Author Archives: Mike Higginbottom

Down-to-earth bell-ringing

St Mary’s Church, East Bergholt, Suffolk: bell cage
St Mary’s Church, East Bergholt, Suffolk: bell cage

In East Anglia you can hardly move for beautiful medieval churches, built from the proceeds of the wool trade, but St Mary’s, East Bergholt, Suffolk has a unique claim to fame.

Dated 1350-1550, it’s a fine late-Perpendicular rebuilding in flintwork of an earlier church, containing – among much else – a priest’s room above the south porch, an Easter sepulchre in the chancel, a carved oak screen and a parish chest, c1400, hollowed out of a tree-trunk.  The church is 120 feet long and 56 feet wide.  The interior was sketched by East Bergholt’s most celebrated son, the painter John Constable (1776-1837), whose parents are buried here. 

At the west end, the beginnings of an elaborate tower stand unfinished since the Reformation.  There is a story that the funds to complete it, donated by Ipswich-born Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), were purloined by Henry VIII.  It’s more likely that at the Reformation from the 1530s onwards, work paused, as it did at Bath Abbey and what became Bristol Cathedral, but never restarted.

As a result, the five bells intended for the tower were housed in a timber bell-cage where they remain.

For the best part of five hundred years, the bells have been rung at ground level, swung by hand, the heaviest ring of five in England – 4¼ tons in total, of which the tenor weighs 1ton 6cwt 0qr 8lb, comparable to the weight of a small car.

Change-ringing with a ring of five is practical, though repetitive.  The bells rest in an upward position, and are set in motion by a ringer grasping the headstock.  There are no wheels or ropes.

The ringers of the lightest four bells stand outside and lean into the frame to ring.  The tenor is rung from an uncomfortable, noisy position in the middle of the cage.

There’s detailed information about the bell cage, with audio and video recordings, at https://eastbergholt-bells.org.uk, which includes details of ringing times.

This 2017 Daily Mail article provides further background and images:  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4872200/Dangerous-four-tonne-church-bells-rung-HAND.html.

Organ for sale

Port Erin Methodist Church, Isle of Man

Photo: Matthew Binns

Anyone want to buy a pipe-organ?  There’s one at the southern tip of the Isle of Man that needs a good home.

The Port Erin Methodist Church in the Isle of Man is about to move into smaller premises.  The congregation no longer wishes to support the maintenance costs of the dignified stone-built 1903 building and is moving into the smaller 1960s Sunday School building next door.

This decision is a matter of refocusing rather than retrenchment. 

Not for the first time, the church members want to direct their resources towards helping the local community rather than paying to keep up an old building that is ill-suited to present-day needs.  It’s the fourth time in their long history that they’ve abandoned one building for another.

This is the oldest Christian congregation in Port Erin, dating back to 1823.

A chapel was built on Dandy Hill in 1832 and replaced in the late 1850s by a 200-seat chapel that survived as a Sunday School until 1963 and was demolished three years later.

The present 1903 chapel on Station Road was designed by the Halifax architect William Clement Williams (1847-1913), who was resident in Port Erin at the time of his death.

The organ, one of the last to be built by the Douglas organ-builder Moses Morgan, dates from 1911, and originally belonged to the Port Erin Wesleyan Methodist Church that is now the Erin Arts Centre.  When the former Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist congregations amalgamated in 1970 the Wesleyans brought their organ with them to Station Road.

It’s described as “an excellent example of a straightforward chapel organ of modest size” with very few modifications to its authentic specification.

Apart from a few judicious improvements to the pipework little has changed, though the gas lights were replaced with electric lights as recently as 2008.

Organ aficionados on the island hope it will remain intact and find a new home.  The Methodists pray that it will continue to be used for worship.

In this video the Manx organist Gareth Moore introduces the chapel and demonstrates the organ’s capabilities:  Port Erin Pipe Organ – YouTube.

Particulars of the building sale are at Port Erin Methodist Chapel – Black Grace Cowley.

No more Coles in Sheffield

Sheffield General Cemetery: John Cole monument

One of the many business casualties of the Covid pandemic was the John Lewis store in the centre of Sheffield.

Its demise was not entirely a surprise but it caused sadness to Sheffield people who’d shopped there over the years.

Indeed, the building was only branded ‘John Lewis’ in 2002.  Previously it was Cole Brothers, and Sheffield shoppers continued to call it Coles because to them that was what it was.

The Cole brothers, born in Pickering, North Yorkshire, were John (1814-1898), Thomas (1824-1902) and Skelton (1827-1896).  The older two had served apprenticeships as drapers and founded the company in 1847, trading as “Silk Mercers, Shawl, Mantle and Carpet Warehousemen, Bonnet Makers and Sewing Machine Agents”.  Skelton joined the partnership later.

One of their assistants, John Atkinson, left in 1872 to found his own department store, which still trades on The Moor.

The business was continued by the sons respectively of Thomas and Skelton Cole – Thomas (b 1854) and Thomas Skelton Cole (b 1853), who sold the store in 1920 to Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947).  He transferred it to his Selfridge Provincial Stores group seven years later and in 1940 sold it to the John Lewis Partnership, then as now an employee-owned mutual partnership.  Throughout these changes the store continued to trade as Cole Brothers.

The shop was repeatedly extended between 1869 and 1920 along Fargate and round the corner on to Church Street, and the corner entrance became the favoured meeting place for young couples, known as “Coles’ Corner”.

In the Sheffield Blitz of December 1940 Coles was the only department store in the city-centre that was largely unscathed.

The original store was replaced in 1963 with a new building on the site of the burnt-down Albert Hall at Barker’s Pool, and the lovers’ rendezvous moved to the fish-tank in the “Hole in the Road”, otherwise Castle Square, when it opened in 1967. 

(The Hole in the Road was filled in to make way for Supertram in 1994.  The well-worn joke was that the last fish in the tank was a piranha.)

Proposals for Coles to move to the Meadowhall Centre when it opened in 1990 and later plans to move into a new flagship John Lewis store in the aborted Sevenstone development alike came to nothing.

Now the only manifestations of the Cole brothers’ place in Sheffield’s history are a plaque on the site of the original Coles Corner, the Sheffield-born musician Richard Hawley’s eponymous 2005 album and John Coles’ eye-catching obelisk in the General Cemetery.

The ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour includes a guided tour of the Sheffield General Cemetery. For details of the itinerary, please click here.

Down with Hartford Mill

Hartford Mill, Werneth, Lancashire (2019)

My knee-jerk reaction when faced with an attractive or historic derelict building is to hope that someone will find a use that will pay for its upkeep.

Travelling on the Manchester Metrolink line to Rochdale, I was appalled at the state of Hartford Mill, near Werneth, and bemused by its great size.

It was built as a cotton-spinning mill in 1907, twice extended in the 1920s, and closed in 1959.  It was used as a mail-order warehouse by Littlewoods until 1992, after which no-one could think what to do with it, though it was listed Grade II in 1993.

It’s a shame that this huge, magnificent building was simply left to rot.

It became a notorious focus for anti-social behaviour, including several severe arson attacks, culminating in the death of an eighteen-year-old youth in a fall in 2015.

In the end there was no alternative but to demolish the mill – no mean task. The Mill is a five-storey building 25 bays long and 12 bays wide with a corner tower.

The demolition process has been slowed by the effects of the pandemic, and for a short while longer the mill is still a blot on the landscape: ‘Death trap’ 113-year-old mill is being demolished – Manchester Evening News.

The leader of Oldham Borough Council, Sean Fielding, told the Manchester Evening News (August 30th 2018),–

“When people travel through Oldham on the Metrolink line they don’t want a deteriorating old mill to be what they see – and it’s certainly not what residents should have to look at every day.

“Everyone deserves to live in decent areas where families and communities can prosper and feel proud.

“Oldham is an aspirational place to live, work and invest and to continue that improvement we must make full use of sites like Hartford Mill.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Father Michael Fisher (1943-2021)

Father Michael Fisher, St John’s Parish Church, Alton, Staffordshire (September 19th 2019)

I was sad to learn that Father Michael Fisher, teacher, priest and scholar, has died.

He was a leader in studying the work of the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin who was sponsored by John, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, building Catholic churches in the Gothic Revival style across the North Midlands and particularly around the Earl’s seat at Alton Towers, near Cheadle in Staffordshire.

Michael was educated at Leek High School and the universities of Leicester and Keele and, after serving as Head of History at King Edward VI Grammar School, Stafford, was ordained in the Church of England in 1979. 

He had visited Alton Towers from boyhood, and remembered the dismemberment of the house in 1951.

In the late 1990s the Tussauds Group, then owners of the ruins and the gardens as part of their theme park, commissioned Michael to investigate the history of the site and make recommendations about how they should be conserved.

This work led to his detailed study Alton Towers:  a Gothic wonderland (Michael Fisher 1999), which was followed by a succession of books on Pugin’s work in and around Staffordshire.

His knowledge of Alton Towers enabled him to guide and encourage the present owners to respect the history of the place.

He contributed to the understanding and conservation of St Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Birmingham – an Anglican priest on a Catholic committee, bringing what was described at his funeral as a “warm, ecumenical heart” to the enhancement of one of Pugin’s major buildings.

On the day of his funeral, at the church where he ministered, St Chad’s, Stafford, requiem mass was sung in his honour and remembrance at St Chad’s Cathedral.

I met him only once, when I was planning my Pugin and the Gothic Revival tour which took place in September 2019.

One of my regular tour-guests happened to be Michael’s school contemporary, who gave me the privilege of enlisting him to show the group St Giles’ Roman Catholic Church in Cheadle and the tiny parish church of St John, Alton.

I couldn’t possibly have asked for a finer introduction to the area and the architect than Michael’s elegant, insightful guiding.  We were very, very lucky to have him show us round.

Zion Graveyard 3

Zion Graveyard, Attercliffe, Sheffield (April 2021)

Until last weekend, I hadn’t set foot in the Zion Graveyard – Attercliffe’s only historic site regularly open to the general public – since September 2019, the last time I was able to run a heritage Bus Ride Round Attercliffe.

A great deal has happened in eighteen months, not least at the Graveyard where, despite the constraints of lockdown and social distancing, the Friends have restored the place so that it once again looks like a graveyard rather than a jungle.

The difference they’ve made to a long-neglected, significant historic site is impressive.

The Friends of Zion Graveyard was formed in 2017 by the group who look after Upper Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, a couple of miles away.  They wanted to locate the burial place of the Chapel’s founder, Mary Ann Rawson (1801-1887), an energetic anti-slavery campaigner and social reformer, and found it deep in the neglected burial ground of the former Zion Congregational Church, which was burnt down in 1987.

The Friends purchased the graveyard site from the Yorkshire Congregational Union in January 2018.  The events that followed are chronicled at FoZGA End of Project Photo Report final.pdf (windows.net) and come alive in Jon Harrison’s excellent video:  Zion – the Forgotten Graveyard – YouTube.

They’re a small, energetic group who’ve achieved a great deal through their enthusiasm and their ability to secure funds from such organisations as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the J G Graves Charitable Trust to supplement the donations of individuals and small businesses associated with the Lower Don Valley.

There’s been much talk about celebrating the historic heritage of Attercliffe and Carbrook.  Carbrook Hall has been restored and converted from a pub to a particularly fine Starbucks.  The Hill Top Chapel is used for worship by the Sheffield Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  And Attercliffe Library became a promising restaurant.

There are other buildings in the Valley that deserve to be put to use.  Some, like Tinsley Tram Sheds and the Adelphi Cinema, have given conservationists cause for concern while others, such as the imposing Banner’s former department store and the former Bodmin Street Wesleyan Reform Chapel are earning their keep in new ways.

The Graveyard has remained closed to the public during the pandemic, and its gradual reopening will be publicised on their website:  Friends of Zion Graveyard – Events (btck.co.uk).  It’s a delightful and fascinating place where visitors are made very welcome.

The Heineken effect

Chapel of St Peter, Alton Towers, Staffordshire

I like my tours to include the “Heineken effect”, reaching the parts that other tours don’t reach.

I was particularly pleased when a professional architect guest on my ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour in September 2019 remarked that he’d been on a previous Pugin tour but I’d taken him to two places he’d never visited before.

One was Alton Castle, normally inaccessible to the public because its use as a retreat for Catholic school pupils involves strict safeguarding rules. We were allowed an hour between school groups departing and arriving to see Pugin’s interiors.

The other was the spectacular Chapel in the ruins of the house at Alton Towers.

I’d never seen this space, and thanks to the theme park’s Corporate Events team we were able to visit another rarely accessible Pugin interior.

The chapel was designed in 1832-33 by Thomas Fradgley, Joseph Ireland and Joseph Potter of Lichfield for the devout Catholic 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.  The nave is 90 feet long, 30 feet wide and 60 feet high.  It has a slender tower with ogee windows and pinnacles that were reduced in height in the 1950s.

Augustus Welby Pugin brightened the Chapel in 1839-40 with carved and painted panels, some of medieval date from Magdalen College, Oxford – and a new reredos and altar. 

Later, in 1850, he decorated the previously plain ceiling in blue, red and gold and added a frieze with Latin texts painted on canvas. 

The angels on the roof corbels are plaster (which Pugin would be unlikely to have countenanced) but after he had designed the reredos and altar screen in 1839-40 he is known to have been “fixing figures in the chapel gallery” in 1840 and supervised the decoration of the ceiling between 1849 and 1851.

The sixteenth Earl inherited a personal estate of £400,000 from his uncle.  At one point he was spending £20,000 a year on building and restoring churches across his many estates.

When he died in 1852 the title passed to his invalid nephew, Bertram, who himself died without an heir four years later.  At his death the estate amounted to some 50,000 acres, the income from which was in excess of £50,000.

There followed a legal dispute about the succession of the titles and estates, in the course of which the contents of Alton Towers were auctioned over a period of a twenty-nine days in 1857. 

The property eventually passed to a distant Protestant member of the family, Henry, Earl Talbot of Ingestre, who became the 18th Earl of Shrewsbury.

The altar and reredos were removed in 1860 from the Chapel to St Peter’s Catholic Church, Bromsgrove where they remain;  most of the other Pugin work was stripped out in 1951 and only fragments remain.

The eighteenth Earl was the first to open the gardens to the public in 1860.  By the 1890s the annual August grand fêtes were attracting crowds of up to 30,000, mainly brought by train to Alton station.

His grandson, the twentieth Earl, died in 1921, and three years later the Alton Towers estate was sold to a business consortium, Alton Towers Ltd, which ran the estate as a tourist attraction and place of entertainment until the War. 

The house was requisitioned as an Officer Cadet Training Unit, and when the owners regained possession in 1951 the dilapidations were such that they chose to strip almost the entire interior of lead roofs and internal timber. 

The grounds were reopened to the public in 1952. 

From 1958 to 1993 the Chapel interior was obscured by a tented ceiling, beneath which spread a gigantic model railway.

In the late 1970s installing concrete floors and wooden stairs within the Towers ruins enabled visitors to appreciate the scale of the house from a variety of levels up to the roof. 

The collapse of a beam on to the Chapel floor in 1993 prompted a full structural and decorative restoration of the ceiling in 1994.

Since the late 1990s further conservation programmes have restored some parts of this exceptional building, but the owners’ priority is inevitably to encourage visitors looking for thrills and spills on amusement-park attractions.

I was particularly grateful to the Alton Towers management for allowing my tour-group to see parts of the ruins that other groups can’t reach.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Cragg’s own church

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church, Aigburth, Liverpool

John Cragg (1767-1854) was not a pleasant man.

I know of only one observation by any of his contemporaries, which simply states that he was “a remarkable man to whom I cannot find a single gracious allusion on anybody’s part”.

His claim to posterity’s attention is that, as the proprietor of the Mersey Iron Foundry, he collaborated with the architect Thomas Rickman (1776-1841) in designing and producing iron components with which to construct prefabricated Gothick churches and other buildings.

Their first project was the parish church of St George, Everton (1812-14).

Even before the completion of St George’s, John Cragg had resolved to make further use of his architectural mouldings to Rickman’s designs, apparently without consulting the architect. 

Cragg purchased land in Aigburth not far from the River Mersey in February 1813, and by June 1815 had completed the church of St Michael-in-the-Hamlet.

The essential difference between these two churches is the more adventurous use of materials. 

At Aigburth, the framework of the whole structure is iron, filled with a slate base and brick walls, a device patented by John Cragg in 1813. 

All the embellishments of the brick walls are of iron – window and door frames, tracery, pinnacles, dripstones and copings.  Originally the exterior ironwork was painted to resemble stone, and the brickwork stuccoed to match. 

The roof and interior ceilings and panelling are of slate set in iron frames.  The moulding of the clerestory windows is also used for a fireplace at the foot of the staircase to the original organ gallery at the west end.

The total outlay using the moulds from St George’s came to £7,865. 

Cragg went on to use some of his mouldings yet again in a group of five houses he built, one as his residence and the others as a speculation, around the church to form St Michael’s Hamlet.

St Michael’s was restored by the Liverpool architect brothers William James Audsley (1833-1907) and George Ashdown Audsley (1838-1925) in 1875. 

When increasing population demanded an extension to the church in 1900 the north aisle was doubled in width, making sympathetic use of the original decorative features. 

The clock was added in 1920 as a war memorial, along with a dedicatory window and wall-tablets.

In the chancel lies a memorial slab commemorating the Herculaneum Pottery Benefit Society, dated 1824:

Here peaceful rest the POTTERS turn’d to Clay

Tir’d with their lab’ring life’s long tedious day

Surviving friends their Clay to earth consign

To be re-moulded by a Hand Divine!

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet was extensively restored in the 1980s, and is now a Grade I listed building.

John Cragg’s third iron church, St Philip’s, Hardman Street, Liverpool (1815-16, closed 1882-84), is described, illustrated and lamented in this article:  https://liverpool1207blog.wordpress.com/2018/01/02/st-philips-church-hardman-st-liverpool-1816-2017.

St Michael-in-the-Hamlet Church is a destination in the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022) tour.  For further details please click here.

Celebrating steam locomotion

Grand Steam Cavalcade, August 31st 1975, Shildon Co Durham

Recently I came across a random copy of the Railway Magazine for November 1975, which featured the Grand Steam Cavalcade that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives.

As we contemplate the bicentenary of the S&DR, due in 2025, it’s worth remembering the context of the 1975 event.  Previous celebrations in 1875 and 1925 were attended with pomp and pride by a railway industry that still dominated British transport.  In the 2020s “heritage” railways are an essential part of the tourist industry.

Yet in 1975 British Rail looked towards an uncertain future, less than a decade after the Beeching cuts and the demise of steam.  Steam traction had been banned on BR lines from 1968 to 1972 except for Flying Scotsman, which had the benefit of a contractual anomaly.

Nevertheless the British Rail Engineering Ltd wagon works at Shildon, located on the original line of the S&DR, put on a magnificent show which featured – in motion and where possible in steam – a chronological procession of railway locomotives led by a modern reproduction of George Stephenson’s Locomotion and ending with the last BR locomotive to be built, 92220 Evening Star, and the power-car of the prototype High Speed Train.

The Railway Magazine editor, J N Slater, wrote up the experience with the acumen of an aficionado.  The enthusiast press-corps, “Your Editor and Assistant Editor (and the Assistant Editor of the Railway Gazette International)”, travelled by rail from King’s Cross on a sleeping-car excursion that included a second-class sleeping berth, full breakfast in the restaurant at Newcastle Central, travel out to Shildon and back and the return journey to King’s Cross for £9.00.  Equivalent walk-on fares for this journey would have amounted to £16.11. 

Between 250,000 and 300,000 spectators are estimated to have witnessed the Cavalcade on Sunday August 31st, and many more had previously visited the Rail 150 exhibition in the wagon works.

Of the thirty-five locomotives in the procession, two had previously appeared in the 1925 event – Great Northern Railway no 1 (hauled by LNER no 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley) and no 990 Henry Oakley – and one, North Eastern Railway no 910 (hauled by LNER no 4472 Flying Scotsman), had appeared in the 1875 and 1925 processions.

Without doubt the 2025 bicentenary will be an exciting show for tourists and enthusiasts alike, but 1975 will be a hard act to follow.

And it will most likely produce some entertaining hissy-fits in the preparation: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/feb/15/rival-railway-museums-in-row-over-steam-train-ownership.

Lighting Locomotion

Reproduction ‘Locomotion no 1: Grand Steam Cavalcade, August 31st 1975, Shildon Co Durham

The writer L T C Rolt tells a story about the moment when steam traction was first applied to a public railway.

George Stephenson had worked hard to persuade the directors of the Stockton & Darlington Railway to lay out most of their new line to be worked by steam locomotives, and in September 1824 had ordered two engines, No 1 Locomotion (initially named Active) and No 2 Hope, to be ready for the opening.  (Another two, No 3 Black Diamond and No 4 Dilgence followed later.)

Locomotion was delivered necessarily by road, and its arrival is recorded in the memoir of one of the navvies who built the line, Robert Metcalf, written in unpunctuated broad Northumbrian.

Once the engine was set on the track, the workmen needed a light to start the fire that would generate steam and enable it to move.  Candles and lanterns were sent for, but in the meantime Robert Metcalf lit up his pipe, using his pipe glass to focus the sun’s rays on the tobacco.

Contemplating a batch of oakum packing for the locomotive feed-pump, Metcalf realised he could save time by using his pipe glass to start the fire in the firebox:  “it blaze away well the fire going rapidly lantern and candle was to no use so No 1 fire was put to her on line by the pour of the sun”.

Rolt comments, “There is surely some symbolic significance in this little piece of humble and quite spontaneous ritual by which the sun’s heat kindled fire in the belly of the first locomotive in the world to move on a public line of railway.”

No 1 duly hauled the first train of coal and passengers from Shildon to Stockton on September 27th 1825.

In 1828 the boiler exploded, killing the driver, at Aycliffe Lane station, after the fireman had fastened down the safety valve.

Locomotion worked on the railway until 1841, and then, after fifteen years’ use as a stationary engine, it was restored and displayed, usually at Stockton except when it was loaned out to exhibitions elsewhere.

It last steamed in 1881, and from 1892 until 1975 (except in the years of the Second World War) it was displayed with another early S&DR loco, Derwent (1845) at the main-line station at Darlington Bank Top.

For the 150th Anniversary celebrations of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1975 a working reproduction was constructed, which has recently been the subject of a “tug of love”: Darlington to have replica Locomotion No 1 on display | The Northern Echo.