Monthly Archives: April 2021

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.