The Biretta Belt

All Saints' Church (formerly St Aidan's), Small Heath, Birmingham

All Saints’ Church (formerly St Aidan’s), Small Heath, Birmingham

The Anglican parishes around the Birmingham Small Arms factory in Small Heath were carved out of the ancient parish of Aston between 1846 and the end of the nineteenth century, and became part of the Anglo-Catholic “biretta belt” of South Birmingham.

One of the last of these was St Aidan’s Church, begun in 1893, designed in red brick with buff terracotta by Thomas Frederick Proud (d 1901), with a clergy house, intended for a team of single curates, by the Birmingham metalworker and architect Arthur Stansfield Dixon (1856-1929).

The eastern end of the church – chancel, guild chapel and two bays of the nave – was completed in 1894 and consecrated two years later;  the western end including the baptistery and bellcote was finished by the end of 1898.

Once the shell of the church was complete, Arts & Crafts designers supplied much of the decoration:  Bertram Lamplugh of the Birmingham School of Art designed the Good Shepherd window in the Guild Chapel in 1907, and Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945) and W E Ellery Anderson (1888-1942) collaborated with the incumbent, Canon Newell Long, to begin an ambitious decorative scheme, some of which remained unexecuted because of the intervention of the Great War.  The last decorative addition during Canon Long’s incumbency was the free-standing reredos for the Sanctuary by Ellery Anderson, executed by Mowbray & Sons of Oxford and dedicated in 1921.

The grandiose celebrations of Anglo-Catholic worship created continuing problems within the politics of the Birmingham diocese.  Bishop Ernest W Barnes (1874-1953;  bishop 1924-1953) took against the figures on the Rood Screen, the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and the use of incense, and at one stage refused to take confirmations within the parish.

St Aidan’s was valued highly by the early aficionados of Victorian and Edwardian art and architecture, such as John Betjeman – “[a] successful Perpendicular design in red brick and terra cotta”, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner – “a striking and successful example of the local red brick and terracotta school…with an atmosphere much encouraged by the splendid Rood and Screens”.  The Victorian Society identified it as “one of the six or seven finest Victorian churches in Birmingham”.

Housing clearance and the collapse of the BSA company in 1973 encouraged the flight of the local population.  By 1991, only nine of St Aidan’s communicants lived within the parish boundary.  Meanwhile an influx of Asian families meant that by 1997 at least 65% of the population within the parish was Muslim, and most of the local schools had at least 90% Muslim pupils on roll.

From 1994 the diocese of Birmingham closed and disposed of surplus buildings in the parishes of St Gregory and St Oswald, and concentrated activity on the St Aidan’s site, while renaming the parish All Saints to commemorate the dedication of the original early Victorian parish.

The St Aidan’s building was radically reordered, reversing the direction of worship to use the apsidal baptistery as a sanctuary, enlarging the Lady Chapel to provide an intimate worship space and forging an entrance directly on to the street with a meeting-hall above where the High Altar had formerly stood.

The Victorian Society vigorously opposed this attack on the historical integrity of the building, and in 1998 forced the issue to a Consistory Court where the Chancellor found against them, accusing the Society of acting “arrogantly, unreasonably and without common sense”.

This fine church, the “Cathedral of the Back Streets”, continues to serve its purpose under the oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet in an environment vastly different to that for which it was built.

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

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

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