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

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.

Muscular Gothic

Bestwood Lodge, Nottinghamshire

On my 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, we took a lunch stop, between the parish church of St Mary, Derby and St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham, at the astonishing Bestwood Lodge, now a Best Western hotel:  https://www.bestwoodlodgehotel.co.uk.

Dropping Bestwood Lodge into a tour themed around the work of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was, as Londoners would say, “’avin’ a larf”.

The architect for this extravaganza was Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-1873), who after twenty years of steady work within the mainstream of the Gothic Revival was beginning to take the theoretical principles of Pugin and Scott to extremes.  He appears to have decided that the time and the market had arrived for him to throw stylistic caution to the wind and build aggressively.  Some modern writers have labelled this style “muscular Gothic”.

Teulon’s client was William Beauclerk, 10th Duke of St Albans (1840-1898), who had the vestiges of a medieval hunting lodge removed to make way for a completely new and quite startling country retreat, in Nottingham pressed brick with Mansfield stone dressings vigorously carved by the Nottingham-born sculptor Thomas Earp (1828-1893).

The house stands high on a defined level terrace;  its gables, dormers, chimneys and spires give it a lively skyline and its elevations bristle with a succession of varied bays, turrets and buttresses.

The main porch is a weird collection of Gothic ingredients – vaulting supporting an oriel, flying buttresses at right angles to each other and quirky pinnacles set diagonally.  Carvings of Robin Hood and his merry men peer down from this bizarre composition. 

The wing to the left of the entrance looks for all the world like a chapel but was designed originally – to the expressed disapproval of the ultra-orthodox Ecclesiologist – as the servants’ hall.  Later on it did in fact become a chapel.

The most impressive interior space is the central hall, top-lit by an octagonal lantern, its Gothic arcading almost certainly modified by a later owner.  The heavy stepped fireplace shows how far Teulon was prepared to squash, stretch and distort orthodox Gothic forms.  It seems not to have harmed his commercial prospects;  Pevsner relates that it was on the recommendation of his work at Bestwood that he was invited to work at Sandringham.

The tenth Duke’s friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, brought numerous royal visits, sometimes incognito:  the Prince and Princess of Wales stayed at Bestwood for the opening of the Castle Museum in 1878, and Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, visited when he opened University College in 1881.

After the death of the tenth Duke in 1898 the house was leased for long periods while his son, Charles, 11th Duke (1870-1934) was confined to an asylum.  It was finally vacated when the estate was sold to pay the eleventh Duke’s death duties in 1938. 

The purchaser was Sir Harold Bowden, 2nd Bt (1880-1960), chairman of the Raleigh Bicycle Company.  The house was first requisitioned and later purchased by the Army for headquarters, and became a hotel in the 1970s.

Pugin would have loathed it.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, with text, photographs and a reading list includes a section on Bestwood Lodge and 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.

Market Place

Peacock Inn, Chesterfield, Derbyshire (1982)

Chesterfield, by its name, clearly dates back to Roman times, and a short-lived fort is thought to have existed somewhere near the site of the medieval parish church of St Mary, the famous “Crooked Spire”.

The town had a regular market by the year 1156 and gained a charter in 1204.  A street grid developed around a huge market place, the eastern part of which was later infilled by alleyways known as the Shambles.

Its mercantile past is marked by street-names that commemorate ancient trades – Packer’s Row, Knifesmithgate, Saltergate and Glumangate (from “gleeman”, a minstrel, indicating the Tin Pan Alley of medieval Chesterfield).

The open market place, with its stately iron pump, was bordered by fine Georgian inns and shops and, in 1857, embellished with a Market Hall that included an assembly room, a post office, a corn exchange and a tall clock tower.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner dismissed this pompous pile as “the crudest show of high Victorian prosperity” and by the 1950s it indeed looked past its best – grubby and shorn of the ogee top to the tower.

In 1964 the Borough Council commissioned the Hammerson Group to redevelop the entire area, and they proposed a covered precinct that would have obliterated the market place, the Market Hall and the Low Pavement shops to the south.

After the Council approved this proposal in 1972, uproar followed. 

A petition against it attracted 34,000 signatures, and a letter to the Derbyshire Times by a twelve-year-old schoolboy, David Ellis, led to the formation of the Chesterfield Heritage Society which served a High Court writ on the Council, asserting that the Hammerson scheme “would not be in the financial interests of the town’s ratepayers.

Low Pavement already included a number of listed buildings when an arson attack on the derelict, unassuming Peacock Inn revealed that the building was in fact a three-bay timber-framed structure dating from c1500 with an impressive tie-beam roof with curved wind braces, which was hurriedly listed Grade II. 

In the face of the crescendo of opposition Hammerson Group chose not to sign the development agreement.

The Council then executed a widely praised policy U-turn and commissioned the distinguished practice Feilden & Mawson to survey the area covered by the Hammerton scheme, while the Department of the Environment listed nearly sixty structures.

This led, with strong public approval, to The Pavements development, which retained the facades of Low Pavement while stripping away the burgage plots behind, building a brick-faced multi-storey car park, turning the Peacock Inn into an information centre and renovating the Market Hall and reinstating its 30ft dome.

The lead architect, Bernard Feilden, commented the Market Hall might be called ugly “but it has been saved because it is so essentially a part of Chesterfield”. 

A more hard-headed argument in its favour was that renovation cost an estimated £250,000 less than demolishing it and building a new replacement.

Meanwhile, the Shambles area, itself threatened by a comprehensive redevelopment by Lloyds Bank Property Ltd but championed by the Chesterfield & District Civic Society, was given conservation-area status which protected the sixteenth-century Grade II*-listed Royal Oak pub.

The largely completed scheme was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in November 1981.

Within a period of little more than five years Chesterfield was transformed.  Instead of gaining a covered shopping precinct that destroyed the historic core, the town retained its scale and its open spaces, conserved and improved for the future.

And the borough’s politicians, having abandoned what must have looked like a good deal in the 1960s, could pat themselves on the back for being in the forefront of the sensitive environmental thinking that Prince Charles has championed in the years that followed.

Holy Name of Jesus

Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Oxford Road, Manchester

The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Oxford Road, Manchester, stands as a symbol of permanence in an area that has seen huge changes since the parish was founded in middle of the nineteenth century.

In the decade after the Great Famine of 1845-49, thousands of Irish immigrants settled to the south of the River Medlock. 

The first Bishop of Salford, William Turner (1799-1872), invited the Society of Jesus to provide clergy for a new parish to be located in a temporary church in Burlington Street.  This structure, named Gesù after the Society’s mother-church in Rome, was opened on Easter Tuesday, April 4th 1868.

The foundation stone of what came to be called Holy Name Church was laid in June 1869. 

The shell of the building without interior fittings cost £14,000 and was opened on October 15th 1871.

The architect was Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803-1882), famed as the inventor of the ‘Patent Safety Cab’ that bears his name.  He designed Birmingham Town Hall (designed 1831-32, completed 1861).  His other major churches are Mount St Mary’s Church, Leeds (1851-57), St Walburge’s Church, Preston (1854), Plymouth Cathedral (1856-58) and Arundel Cathedral (1869-73). 

Built of brick, faced with Warwick Bridge stone outside and terracotta within, Hansom’s design is in fourteenth-century Gothic style. 

The façade is asymmetrical:  the baptistery with its conical roof extends to the south, and because of the street-layout the footprint is trapezoidal, so that the liturgical east end (actually north-east) is wider than the entrance.  This is disguised by the layout of chapels along the south aisle, which are balanced by confessionals, each with its own fireplace, to the north.

The nave is wide, light and spacious, reflecting the Jesuit preoccupation with preaching.  The rib-vault of hollow polygonal terracotta blocks by Gibbs & Canning Ltd of Tamworth is supported by slender columns.

J A Hansom intended a slender lantern and spire 240 feet high with twin windows and gables, but it was abandoned for fear of overburdening the foundations. 

Instead, a shorter, tapered tower was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963), younger brother of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Liverpool Cathedral.  It was completed at a cost of £17,000 in 1928.  Its carillon of bells was dedicated on October 13th 1931.

During the ministry of Fr Bernard Vaughan SJ (1847-1922, brother of Cardinal Henry Vaughan), the church had a powerful influence on the surrounding community. 

In the year 1900 the parish, with a population of 3,500, registered 25 converts, 125 baptisms, 2,850 Easter Communions and 32,815 confessions.  A bazaar in 1893 raised £7,350, supplemented by a donation of a thousand guineas by Sir Humphrey Trafford, then the owner of Trafford Park, and his friends. 

In 1895 the funeral of Sir Charles Hallé took place at Holy Name Church:  the cortège reached Weaste Cemetery four hours after the start of High Mass, which included a performance of the Mozart Requiem and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.

The removal of local families to outer-Manchester housing estates from the end of the 1920s, the upheavals of the Second World War and the post-war clearance of the surrounding streets radically changed the setting of Holy Name Church. 

The area became a collective campus for what are now the city’s three universities – the University of Manchester (formerly the Victoria University of Manchester), the Manchester Metropolitan University (previously Manchester Polytechnic) and the Royal Northern College of Music (founded by Sir Charles Hallé as the Royal Manchester School of Music).

The Jesuits moved away in 1985 and from 1992 the church was run by the brothers of an Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.  In 2003 the Oratorians moved to St Chad’s, Cheetham Hill, the mother-church of Manchester Catholics, and the Jesuits were invited back to Holy Name to run the Manchester Universities’ Catholic Chaplaincy: http://www.muscc.org.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s ‘Manchester’s Heritage’ lecture, please click here.

The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Manchester’s Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps 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.

Holy Angels

Church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, Staffordshire: chantry chapel

The Hon Mrs Emily Charlotte Meynell-Ingram (1840-1904) was one of the richest women in England, the widow of Hugo Francis Meynell-Ingram (1822-1871), whom she married in 1863.

From her husband she inherited substantial estates in Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, amounting to 25,000 acres including Temple Newsam, near Leeds, and Hoar Cross in east Staffordshire, ten miles west of Burton-on-Trent.

Her father-in-law died in 1869, shortly after he began building a new house at Hoar Cross to replace the Old Hall.  It was completed in 1871, the year that his son’s death in a hunting accident left his widow lonely and socially isolated.

Though the Mrs Meynell-Ingram preferred to spend time at Temple Newsam, she dealt with her bereavement by building Holy Angels’ Church at Hoar Cross, within a short walk of the Hall, so that her husband’s remains could be transferred from the parish church at Yoxall.

Mrs Meynall-Ingram resolved from the outset to entrust the entire design of her church to a single architect.

Her choice, George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), remained with the project from the initial commission in 1871 until the end of his life.  Indeed, the only part of the church that he didn’t design, the narthex, is his own memorial designed by his assistant and successor in the practice, Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875-1932).

Bodley had previous experience of working for a single lady patron with an open cheque-book:  he had designed St Martin-on-the-Hill, Scarborough in 1861-2 for Miss Mary Craven, the daughter of a Hull surgeon.

He and his business partner Thomas Garner (1839-1906) certainly worked together at Hoar Cross, though Bodley seems to have taken a lead.

Holy Angels’ is an essay in the Decorated style of fourteenth-century English Gothic and is regarded as one of Bodley’s best churches.

The church is oriented to the south, so that daytime sun streams through the six-light east window.

The nave has a timber roof, while the significantly taller east end is elaborately vaulted.  These features combine to make the sanctuary a dramatically lit, mysterious space, its sanctity preserved by Bodley’s ornate iron screen.

In 1888, when the Old Hall was opened as a boys’ orphanage, Mrs Meynell-Ingram decided the church was too small and commissioned Bodley to take down the west wall and extend its length from two to three bays.

She added the Lady Chapel to the south of the chancel in 1891, and the corresponding All Souls’ Chapel to the north in 1901, and refloored the nave in black and white marble the following year.

And Mrs Meynell-Ingram incessantly collected artefacts to embellish Holy Angels’ when she travelled in Europe and the Mediterranean.  She commissioned the Stations of the Cross copied from the Antwerp carvers the Antwerp carvers Jean-Baptist van Wint and Jean-Baptist de Boeck, coloured in the sgraffito manner which she had seen in the Mariankirche in Danzig (now Gdańsk).

The Chantry Chapel contains the tombs of both Hugo and Emily Meynell-Ingram, their effigies each resting on an alabaster base under ogee arches.  The effigy of Hugo Meynell-Ingram is by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892).

This sumptuous church is one of the highlights of Victorian architecture, worth seeking out for its great beauty and richness.

It epitomises what can be done when piety, grief and great wealth combine with artistic excellence.

The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, includes a section on Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, and 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.

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

“Perfectly plain” Pugin

St Barnabas Cathedral, Nottingham

After he had begun work on St Mary’s Church, Derby, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was invited to design a parish church for Nottingham, a bigger building with a limited budget, and therefore plainer than he liked.

Pugin himself had envisaged St Mary’s as the future cathedral for the North Midlands, but when the Catholic hierarchy was re-established, the East Midlands diocese was based at St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham.

By the time he designed St Barnabas’, Pugin had already completed the drawings for the much more elaborate St Giles’ Church, Cheadle, yet at Nottingham he contrived dramatic effects in what he claimed was the most economical manner, though he exceeded the initial budget by half.

Always melodramatic, and sometimes hysterical, this talented, obsessive, frantic, fascinating man remonstrated with the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had subscribed £7,000 of the original £10,500 estimate, about whether, and where, to have the tower:

I have no reason for placing the tower of Nottingham at the West end.  It would be a loss, a clear loss of funds.  I have not one tracery window, no pinnacles or any ornament externally.  It will be the greatest triumph of external simplicity and internal effect yet achieved.  Yet I must have outline and breaks or the building will go for nothing.

Looking at the completed church, it’s easy to see what he meant about the position of the tower;  it is equally easy to see that the finished design is not short of external ornament.

Pugin’s stated aim was to build a church “which would give general satisfaction, have a grand appearance, although perfectly plain and admit of a most solemn and rich interior.”  The plain ashlar walls, pierced by narrow lancets and a rose window of plate tracery, give an impression of solidity.  The whole church is 190 feet from end to end, and the spire rises to 150 feet but looks higher as the street slopes downhill towards the east.

But Pugin himself was dissatisfied.  He felt, quite literally, that his style was cramped:

Nottingham was spoilt by the style restricted to lancet – a period well suited to a cistercian abbey in a secluded vale, but very unsuitable for the centre of a crowded town… there was nothing left but to make the best under the circumstances, and the result has been what might be expected;  the church is too dark, and I am blamed for it…

Indeed, Pugin was easily disgruntled.  Having converted to Catholicism only in 1832, he was “a Catholic first and whatever else he was second”.

Monsignor Martin Cummins, in Nottingham Cathedral:  a history of Catholic Nottingham (1985), relates how –

When showing an Anglican friend the Rood-screen, Pugin said:  “Within is the holy of holies.  The people remain outside.  Never is the sanctuary entered save by those in sacred orders.”  Then, to his horror, a priest appeared in the sanctuary showing the screen to two ladies.  Pugin turned to the sacristan, “Turn these people out at once!  How dare they enter!”  But the sacristan replied, “Sir, it is Bishop Wiseman.”  Pugin, powerless, retired to the nearest bench and burst into tears.

Pugin’s architectural career only began in the late 1830s.  By the end of the 1840s the energy he poured into his creativity had wrecked his health, and he died, a broken man, in 1851 at the age of forty.

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.

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

Pioneer of the Gothic Revival

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Derby

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Derby, built 1838-39, was the first complete design of the foremost designer of the English Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852).

Its foundation stone was laid on June 28th 1837, the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

Previously the few Catholics in Derby had worshipped in a small building in Chapel Street.

Built to the north of Derby town centre, at precisely the time when the approaching railways were about to cause rapid growth in population, St Mary’s was an acknowledgement that many of the workers who would migrate to the new railway works would be Irish in origin.

The site was constricted and funds limited.  Pugin set out the building with the sanctuary to the north and a tall tower, 100 feet high, placed centrally at the south (liturgical west) front.

The church would have been even more prominent if Pugin’s slender spire, supported by flying buttresses, had been built:  its tip would have reached two hundred feet above street level.

In the absence of a spire, a white Portland stone statue of St Mary was mounted on top of the tower and unveiled on Trinity Sunday 1928.

Now that many of the surrounding buildings have been cleared the plainness of the side walls is noticeable.

Though the exterior of St Mary’s is elegant and understated, the interior was richly decorated.

Pugin designed a whole range of fittings and metal furniture in collaboration with the Birmingham manufacturer, John Hardman.  The panoply of lamps, crosses, candlesticks, vessels and altar furniture first seen at the consecration ceremony were the earliest products of a partnership which lasted to the end of the architect’s life.

The Derby Mercury reported that “the appearance of the clergy, upwards of fifty in number, surrounding the Altar, was extremely gorgeous”.

The Catholic newcomers were not welcomed to Derby by the established Anglicans.

In 1846 the great bulk of the Anglican parish church of St Alkmund, designed by the local architect Henry Isaac Stevens (1806-1873), was built, blocking the view of St Mary’s from the town centre.  It was traditionally said to have been the “Anglicans’ revenge” for the construction of Pugin’s church.

Ironically, when St Alkmund’s was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Inner Ring Road, some of its stone was offered for the construction of a new East Porch for St Mary’s.

The footbridge across the underpass leads directly to St Mary’s main entrance, and there is now an unimpeded view between Pugin’s elegant Gothic Revival church and the superb medieval Perpendicular tower of the Anglican cathedral of All Saints’.

St Mary’s Church is listed Grade II*.

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.

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

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.

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.

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 tolerant 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.

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.

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