Category Archives: Victorian Architecture

Exploring Canberra: St John’s Church, Reid

St John the Baptist Church, Reid, Canberra, Australia

Having visited the one building in Canberra I’d specifically come to see, All Saints’ Church, Ainslie, I looked for the obvious tourist sites like the National Gallery and the National Museum of Australia and the obscure, unlikely places that often prove to be more interesting.

I enjoyed, for instance, the National Museum of Australia, not least for the excellent salmon sandwich and pot of tea overlooking the West Basin of Canberra’s enormous artificial lake.  Like the National Maritime Museum in Sydney, entry is free and the standard of presentation is top-quality.  It supplemented my learning in a number of ways, not least because it displays an example of the gold-diggers’ wooden cradle which I’d read about and couldn’t visualise.

I’d decided to pursue my trail of buildings by the architect Edmund Blacket (1817-1883), who had built, amid much else, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney the Necropolis Receiving Station and the Cemetery Station no 1 that became All Saints’, Ainslie, and some of the minor churches I’d spotted in Sydney and around Maitland and Morpeth, New South Wales.

I spotted that Edmund Blacket built the 1864 tower to the older Church of St John the Baptist, Reid, consecrated in 1845, sixty-odd years before Canberra was even thought of. 

There’s a photograph of it c1864 with an earlier tower, surrounded entirely by flat fields.  It’s the oldest building in the area, with a narrow nave and chancel because the original cell was small and has been three times lengthened.  It has the warm, modest atmosphere of an English parish church.  Edmund Blacket’s tower and spire of 1864 sits neatly at the end of the 1841-45 nave, and the chancel is 1872-73. 

The walls are worth reading.  One panel alerted me to the existence of an abortive St Mark’s Anglican Cathedral project, for which the federal government provided a site at Rottenbury Hill in 1927, though nothing has yet been built. 

There is also a monument to the first minister of St John’s, Rev G E Gregory, who was drowned on August 20th 1851 “while attempting to swim across the Queyanbean [River] on his return from ministering to the scattered colonists on the banks of the Murrumbidgee”. 

Outside in the churchyard, the so-called ‘Prophetic Tombstone’ to Sarah and George Webb has as its inscription Hebrews 15:14 – “For here we have no continuing city, but seek one to come”.

Petre Street Primitive Methodist Chapel

Petre Street Primitive Methodist Chapel, Sheffield (1977)

In 1977 I made a point of photographing the demolition of the magnificent All Saints’ Church, Ellesmere Road, Sheffield and, incidentally, took one image of the nearby Petre Street Primitive Methodist Chapel (1869).

I knew nothing of its history;  I simply thought it looked attractive, surrounded by boarded-up terraced houses that were clearly going to disappear.

Petre Street was the largest Primitive Methodist chapel in Sheffield:  its main hall seated 1,250 and its site on a steep slope provided room for a schoolroom, institute and classrooms in addition.

It had a troubled inception.

Sited on what was then the outskirts of Sheffield, it stood on a bleak hilltop overlooking the burgeoning steelworks in the Lower Don Valley below.

During construction a storm blew away the roof in November 1867, and the contractor repaired the several hundred pounds’ worth of damage.  This was completed on Friday February 7th 1868, when the beginning of another storm obliged the workmen lash themselves to the scaffolding to avoid being blown off.

This second storm over two days and nights caused considerable damage over a wide area, including two fatalities in the centre of Sheffield.

Overnight part of the gable end of the partly-constructed chapel fell away, and at three o’clock the following afternoon the side wall collapsed, bringing with it the roof and its timbers, filling the interior with debris and weakening the remaining side wall so that it too collapsed. 

This time the repair bill, estimated at £1,200, was the direct responsibility of the trustees, who immediately set about fundraising. 

The church was opened at an eventual cost of £5,000, with a remaining debt of £2,400, on Friday March 27th 1869.

As a community, the Petre Street Methodists lost no time.  Newspaper reports in 1869 show a relentless programme of events in addition to services – Band of Hope meetings, a sale of work, a bazaar, the oratorio Babylon and, immediately after Christmas, a tea for a thousand in two sittings, for which eight hundred tickets were sold.

The trustees’ courage and determination in surviving not one but two storms at the outset is remarkable.

At the start of the twentieth century this congregation was described by the Primitive Methodist Magazine as leading one of the most “aggressive and prosperous” Primitive Methodist circuits in Sheffield.

For a century, the two congregations, Anglicans at All Saints’ and Primitive Methodists at Petre Street, came and went each Sunday within sight of each other.

As the houses were cleared in the mid-1970s both congregations diminished.  All Saints’ had gone by the middle of 1977, and the Petre Street chapel was closed and quickly demolished in 1980, when the two churches moved together into a new building, St Peter’s,designed by the G D Frankish Partnership.

It’s an attractive building, though it lacks the impact of All Saints’ or the quieter dignity of the Petre Street chapel.

St Peter’s Church, Ellesmere, Sheffield

Thomas Hawksley’s grand designs

Former Bestwood Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire, now Lakeside Restaurant (2021)

A pair of remarkable linked architectural experiences are to be found north of Nottingham, where two of the magnificent pumping stations associated with the Victorian engineer Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893) are open to the public.

When I first planned my Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness tour to take place in 2020 I couldn’t include Bestwood Pumping Station because the restaurant that occupied the building had closed.

The slightly later Papplewick Pumping Station is so important and so spectacular that I determined the date of the tour to coincide with the steaming-day programme at Papplewick, and I did exactly the same when I had to postpone the tour, first to 2021 and latterly to 2022.

By the time I did final checks for the 2022 dates – Thursday August 25th-Monday August 29th 2022 – the newly refurbished Lakeside Restaurant had reopened, providing the opportunity to enjoy both buildings on the same day, with lunch included.

When Bestwood Pumping Station was built between 1869 and 1873 the landowner, the 10th Duke of St Albans, had only recently completed his grandiose retreat at Bestwood Lodge, and His Grace specified in the lease to the Nottingham Waterworks Company that the waterworks should embellish his estate.

Consequently, the engine house is an elaborate brick essay in thirteenth-century Gothic, with a 172-foot high chimney that’s encased in a Venetian Gothic staircase tower leading to a viewing platform.  (This will be open to the public when building works are finished in due course.)

The engines were dismantled in 1968 and the empty building reopened as the Lakeside Restaurant in 1997 with a décor strongly reminiscent of Victorian country houses, later replaced by an understated colour scheme of sage green and gold.

The latest refurbishment has transformed the interior to a dramatic charcoal and white scheme with tiny touches of gold that admirably brings out the decorative detail of the Victorian structural ironwork.

Papplewick is even more ornate, and for different reasons.  By the time it was started in 1882 the Waterworks Company had been taken over by Nottingham Corporation, and their engineer, Marriott Ogle Tarbotton (1835-1887), closely followed Hawksley’s design at Bestwood.  The Papplewick project was finished below budget, so the surplus cash was spent on a riot of craftsman decoration, all on the theme of water and water creatures.

When I visited the Lakeside to update my photos, and to have lunch, my hostess Theo mentioned that she hadn’t ever visited the Papplewick Pumping Station, and she was sufficiently enticed by my friend’s videos of the engines in steam to arrange to visit the next steaming day with her colleague Katie.

They’re in for a treat, as my guests will be on next August’s tour.

To walk through the imposing front door of Bestwood Pumping for an excellent lunch, and then to drive over to Papplewick and walk through a very similar front door to witness two huge beam engines quietly turning is a profoundly satisfying contrast.

In the warm, hypnotic environment of the Papplewick engine house it feels as if the earth moves.

Bestwood is visually dramatic, and Papplewick is a multisensory theatrical experience.

The Lakeside Restaurant in the former Bestwood Pumping Station is a lunch stop on the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour. For details of the itinerary, please click here.

St John the Baptist, Tuebrook

Church of St John the Baptist, Tuebrook, Liverpool

George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907) was a major figure in the second generation of Victorian architects in Britain.

Apart from his exceptional artistic acumen, which led him to collaborate with like-minded artists in a range of media, he had two outstanding qualities.

First, he capitalised the personal connections he grew up with in Hull, where his father was a physician at Hull Royal Infirmary.  He became the pupil of the great Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), whose uncle was the first of three successive generations to serve as vicar of St Mary Lowgate Church in Hull’s Old Town from 1816 to 1883.  Bodley’s sister married Scott’s brother Samuel, a doctor, in 1846.

One of his early commissions, St Martin-on-the-Hill parish church, Scarborough (1861-2) was financed as a memorial to her father by Miss Mary Craven, the wealthy daughter of a Hull surgeon.

Bodley had a knack of attracting commissions from wealthy patrons seeking a rich architectural expression of their High Church principles. 

Five years later, the £25,000 cost of his church of St John the Baptist, Tuebrook, Liverpool (consecrated 1870) was borne by the wife of the first vicar, Rev J C Reade.

Later commissions included St Augustine, Pendlebury, Salford (1870-1874, £33,000) for the banker Edward Stanley Heywood and Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, Staffordshire (1872 onwards, £28,500), a memorial to the late husband of Mrs Emily Charlotte Meynell Ingram.

His final, posthumously completed commission was St Chad, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire (1905-1910, £38,000) for the brewer Michael Bass, 1st Baron Burton.

Even later than this, a decent Gothic parish church could be built from scratch for less than £8,000.

All these churches are now listed Grade I.

The current Buildings of England entry describes St John the Baptist, Tuebrook as “large, unshowy, but dignified and sensitive…a key work in Bodley’s oeuvre”.  Its exterior is distinguished by its irregular polychrome banding, and the exterior and interior proportions are at the same time dignified and simple. 

The richness of the interior comes from the fittings which Bodley and his practice partner Thomas Garner provided – the marble font and pulpit, the screens painted by Kempe, leading to the choir and sanctuary, where the woodwork of the choir stalls and organ case is oak, stained black, painted and gilded, and the stained glass of the east window and the window to the south of the chancel designed by Bodley and Kempe in collaboration with William Morris. 

The reredos, also designed by Bodley, replaced the original in 1870-71, before the Bishop of Chester, Rev John Graham, would consecrate the church.  There is uncertainty about whether Bishop Graham objected to the original reredos because of suspicions that it had previously belonged to a Roman Catholic chapel, or whether Bodley had manipulated the postponement to make time for improvements to the heating system and the organ.

Bodley’s wall-decorations, painted by his assistant Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), had deteriorated by the turn of the century, and Father Brockman, vicar in 1905, commented, “It costs a good deal to live up to Mr Bodley.”  After Bodley’s death in 1907 his surviving partner, Cecil Greenwood Hare, revised the decorative scheme and this was restored by Stephen Dykes Bower (1903-1994) in 1968-71.  It is now once again in need of restoration.

Bodley designed the Vicarage, built in 1890, and also, in a corner of the churchyard, a curious and little-noticed feature, the mortuary house on Snaefell Avenue.

The rescheduled ‘Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022)’ tour includes a guided tour of St John the Baptist, Tuebrook.  For further details please click here.

Exploring Canberra: All Saints’ Church, Ainslie 2

All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie, Canberra, Australia

My curiosity to visit All Saints’ Church, Ainslie, was prompted not only by its unusual provenance as a cemetery railway-station, but because of a local association between my native Sheffield and this antipodean suburb in Australia’s federal capital.

The sanctuary of All Saints’ is dominated by the east window by Charles Kempe & Co.  The glass comes from St Clement’s Church, Newhall, Sheffield (1914), paid for by a subscription of parishioners and dedicated in 1919 to the memory of the war dead of the parish.

St Clement’s closed in July 1961, as the congregation had dwindled and the surrounding housing was cleared.  The All Saints’ guide-book, A Station of the Cross, relates that the gift was at the instigation of Lady Jacqueline De L’Isle, wife of the Governor-General who served from 1961.  Lady De L’Isle liked to worship at All Saints’, and once brought the poet John Betjeman to a service. He advised her where in Britain she could source glass to fill the east window at All Saints’.

The glass in the east window at All Saints’ is not the entire window from St Clement’s:  photographs indicate that John Dodsley Webster’s design for Newhall was taller and the window longer:  http://www.picturesheffield.com/frontend.php?keywords=Ref_No_increment;EQUALS;y02488&pos=2&action=zoom

It’s apparent that the prophets Joel, Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi are omitted along with the original inscription “Remember ye with thanksgiving and all honour before God and man those who went forth from Newhall to the Great War 1914-19, and returned not again.”  Canon William Odom’s description of the window in its original form is quoted at http://www.sheffieldsoldierww1.co.uk/Memorial/St%20Clements.html.

Furthermore, some panels of glass at Ainslie are clearly intended to fit cusped tracery, yet the Sydney designer Phillip Handel has mounted all the glass in a single steel frame.  Some of the surplus glass was used in the entrances to the side vestries.

All Saints’ possesses further English glass by Charles Kempe from the parish church of St Margaret, Bagendon, Gloucestershire.

The original bell, which at Rookwood alerted mourners to the departure of the return train to Sydney, had disappeared and was replaced by the bell of an American Shay locomotive that worked at the Wolgan Valley Railway near Lithgow, New South Wales, presented to All Saints’ by the New South Wales Steam Tram & Train Preservation Society in 1958.

Exploring Canberra: All Saints’ Church, Ainslie 1

All Saints’ Parish Church, Ainslie, Canberra, Australia

Just as I’d taken a jetlag break in Manila only to see the San Sebastian Church, in my epic journey from Hobart in Tasmania to Cairns in Queensland I took a side-trip from Sydney to Canberra specifically to see one building.

All Saints’ Church, Ainslie, deep in the Canberra suburbs, is of unique interest to anyone who studies Gothic architecture, railways, nineteenth-century funeral practices and conservation. 

The stonework of All Saints’ started out as the Haslem’s Creek Cemetery Station, the terminus of the rail spur into Rookwood Cemetery from Lidcombe Station, ten miles from Sydney Central.  This imposing structure accommodated a single track under cover, with platforms on either side and open arcades through which coffins were transferred to horse-drawn hearses to reach their burial site.  The funeral station was a highly elaborate Gothic essay, matching the high quality of the Mortuary Station alongside Central Station.  Both buildings were designed by the Colonial Architect, James Johnstone Burnet (1827-1904).

Trains entered through a Gothic arch, from which spring carved angels, the left-hand one holding a scroll with closed eyes, the right-hand with open eyes holding a trumpet:  the pair presumably symbolise death and resurrection.  The station originally ended in an octagonal apse which was removed in 1891 when the line was extended further into the cemetery to Cemetery Stations 2, 3 and 4:  the stones of the apse became the ladies’ waiting room of Cemetery Station 3 and the Haslem’s Creek station was renamed Cemetery Station 1.

The cemetery railway closed in 1948, and Cemetery Station 1 was vandalised and then burnt out, leaving only the masonry standing, sometime in the 1950s.  The stones were purchased by the parish of All Saints’, Ainslie, for A£100 and transported to Canberra in eighty-three lorry-loads in 1958.  The total cost of transport and reconstruction was A£5,101 3s 2d.

This remarkable transaction was led by the Rector, Rev Edward G Buckle, and a parishioner, Mr Stan Taunton.  Some people were not in favour.  According to Mr Buckle, “anonymous phone-calls were received, from sincere people, declaring the venture foolhardy, and urging its abandonment”.

None of the stones were lost, though there was a worrying moment when a truck carrying carved stonework including keystones of the arches and interior columns, broke down on the road and apparently disappeared.  It reappeared two days later after the driver had arranged a replacement clutch at a remote country garage.

There is a poignant photograph of the clergy and parishioners holding hands in a circle around the footings of their new church in a service based on 1 Peter 2:5 – “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” 

The architect, Mr W Pierce, ingeniously adapted the 782 tons of stone, including the apse rescued from Cemetery Station no 3, in a three-dimensional jigsaw in which nothing was wasted.  To fit the site the bell-tower was re-erected on the opposite side of the building from Burnet’s original layout.  The entrance arch with the angels was taken inside to frame the sanctuary, and the rear arch became the west front.  The sanctuary itself was built from most of the stones of the original apse, except for the angled stones which became the pulpit.  The top of the chimney of the apse is now the font.

The result is a very beautiful and original building.  The Tasmanian Mountain Ash roof and interior fittings all date from 1958 and a new floor of ceramic tiles, coloured to match the sandstone stonework, was installed in 2011.  There is a west gallery with a Bishop & Starr organ from Wealdstone Baptist Church, Harrow, purchased in 1988.

The proportions of the interior are unlike a conventional Gothic church – wider, lighter and lower, big enough to accommodate an Australian-sized train.  Its proportions work perfectly as a worship space.

Jesuit gem

St Francis Xavier RC Church, Everton, Liverpool

When I was at university, one of my hall-of-residence associates was studying science in preparation for training to be a Jesuit at the English College in Rome.

From knowing him, I’ve always regarded the Jesuits as the border collies of the Catholic clergy – astute, focused, determined, committed and effective.  Adherents vow to devote their lives Ad Majorem Dei Gloria – to the greater glory of God.

The Society of Jesus built the first post-Reformation Catholic chapel in Liverpool in 1736.  It lasted two years before it was destroyed by a mob, and was promptly rebuilt, disguised as a warehouse.  Their work in Liverpool ceased after the suppression of the Society by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, and their chapel was passed to the Benedictines in 1783. 

The Jesuits returned to Liverpool in the 1840s at the invitation of a group of eight Catholic businessmen who financed the building of the church dedicated to St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit order, on Salisbury Street, Everton. 

The foundation stone was laid in 1842.  By the time the church was completed in 1848 Liverpool was experiencing a huge influx of poor Irish people fleeing the Great Famine.  The thousand-seat capacity of the original church became inadequate and a secondary worship-space, the Sodality Chapel, was opened in 1888.  (A sodality is a lay religious brotherhood.)

The 1848 church, designed by Joseph John Scoles (1798-1863) is stone built, with separate roofs for the nave and aisles and a polygonal apse, and an impressive tower and spire at the south-west corner.  The spire was always intended, but only added in 1883.  The high altar, reredos and pulpit, and the Sacred Heart altar of 1852-53, were designed by Scoles’ pupil, Samuel Joseph Nicholl (1826-1905).

Most of the original glass by Hardman & Powell was blown out in the Blitz, but an almost complete set of fragments of a window depicting St Ignatius was found in a box and restored in 2015.

The Sodality Chapel was designed by the Liverpool-born architect Edward Kirby (1838-1920), a pupil of the Gothic Revival architect Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875).  It’s smaller but more elaborate than the main church, with a polygonal apse and an ambulatory behind the altar.  Its stained glass is by Burlison & Grylls.

In the 1930s St Francis Xavier was the largest Catholic parish in England serving a population of 13,000.  It continued to flourish, despite damage to the building in the Liverpool Blitz, until the clearance of the surrounding streets emptied its congregation. 

The Archdiocese proposed to demolish the nave in the early 1980s, until a national outcry led to a compromise:  the Archdiocese agreed to maintain the Sodality Chapel while the parish took responsibility for the nave.  As a result, a glass screen was erected in the arcade between the two, and for years the nave remained unrestored. 

On the pretext of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the parish in 1997, an impressive campaign enabled the restoration of the nave from 2000 onwards, and in 2001 the Archdiocese amalgamated two neighbouring parishes, and the Sodality Chapel was renamed the Chapel of St Mary of the Angels and St Joseph. 

In 2007, the three-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first Catholic priest in Liverpool, Father William Gillibrand SJ, a shrine was dedicated to St Mary Del Quay, commemorating the very first Christian chapel in Liverpool, founded in 1207.

The St Francis Xavier College moved into the adjacent presbytery in 1845 and then into a new building alongside by 1857.  This in turn proved too small, and a purpose-built replacement by Henry Clutton (1819-1893) opened in 1877.  The corresponding sandstone “poor schools” designed by Joseph Spencer were started in 1853 and extended by the same architect in 1857.  The College moved to Woolton in 1961.  The Salisbury Street buildings and their surroundings became derelict until they were taken over by the ecumenical Liverpool Hope University and opened as its Creative Campus in 1999.

The rescheduled ‘Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022)’ tour includes a guided tour of St Francis Xavier Church.  For further details please click here.

Bijou opera house

Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, West Yorkshire

Ken Dodd used to say that you could immediately tell a Frank Matcham theatre simply by walking on to the stage and speaking quietly.  You’d be audible at the back of the gallery without difficulty.

Frank Matcham’s smallest surviving theatre is the Wakefield Theatre Royal & Opera House, for many years known as the Opera House and now as the Theatre Royal.

It stands on the site of an earlier Theatre Royal, which had been built in 1776 for the actor-manager Tate Wilkinson (1739-1803). 

Under his management John Kemble performed in Wakefield in 1778 and 1788 and Sarah Siddons in 1786; in the following generation Charles Kemble acted at the Theatre Royal in 1807 and Edmund Kean in 1819.

The old theatre went into gradual decline through the middle of the nineteenth century, and in 1871 became a beer house and music hall, licensed by John Brooke, the landlord of the Black Horse pub. 

In 1883 it was revived as the Royal Opera House by Benjamin Sherwood, but was denied a licence nine years later because of the condition of the building.

The replacement theatre was built in 1894 in nine months flat at a cost of £13,000 to Matcham’s designs and opened on October 15th that year. 

After the failure of Benjamin Sherwood’s marriage in 1900 his wife Fanny and their children took over the theatre as Sherwood & Co. 

In the early 1950s their family sold it for £20,000 to Solomon Sheckman, owner of the Essoldo chain of cinemas.  He installed a wide screen for Cinemascope in 1954 and operated it solely as a cinema until he leased it as a bingo hall in 1966. 

It passed to Ladbrokes and was listed Grade II in 1979.  

When Ladbrokes announced its closure in 1980 the Wakefield Theatre Trust, led by Rodney (latterly Sir Rodney) Walker, began a campaign to bring live theatre back to the town.

The restoration involved –

  • renewing the stage house
  • strengthening the grid and installing a new counterweight system for flying
  • re-raking the stalls and lower circle floors
  • reinstating the front-of-house canopy
  • removing the projection box

The building is Grade II* listed, largely on the strength of the quality of the auditorium decoration by De Jong of London – bombé balcony fronts, foliage, fruit and flowers on the lower balcony and paired dolphins in waves on the upper circle.  The original colour-scheme was gold and blue.  The proscenium is intact, and the ceiling has eight decorative medallions of the Muses, reinstated by Kate Lyons, who placed the ninth muse in the central panel of the dress circle front. 

It reopened with a gala show on March 16th 1986.  Arthur Starkie, who co-ordinated the theatre’s centenary celebrations, founded the Frank Matcham Society at the Theatre Royal in 1994.

The Trust acquired the adjacent street-corner site to create a new entrance and bar.  Further grants in 1995, 2002 and 2012 enabled improvements to the auditorium.

The theatre has gained prestige from the appointment as creative director of the playwright John Godber in 2011.  He was born locally, at Upton, and taught drama at the nearby Bretton Hall College.  His breakthrough play, Bouncers (1977) has become a perennial favourite, and his John Godber Company is resident at the Theatre Royal.

I first saw Bouncers at the Wakefield Theatre Royal.  The play is performed by four male actors in black tie, who play the bouncers, the stroppy youths who have to be chucked out and the girls dancing round their handbags.  John Godber portrays the bitter-sweet lives of the men who spend their Saturday nights dealing with the clients who create so much noise, aggression and vomit.

At the end of the night, walking out of the theatre on to Westgate was like stepping into the play.

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.