Documenting Church Conservation and Repairs
|St Mary’s Church, Akenham, Suffolk: one of around 350 redundant churches now in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust. Each church acquired by the trust comes with hundreds of historic documents, many of which relate to maintenance, repair and past alterations. (All photos: The Churches Conservation Trust)
Few organisations will be as
acutely aware of the importance of
good record-keeping as the Churches
Conservation Trust (CCT), which
has been caring for historic Anglican
churches since 1969.
During that time the trust
has amassed a collection of 349 churches
throughout England, each with hundreds
of documents, many relating to its history
and fabric. Furthermore, the CCT acquires
one or two more churches every year,
which it repairs, conserves and opens
to the public.
It is vital that all decisions
affecting the future of these buildings are
properly informed, and the ability to access
clear, detailed records about a church’s
past and any works carried out to it would
be a tremendous asset in this process.
However, records come in many forms and
the information they contain is not always
consistent, obvious and systematic.
Churches close for a number of
reasons, but usually there is a significant
repair need that the parish is unable
to cope with. This failure to deal with
building repairs by the parish sets a
context for the information and records
that are inherited by the CCT. Every
Church of England parish church is
the responsibility of the parish, via
the PCC. There is no central body in
the C of E which is responsible for
the repair of the church buildings
and so it falls to volunteers up and
down the country to deliver.
These volunteers are made up of the
worshipping congregations and sometimes
the wider community who love their
churches. Although these volunteers are
committed, they come from a wide variety
of backgrounds and rarely have expertise in
historic building conservation. This results
in a wide variation in the type and quality
of records kept. The volunteers who look
after historic churches have an overriding
purpose which should take precedence
over the care of the historic church – the
‘mission’ of the church. The combination
of complex historic building issues,
conflicting priorities and a volunteer-run
set-up often results in problems with either
the updating of records or the practicalities
of how they are stored and accessed.
Records sometimes exist purely in
individual memory and are never written
down, either on paper or electronically.
It is important to try to capture this
knowledge, whether its source is a local
volunteer or a consultant architect.
|A church inventory dating from the 1930s: the inventory is a list of all the objects owned by a particular church. Land owned by the church is listed in a ‘terrier’ (derived from the Latin terra, meaning earth).
Once the process of transferring the
church to the CCT is under way, the trust
undertakes a full assessment of the church
building, using whatever information
can be amassed. This ‘vesting’ report is
the baseline of the CCT record of what is
known about the building fabric. Some
supporting reports are supplied by the
Statutory Advisory Committee on Closed
and Closing Churches, a committee of
the Church Buildings Council which
provides independent advice on heritage
matters relating to redundant churches.
These reports include analysis of the
historic value of the church and try to pull
together some of the known sources.
Regardless of the quality of the paper
trail, there is no substitute for getting
inside the building and seeing what is
going on. The condition of the rafter feet,
drainage, stonework and roof coverings
are investigated. This survey work can
be quite invasive as it entails opening up
those hidden dark places where the rot
and the beetles hide.
Once the urgent needs of the building
are fully understood, the repair process
begins as soon as possible and this is
where the CCT record-keeping starts.
All professional reports and records
of work undertaken are retained, so
the trust has amassed a vast archive
over the past 40 years. Storage of the
paperwork comes at a cost and there
are the attendant problems of curating
it. The obvious approach would be to
keep everything but this is impractical
and unaffordable so any non-essential
paperwork must be weeded out.
Inevitably, this approach is not
infallible and human error sometimes
results in the loss of useful information or
in useless material being saved. Recalling
information is also complex as although
the paper files are catalogued by church,
they are stored off-site and there is no
index for individual folders. CCT staff are dispersed across the country and so
there is a further cost and time factor to
retrieving information. There are central
files and then files held in the regions,
mostly in staff home offices. This leads
to another challenge as it is not easy to
see where all the information relating
to a church is, and there is inevitably a
diversity of filing practice.
The dawning of the digital age has
helped considerably with record-keeping.
In particular all of the trust’s regular
inspection reports are held on its servers
and the majority of project work is also
held digitally. This information is freely
available across the CCT, leading to a
much speedier and more efficient recall.
It is important to remember that despite
being digital there is still a considerable
cost to storing this information, especially
as it includes many high resolution
photographs recording everything from
stone samples to beetle damage.
Churches typically maintain three core records: the terrier, the inventory and the log book. The terrier and the inventory are lists of, respectively, the land and the objects which belong to the church and are sometimes combined into a ‘church property register’.
The log book is a record of the alterations and repairs carried out to the church, its land and its contents. This information has many important uses: aiding insurance claims or the recovery of stolen goods, providing useful source material for local historians and other researchers and, above all, informing and guiding the sympathetic conservation of the church, its surroundings and contents.
The type, detail and quality of records kept will vary widely not just between denominations but from one historic place of worship to the next. From a building conservation perspective, however, the records should include:
- a statement of significance, if one exists, as well as any architectural plans or technical drawings that are available
- instructions and schedules for maintenance and inspection regimes along with their results such as quinquennial inspection reports
- a detailed account of any work carried out on the building and its historic contents
- the contact details of key people involved in caring for the fabric such as maintenance contractors and the quinquennial architect
- procedures to protect church fabric and contents in an emergency, for example in the event of flooding.
Finally, it is a good idea to take copies of important records and store them off-site.
The CCT has been working very hard
on the most effective method of storing
and recalling this information. This is
no mean challenge as there are around
50 staff all producing information and
trying to ensure that it is consistently
filed. The CCT has invested in an
internet-based property management
system to address this challenge.
Large capital works to the
trust’s churches always begin with
an assessment of significance. This
extremely useful document brings
together what we know about a church
and also highlights what we do not
know. There is a thorough search of the
obvious sources of information, records
office material, the CCT archives and
anything else that can be found. This
is sometimes the first opportunity to
bring together and compare all the
known records for a church and it is
essential to understanding how one
might go about altering the fabric.
The reports are set out so that
whatever documentary evidence is found
can be used to reinforce what we see in
the actual stones (or brick) of the building.
The reports also seek to understand what
we call the ‘communal value’ of the church
– the value which the local community
places on the church, the churchyard or
a specific element or feature of either.
Establishing communal value is essential
as it is very easy for an architectural
historian who does not know the local
context to understate the significance
of an element of a church which the
community values highly.
The gathering of all the available
information allows the CCT to assess
the relative significance of the parts
of the church and enables us to make
informed decisions about how and where
21st-century additions and alterations
might be made. In the vast majority of
cases, ancient churches have experienced
considerable change over time as
successive generations have improved
or demolished bits in order to adapt the
building to current fashions, politics or
For the trust to make its own positive
contribution to the ongoing story of
these churches, we need to understand
all that has come before. With a sound
understanding of the development of the
historic church it can be quite surprising
as to what alterations can be justified and
what loss of historic fabric can be borne.
Church records can also simplify the
decision-making process especially if
they reveal, for example, where previous
doorways were positioned. The CCT is
opening former doors on two medieval
churches, St Mary-at-the-Quay, Ipswich
and St Peter’s in Sandwich, Kent. Here the
fabric of the building holds some strong
evidence, but the justification for the
works is held in the documentation that
we have gathered.
In conclusion, the more you know
about a historic church the better the
decisions about repairs and alterations
will be. As information technology
improves, so does our ability to capture
and process data. I look forward to the
day when we are recording actions in the
trust’s churches in real time in a seamless
integrated online fashion. We are not
there yet but this is the direction of travel.
It is also important to remember that
what is ultimately stored in the records is
more than just information – lurking in
this technical data are some wonderful
stories and mysteries which are waiting to
British Standards Institution, BS 7913
Guide to the Principles of the Conservation
of Historic Buildings, London, 2013
Chapter and Verse: The Care of Cathedral
Records, Cathedral Libraries and Archives
Association and the Church of England
Record Centre, 2013
S Crofts, ‘Church Wardens and Church
Fabric’, Historic Churches 2008, Cathedral
Communications, Tisbury, 2008
The Building Conservation Directory, 2016
PETER AIERS is the director of the
South East region and head of regeneration
at The Churches Conservation Trust, the national charity that
protects historic churches at risk.
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