England’s late Georgian churches – long dismissed as “mere preaching boxes” – are re-evaluated in a new book – 71Bait

Early to mid Georgian churches by the likes of James Gibbs and Nicholas Hawksmoor have long been admired, and in recent decades Victorian churches have also made their mark. In contrast, the late Georgian buildings discussed in this important book have not had a good press since they were dismissed by ecclesiologists – the Cambridge Camden Society and its journal founded in 1839 The ecclesiologist published from 1841 – as mere “sermon boxes” designed by architects with an insufficient understanding of the proper layout and style required for a “real” church.

In 1818 the Church Building Commission was formed and the many churches which were erected with the help of its grants were covered in a fine book by MH Port (Six hundred new churches, 2006). However, Christopher Webster, a research fellow at the University of York, shows that a notable number of new churches were built, usually without grants, both before and after this date. Webster aims to reclaim these churches through a careful and informed analysis of their origins and meaning. He uses an immense amount of information and a remarkably generous number of illustrations, including a considerable selection of photographs by the late Geoff Brandwood.

His lack of sympathy for the ecclesiologists and for Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who are generally regarded as the apostles of the “correct” Gothic, suggests an evangelical perspective hostile to Roman Catholicism and emphasizing auditory worship over sacramental worship. It’s a perfectly respectable perspective, albeit one that’s hardly fashionable. However, Webster is full of praise for Robert Chantrell’s Leeds Parish Church (1837-41), which has a chancel as long as the nave, with a well-raised altar and choir stalls in front. He rightly calls her the “forerunner of ecclesiology”.

Webster shows that church building in his time was a response to the often-emphasised lack of church space in connection with the enormous growth in population in England, mainly in the cities, of course. The problem was exacerbated by the lack of free seating in the churches – pew rent was considered an important source of income.

Classic education

The choice of style was a crucial issue. Some argued that Gothic was cheaper than Classical, although others disagreed. Certainly some of the classical churches were surprisingly expensive – for example the privately funded St Pancras Church (William and Henry William Inwood, 1819-22) and St Marylebone Church (Thomas Hardwick, 1813-17) in London each cost around £80,000 . The Gothic examples were too often clumsy and ignorant, although Webster vigorously defends the better ones, such as St. Luke, Chelsea (James Savage, 1820-24) and St. Thomas, Dudley (William Brooks, 1814-18), showing a charitable sympathy for the not so good ones, like Jeptha Pacey’s Lincolnshire Fen churches.

He devotes a generous portion of his reporting to the north of England. For example, a case study concerns south-east Lancashire, where a vigorous group of clergy worked to overcome the conspicuous lack of church space, often with commendable architectural results, such as St Peter, Ashton-under-Lyne (Francis Goodwin, 1821-24 ) and Holy Trinity, Bolton (Philip Hardwick, 1823-26). Throughout, Webster pays particular attention to church design, illustrating a surprising number of unexpected and even eccentric designs. These include the oval St Martin Outwich, London (Samuel Pepys Cockerell, 1796-98) and the octagonal St James, Teignmouth (WE Rolfe, 1817-21).

Anyone interested in church architecture will find much that is unknown and fascinating here, prepared in readable prose and presented in excellent illustrations. It is hoped that the book will lead to a deeper appreciation of these buildings at a time when so many are threatened with insensitive rearrangement or even closure, conversion or demolition.

Christopher Webster, Late Georgian Churches: Anglican Architecture, Patronage and Churchgoing in England, 1790-1840John Hudson Publishing, 320 pp, 370 color & b/w illustrations, £80 (hb), published 26th July

• Peter Howell was Chairman of the Victorian Society from 1987 to 1993. His latest book is The Arc de Triomphe (Unicorn Publishing, 2021)

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