a Church Spire
Luke's, West Holloway, London
St Luke’s Church,
situated in West Holloway, North London, is like many other ecclesiastical
buildings constructed in the mid-19th century, built by pious, philanthropic
and revivalist Victorians. Its style, which is by no means unique, seemingly
dictated the choice of building materials, which clearly were in plentiful
supply at the time. The juxtaposition of rough textured pale Kentish Ragstone
panels and Bath stone dressings enhanced its smooth and correct Early
The historical use
of Kentish Ragstone over many centuries, as seen in the Tower of London
and more locally, the old Holloway Prison (1849-1852), as well as for
innumerable Victorian churches, has left a legacy of problems, causing
considerable anguish to modern stone conservators. There is no entirely
satisfactory method of consolidation or suitable substitute stone for
occur in spire construction techniques even where the same materials were
used, the problems encountered when repairing this typical Victorian spire
will be familiar to many over the next few decades, if they are not already.
Work began on building
St Luke’s in 1859, with the land being donated by a Thomas Poynder who
owned a lot of what is now Lower Holloway. Local dignitaries donated £1,500,
and the church was consecrated in 1860. During the Second
World War, St Luke’s suffered serious bomb damage when in 1941 the north
Transept took a direct hit and was completely demolished.
A programme of repairs
and rebuilding was undertaken during the 1950s. This included the complete
rebuilding of the North Transept in reconstituted stone, rebuilding of
the spire cap and upper courses in Portland stone dressed to emulate ragstone
walling. Further repairs carried out at this time included re-pointing,
stone consolidation and repair with a hard cement mortar.
The ravages of time,
the effects of pollution and the inappropriate use of cement rich mortars
have all had an affect on the stonework, and in particular on the more
exposed parts of the ragstone walling to the spire, tower and east chancel
Five years ago, during
the quinquennial survey by the church architect, Robert George, it was
noticed that large pieces of ragstone masonry were falling into the church
yard below. Steeplejacks then carried out a further, more detailed survey
of the spire and removed any loose and friable stone. Other churches in
the area had had similar problems in the past, and there is much evidence
locally of decapitated church spires. The decision was taken to try and
save St Luke’s spire and not consign it to the local salvage yard.
The Heritage Lottery
Fund was approached with a bid for funding and, after an initial failed
attempt, St Luke’s PCC were lucky enough to secure funding for the project.
Structures that weather beautifully in unpolluted or avid
locales become unsightly in sulphur-laden or humid air
(Lowenthal The Past is a Foreign Country)
Work on the project
commenced early in 2002. It was programmed to take 34 weeks, eight of
which would involve the erection of full access scaffolding to a height
of 45 metres.
The scope of the masonry
works included the replacement of 250 sq m of weathered Kentish Ragstone
panels to the spire and tower; the replacement of 152 m of Bath stone
ribs to the spire; the repair and consolidation of remaining areas of
retained ragstone; masonry cleaning using the Jos system (a relatively
gentle form of sand-blasting widely used in the conservation industry),
re-pointing open joints with a softer and more porous mortar than used
in previous repairs; minor stone repairs carried out as either ‘plastic’
repairs (which involves building out a worn stone with lime mortar) or
indenting (essentially plastic repairs reinforced with slips of tile);
and shelter coating (the application of a coat of limewash to consolidate
and protect the stone).
Universal Stone Ltd,
the appointed principal masonry contractor, commenced survey work once
full scaffold access was achieved. It soon became apparent that the ragstone
panels on the spire were in worse condition than expected. It had been
assumed that the external face of the ragstone was a veneer laid in front
of a brick backing with perhaps a bonding stone placed at intervals for
additional stability. Indeed the replacement stone was originally to be
confined to removal of the external masonry only. However, the very coarse
nature of ragstone and method of cutting and dressing this tough and intractable
stone obviously dictates the final shape of the stone, thus determining
the construction method. In this case it was found that the walling was
bonded randomly with brick infill placed appropriately as a backing. In
some places all of the stone blocks projected through the brickwork, making
it impossible to remove the stone facing without destroying the integrity
of the brickwork.
The discovery of this
type of construction called for a complete rethink on how the masonry
of the spire was to be dismantled and rebuilt. Scaffolding access to the
spire internally was not originally planned for, however, once the decision
was taken to dismantle the spire masonry completely, an internal scaffolding
took place between the project architect, structural engineer and Universal
Stone and the decision was reached to dismantle and rebuild the spire
from the top down. In order to carry out this work efficiently whilst
still maintaining the structural integrity of the spire it was decided
to take down and rebuild small areas at a time, inserting pre-cast concrete
lintels on the internal face to give support to the masonry above during
the re-construction of lower sections.
DISMANTLING AND RE-BUILDING THE SPIRE MASONRY
Ragstone and brick
backing was taken down in 1.5-2 metre sections, starting from the top,
in panels, between the ribs. Care was taken to remove only two panels
at any one time diagonally opposite each other. This was necessary in
order to maintain the structural integrity of the spire. Once the mortar
had set (over a period of five days), adjacent panels could be dismantled.
immediately followed the dismantling, involved first inserting a concrete
lintel at the base of the dismantled panel, supported on the quoined rib
stone; secondly, a temporary timber support was wedged into position on
the external face. Immediately above this arrangement a specially cut
ragstone bonding stone was placed and the walling was rebuilt above.
Once the mortar had
finally set, a process much influenced by the choice of mortar and in
particular the lime used as a binder within the mortar, the panel immediately
below could be removed and rebuilt up-to the underside of the temporary
support. The temporary support could now be removed and ragstone infilled
in its place. In this manner it was possible to dismantle and rebuild
the spire completely from the top down, without compromising the structure
or removing large amounts of walling at any one time.
Approximately 20 per
cent of the stone was salvaged and re-used on the lower part of the tower,
where masonry replacement was confined to small areas.
CHOICE OF MATERIALS
A great deal of care
was taken at the outset of this project to ensure that a suitable source
of materials could be found. The choice of quarry for ragstone supply
was of particular importance bearing in mind the quantity that was required.
The sourcing of replacement
Kentish Ragstone has been fraught with difficulty for many years, especially
since many quarries have closed. Those quarries that do survive mainly
produce stone for ballast, and cannot be relied on to produce building
stone in any quantity due to the method of extraction. Also, the
converting of ragstone block into usable building stone requires a level
of skill, experience and dexterity now largely
lost. To obtain suitable ragstone for restoration and repair work, Universal
Stone now has two of its own stonemasons working in one of the surviving
The materials used
in the mortar for bedding, backing and re-pointing purposes also required
investigation. It was clear from analysis of the original historic mortar
that an extremely coarse aggregate was used together with a binder that
had some hydraulic properties.
Bearing in mind a
number of criteria, including the extreme exposure of the masonry to the
spire, the need to achieve a reasonably rapid set to the mortar, and the
need for the jointing to have an exposed aggregate finish, it was decided
to use a natural hydraulic lime-based mortar gauged with aggregates of
a variety of particle sizes. The mortar mix proved to be extremely successful.
The rebuilding work,
substantially completed over the summer months of 2002, was a good example
of how a team of professionals and practitioners worked together to bring
about the successful completion of a unique project. In the past, the
difficulties encountered in procuring sufficient replacement stone of
acceptable quality, coupled with the lack of confidence a would-be client
may have in commissioning such a project meant that all too often the
work was either patched up or was substandard.
The rebuilding of
the spire at St Luke’s is a testament to what can be achieved, cost effectively
whilst employing the overriding principles of integrity, honesty and with
replacing materials in a 'like-for-like' manner.
Now resplendent with
its newly commissioned cross on the top of the spire, St Luke’s can look
forward to continued support from its local congregation who can now feel
safe in the knowledge that their spire will remain standing, hopefully,
for another 150 years.