Monthly Archives: February 2022

Ashburton: St Lawrence Chapel

St Lawrence Chapel, Ashburton, Devon

St Lawrence Chapel in the centre of Ashburton in Devon isn’t any kind of Nonconformist chapel.  It’s much older than Nonconformity.

It’s a medieval chantry chapel, established so that a priest, financed by a guild, could say masses for the soul of the founder – in this case Walter de Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter from 1308 and co-founder of Exeter College, Oxford.

He suffered a violent end, along with his older brother Sir Richard Stapledon, in a riot in London in 1326.  His body was defiled and buried on the bank of the Thames until Queen Isabella, the consort of King Edward II, ordered his remains to be taken to Exeter Cathedral, “there to be honoured with most magnificent exequies”.  He lies beneath an exquisite tomb in the cathedral.

The chantry building in Ashburton looks at first glance like a church, not least because of its sixteenth-century tower and spire.  The east end contained an altar for the celebration of mass, and the pupils were taught in the nave.

Chantries were, in the beliefs of the time, spiritual insurance policies, intended to shorten the ordeal of the soul in purgatory by employing priests to say masses in perpetuity.  They also operated, in this life, as accumulations of capital until they were appropriated by King Henry VIII in 1545 and 1547.

Successive chantry priests at Ashburton had run a grammar school, and to preserve this amenity a group of townsmen purchased the chantry assets and supervised the school from the mid-sixteenth century until 1938.

The nave was refurbished in the eighteenth-century and the classroom accommodation was extended in the late-nineteenth century and in 1911.

The Grammar School moved to more modern premises in 1938, and the chantry building continued as a local school until the 1980s.

In 1984 the ancient Guild of St Lawrence was recreated to preserve the building and manage it as a heritage, cultural and community centre:  St Lawrence Chapel at Ashburton – About.

This remarkable building has seen centuries of children through their elementary education, among them the Dean of Westminster, John Ireland (1761-1842), his friend the satirist William Gifford (1756-1826) and the Australian explorer William John Wills (1834-c1861).

It’s open to the public in the summer months:  St Lawrence Chapel at Ashburton – Find Us.

Ashburton: Old Methodist Church

Old Methodist Church, Ashburton, Devon
Old Methodist Church, Ashburton, Devon (2017): interior.

The Devon market town of Ashburton has a long history:  as a stannary town it was an important centre for the administration of the tin-mining industry, and it was a staging post on the road between Exeter and Plymouth.

Among its historic buildings the Old Methodist Church stands out, and I was lucky to visit it in the summer of 2017, which turned out to be the end of an era.

Its prominent portico, set back from the street-line, is dated 1835, though the building behind appears to be later.  

Immediately behind the entrance doors there’s a schoolroom on the ground floor and a meeting room above.

Corridors on either side lead to a dignified, typically Methodist space with a gallery round three sides of the chapel.

It was comprehensively refurbished in 1896 with the installation of pitch-pine pews in place of box-pews, a green-and-chocolate rostrum instead of the former pulpit, and an upholstered alcove for the preacher.

An Inventory of Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-Houses in South West England (1991) reported that the significant repairs had taken place in 1980, but in the decades since then the congregation have found the cost of maintenance unsustainable, and they have moved into the Parish Church Hall for their services, and sold the Old Methodist Church to Ashburton Arts, which is restoring it for use as a cultural and social centre for the town:  “One of the best small live music venues in the UK” The Guardian – Ashburton Arts Centre, 15 West St, Devon, TQ13 7DT, UK.

Full steam ahead

Mill Meece Pumping Station, Staffordshire

Few preservation groups are invited to take on a historic site in complete working order.

When the steam engines at the Mill Meece Pumping Station, south of Stoke-on-Trent, were finally decommissioned at the end of 1979 the then owners, the Severn Trent Water Authority, invited enthusiasts to form a Preservation Trust to preserve the historic waterworks intact while the modern machinery did the work of supplying water. 

The Trust took over the site in 1981 and promptly opened it to the public.

Mill Meece Pumping Station (1914) represents one of the latest preserved examples of steam-powered water-supply pumping installations.  It is in effect the penultimate chapter in the story of steam and water-supply, a little earlier than the Kempton Great Engines, west of London, which were completed in 1929. 

The Trust website emphasises why this late example of steam pumping engineering is historically important:

[Although] beam engines abound, the Mill Meece horizontal tandem compound steam engines are the only ones of their type still capable of being steamed.  Along with all the ancillary equipment of boilers, economiser, Weir pumps, steam winch and weigh bridge the station forms a complete example of an Edwardian water supply pumping station.

The Staffordshire Potteries Water Works Company was founded in 1846 and spent the following three-quarters of a century trying to keep up with demand from the rapidly growing industrial Five Towns and the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. 

The Company opened a succession of waterworks and repeatedly extended them and their supporting networks of mains and reservoirs.  For much of the time further installations were planned even before the new ones were operational.

Indeed, when the land for Mill Meece Pumping Station was purchased in 1899, the Hatton Pumping Station, two miles further north, was incomplete.  The original pair of beam engines of 1892 at Hatton were supplemented by a horizontal engine completed in 1898, and a further horizontal engine was added in 1907.

Though diesel or electric power was available for water pumping by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Company, based in a coalfield, was content to rely on steam.  The Hatton engines were considered efficient, reliable and economical, so the Mill Meece engine house was built to accommodate two engines, powered by three boilers.

Mill Meece was the last of the Company’s waterworks, initially completed in 1914, though it didn’t begin pumping to supply until 1919. 

Half the engine house was occupied by a horizontal compound tandem rotary steam engine by Ashton Frost & Co of Blackburn drawing steam from two Lancashire boilers, pumping to the same reservoir at Hanchurch as Hatton. 

In the empty half of the engine house the Company’s municipal successor, the Staffordshire Potteries Water Board, installed a second engine by Hathorn Davey in 1927, broadly similar to its companion, together with a third Lancashire boiler. 

The two engines were built to the same specification, though they are not identical, and they are laid out in mirror image so that they can be controlled from a single central operating position.

All the other Company water works were converted to pump by electricity in the 1930s, but despite talk of scrapping them, the relatively new and powerful Mill Meece engines were kept for stand-by use after the station was electrified in 1949.

Indeed, the last time they pumped water into the public supply was December 22nd 1979, and within two years they formed the centrepiece of a working museum: Mill Meece Pumping Station.

In 2013 structural problems with the boiler house flues prevented the engines from steaming, and the remedial work took until November 2020. 

After years of frustration when visitors have been invited into a cold and silent works, the Covid pandemic precluded a quick return to steam.

The engines eventually moved again over the weekend of August 14th-15th 2021, and there’s every reason to hope that there will be a full programme of events at Mill Meece in 2022: What’s On (