archbishop of York, preached a sermon in line with Laud’s principles. The same afternoon, the Puritan first Vicar of the new church, Robert Todd, in his sermon, vehemently attacked Neile’s views and was promptly suspended by the Archbishop. It took a year for John Harrison, and Sir Arthur Ingram of Temple Newsam, to secure Todd’s reinstatement.

In the early nineteenth century there was a strong possibility St John’s would have been demolished. The south porch was in fact taken down, and the tower was rebuilt in 1838.

Its rarity was recognised by the young architect, Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). He enlisted the great Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), and between them they persuaded the Church authorities in 1865 that it would be cheaper to restore than to rebuild.

The congregation has long since disappeared, and this Grade-I listed church is now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.

It’s open over lunchtime from Tuesday to Saturday, and is a welcome haven of calm in the midst of the busy city centre:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

No expense spared 4: Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, Liverpool

Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, Park Lane, Liverpool

Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, Park Lane, Liverpool

One of the most original churches in Liverpool is the Gustav Adolfs Kyrka, now known as the Scandinavian Seamen’s Church, a rendering in brick of the Nordic stave church [].

It was built to minister to the pastoral needs of the transitory population of around fifty thousand Scandinavian seamen and emigrants in Liverpool in the early 1880s. It was completed at a cost of 50,000 Swedish crowns in 1884.

Designed by William Douglas Caröe (1857-1938), who was the son of the Danish Consul in Liverpool and a pupil of the architect John Loughborough Pearson, its octagonal form and pyramidal roof with stepped gables and a spectacular concave lead and timber spire highlight its Scandinavian associations.

The minister’s house adjoins the church.

The original worship space was up a half-flight of stairs and consisted of a galleried octagonal space with an open timber vault.

This was floored at gallery level in 1956-61 to create social and recreational space, and as the numbers of seamen visiting Liverpool declined the congregation adapted to serve the needs and welfare of the Scandinavian community in the city and its surrounding region.

Four plaster reliefs, originally part of the reredos and now relocated to the staircase, are by Robert Anning Bell.

Two sculptures, the Madonna and Christ, are by the Liverpool sculptor Arthur Dooley.

The bell from the former Norwegian Seamen’s Church at St Michael-in-the-Hamlet hangs beside the altar.

The Gustaf Adolf Nordic Congregation in Liverpool operates as the Nordic Church and Cultural Centre, providing a base for Danes, Finns, Icelanders, Norwegians and Swedes in the district and maintaining their unique building for future generations.

Visitors are made welcome, particularly at events: The buffets are memorable.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

No expense spared 3: Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Liverpool

Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Princes Road, Liverpool

Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Princes Road, Liverpool

Among the many fine Victorian buildings in and around Liverpool 8, the Old Hebrew Congregation Syngogue is a particular jewel.

Built 1871-4 to the designs of the brothers William James and George Ashdown Audsley, it is constructed, like St Margaret’s Church on the same side of Princes Road, of red brick dressed with red sandstone.

Its façade combines elements of Gothic and Moorish styles, the pointed west door and the rose window contrasting with the oriental arches of the doorframes and the minarets that once surmounted the turrets.

The spectacular galleried interior has a tall arcade, supported by cast-iron columns with acanthus capitals. The horseshoe arches of the arcade lead the eye to the much more elaborate arch at the east end, which frames another rose window above the marble Ark with painted domes and gold stars.

The initial total cost was £14,975 8s 11d.

The marble pulpit, given in 1874 by the widow of James Braham, faces the bimah, the platform from which the Torah and haftarah are read. This was the gift of David Lewis, founder of the Liverpool department store, “in gratitude to Almighty God for His great goodness”.

The Ark is a replacement of the original which with its holy scrolls was destroyed by arson in May 1979: it was reconstructed and the synagogue restored and reopened in December 1980.

This spectacular place is open to group tours, which feature an exhibition about the history of the congregation:!tours/cfvg.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Burning issue

Woking Crematorium

Woking Crematorium

In Victorian times there was huge controversy about cremation.  Utilitarian and sanitary arguments against burial were opposed by intransigent clergy. The Bishop of London, John Jackson, complained that cremation would “undermine the faith of mankind in the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and so bring about a most disastrous social revolution”. The Bishop of Manchester, James Fraser, responded that God would have no more difficulty resurrecting ashes than dust, or “bodies which had passed into the structure of worms”.

The very occasional cremations that came to public knowledge caused great scandal – Honoretta Brooks Pratt illegally cremated in 1769, Captain T B Hanham who built a private cremator for his wife, his mother and ultimately himself in Dorset – until the wildly eccentric Dr William Price’s cremation of his five-month-old son Iesu Grist in 1884 led to Mr Justice Stephen’s ruling that cremation was not an offence “provided no nuisance was caused”.

The Cremation Society built the first cremator in Britain at Woking in 1879, originally little more than a furnace with a 42ft chimney. They hesitated to use it until the legal ambiguities had been resolved, and the first cremation on the site, 71-year-old Mrs Jeanette Pickersgill, took place on March 26th 1885.

Thereafter a small number of cremations were carried out each year, and in 1891 a chapel and reception rooms designed by Edward Channing Clarke were added in a comfortable thirteenth-century Gothic style that was intended to reassure mourners and hide the functionality of the machinery within.

The relationship between Woking Crematorium and the nearby Brookwood Cemetery was fraught with ambiguity. The Cremation Society bought the land from the London Necropolis Company, but through a third party so that the cemetery company could dissociate itself. Yet in due time the London Necropolis Company provided funeral facilities, including trains from Waterloo, and sold plots for the burial of ashes.

Similarly, the vicar of St Peter’s Church, Woking, Rev Frederick J Oliphant, made an enormous fuss when the crematorium was first proposed, yet by 1889 the Rev William Hamilton, vicar of St John the Baptist, Woking, was conducting frequent funeral services at the crematorium for a fee of one guinea a time and also burying cremated remains in the churchyard at St John’s.

Woking Crematorium is still in use, its buildings cherished for their atmosphere and historical significance, its grounds a beautiful and extensive garden of remembrance:

Cremation is now by far the most prevalent form of disposal of the dead: in 2012 only a quarter of disposals were burials.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Dames to the rescue

Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire

Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire

In the summer of 1914, as a great war approached, British, American and Canadian public figures were preoccupied with celebrating the centenary of the end of another war, the War of 1812, the last time that Britain and the United States were in conflict.

Peace Centenary Committees on both sides of the Atlantic resolved that commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814 should include the purchase and restoration of George Washington’s ancestral home, Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire.

The manor house was built in the sixteenth century by Lawrence Washington, the great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of the first President of the United States of America.

Lawrence Washington’s grandson, also Lawrence, had a younger son, himself also Lawrence, whose son, Colonel John Washington, emigrated to Virginia: his great-grandson was George Washington, the first President.

Sulgrave Manor’s tenuous connection with international history saved the building, which had become dilapidated by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Eventually, after the end of the intervening Great War, Sulgrave Manor was opened by the Marquess of Cambridge, the brother of Queen Mary, in 1921 as a centre to commemorate and celebrate what a generation later we learned to call the special relationship between Great Britain and the United States.

The principal financial supporters of Sulgrave Manor are the members of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, all of whom descend from an ancestor “who came to reside in an American Colony before 1750, and whose services were rendered during the Colonial Period”:

The manor is modest, partly Tudor and partly eighteenth-century. Much of the Tudor house had vanished, and to bring symmetry to its main front Sir Reginald Blomfield designed a convincing pastiche as a director’s house.

Lying in a quiet corner of Northamptonshire a few miles from the National Trust’s Canons Ashby [], Sulgrave Manor provides a rare opportunity to examine an unpretentious Tudor manor house, carefully conserved, which relates the vicissitudes of a landed English family whose descendant change the face of America:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.