Historic Railings

Conservation and repair

Peter Meehan


  Restored railings at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London    

Beautiful and ornate, Victorian wrought and cast iron railings are a common feature of churchyards across the country. They may have been installed originally to mark the boundaries of consecrated ground and to provide a level of security for the graves and church, but they are also of historic importance in their own right and are often much cherished by parishioners and church authorities. Where a church is listed, the protection extends to include everything within the curtilage of the building, including the railings and walls surrounding the churchyard. While this should theoretically protect them, that sadly hasn’t always been the case.

Many church railings were removed during World War II, ostensibly to be melted down in a morale-boosting drive to help the war effort. The reality was that the iron could not be reused and more often than not it was simply dumped at sea. Other railings that survived this fate may now be poorly maintained or subject to poor quality repair work: while the local handyman may be cheap and convenient, hiring him to carry out repairs can have devastating consequences.

Historic ironwork is difficult to repair well and requires sensitive conservation. Processes should be informed by an understanding of the principles set out by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (www.spab. org.uk) and in the Burra Charter (see australia.icomos.org). In particular, conservators should seek to retain and preserve as much original material as possible, using traditional materials and techniques in repairs, with minimal disturbance to the original work, and using reversible processes where possible.

Historic cast iron fittings can be ruined by uninformed treatment; cast iron breaks easily, and is vulnerable to damage by modern tools and plant. Furthermore, the repair and replication of decorative wrought ironwork requires the traditional skills of a blacksmith. Unfortunately, because this is little understood, examples of poor quality new steelwork and badly-repaired decorative old wrought ironwork blight our churchyard railings. Where this has been allowed to happen, the process of repair will probably cost more in the long run because the work will have to be re-done. And, of course, spoiling the original metal represents a permanent loss of historic fabric.


The earliest railings were wrought iron, and the first known examples followed the development of blast furnaces in the 15th century. Early examples can occasionally be found inside churches where they have been protected from the weather, such as the 15th century railings around the Hungerford tomb at Monkton Farleigh, near Bath. The material continued to be used until the late 19th century, following the emergence of steel.

Cast iron railings did not appear until the second half of the 18th century, following the development of new industrial processes. The material was made popular by the Adams brothers in particular, who immediately recognised its value for cast classical forms. Cast iron increased in popularity during Victorian times and was widely used for making gates, railings, panels, and the decorative elements they incorporated.

  Historic iron gate and piers at St Chad’s Church in Holt, near Wrexham, repaired using a combination of stitching, plating, and welding techniques

The properties and shape of historic ironwork determine which repair techniques are most appropriate. Wrought iron is malleable whereas cast iron is brittle and tends to crack and split under stress. The ductility of wrought iron (its ability to bend without fracturing) means the original material can usually be straightened and reused rather than replaced.

‘Puddled’, or wrought iron, is no longer manufactured and has acquired a special historical significance. However, as recycled wrought iron is still available it is vital that this traditional material is used in the repair of quality wrought ironwork. Bolts, rivets, collars and traditional fire or forge welding techniques should be used when piecing in new and repaired components, and welding should be avoided if possible because high heat can stress the metal. Structures should be strengthened, tied and supported to retain as much of the original material intact as possible. Railings that have become loose or need resetting in their sockets, should be secured using molten lead rather than the cheaper, quicker, and historically inaccurate modern alternative of resin.

To prevent future damage to historic ironwork, it is often necessary to address underlying problems in the immediate environment. However, as a last resort, relocation to a less destructive environment is sometimes necessary.

It is not uncommon to find a combination of wrought iron and cast iron in historic railings. The railings at St Chad’s Church in Holt, near Wrexham (above right), which are of a Victorian design, provide a good example of this. Because of its strength, wrought iron was used for the railings and main framing, while cast iron was used to make the decorative panels. However, cast iron is susceptible to rust jacking, which means it tends to crack and break if rust develops behind it.


It is not always possible (or advisable) to restore or repair old railings when the damage is extensive, or if the originals have been replaced at some point with cheaper replicas.

St Martin-in-the-Fields off Trafalgar Square is a landmark building, familiar to millions. This remarkable church was built in 1726 and designed by the architect James Gibbs. As part of a £36 million restoration programme at the church, a major metalwork project to restore nearly 200 metres of Victorian cast iron railings began in 2005. The first step was to identify the most appropriate techniques for their repair and if necessary, their removal. It quickly became obvious that the railings required an extensive programme of restoration and repair, which could not be managed in situ. Installed as part of a 19th century programme of works, they had been designed to match the original Gibbs portico railings at the front of the church. However, presumably to save money at the time, the cast iron content was minimised by using hollow castings wherever possible. The strength of the railings was inevitably compromised and, as a result, a great many of the railings had eroded and broken under the stresses and strains of 150 years.

  Railings being removed for conservation from St Martin-in-the-Fields  

Work started on site in January 2006 with the removal of the entire length. This was a major undertaking in itself given the weight of metal involved and the location of the site, which was part of a pedestrianised zone in the heart of Europe’s busiest capital city.

The conservation work took 18 months in all and included the use of a wide range of repair techniques, including plate repairs, metal stitching and welding. The top cast rails proved to be so badly damaged throughout that replicas had to be cast in ductile iron, which is considerably stronger than the old grey iron. This would ensure that the railings remained rigid, enabling the entire bottom rail to be retained and extensively restored. As the length of the railings was to be reduced by approximately 30 metres, the conservators were able to use redundant sections of the lower rail to replace any existing sections that were completely beyond repair.

The footings for the railings presented another challenge. All the railings had socketed feet leaded into the original stone copings, but due to a combination of shallow fitting and weathered stone, most of the original support had been lost. New sockets for the railings were manufactured and, working closely with a specialist masonry team, the railings were anchored into new concrete footings and covered with a combination of original and new stone paving.


Paint provides a vital protective layer over external metalwork and railings, preventing weathering and water ingress, and avoiding many of the problems highlighted above. It is of course, quicker and cheaper to maintain the paint than it is to repair or restore the metalwork underneath it. Regular inspections combined with cleaning back and repainting localised defects can extend the life of a paint system almost indefinitely.

Historic railings should ideally be repainted using traditional paint systems but, where maximum longevity is required or the site is very exposed, the use of modern two-pack epoxy-based paints, which provide excellent protection for up to 25 years, may be considered. Restorers are still allowed to use lead-based paints on the most important listed buildings (Grade I and II* in England and Wales, and category A in Scotland), provided they have written authority from the statutory authority.

Deciding what colour paint to use when restoring heritage metalwork requires an appreciation of both the historic colour scheme of the metalwork and the client’s requirements. Analysing a paint sample before the paintwork is cleaned back will often identify earlier colour schemes. Even if the metalwork was stripped back to bare metal in the past, traces of the original colour scheme may still survive in crevices. Perhaps surprisingly this is often neither black nor white, two of the most widely used colours today. More commonly, Victorian railings were often painted dark green or stone. Evidence of earlier paint schemes should always be recorded and, if possible, some samples should be retained in situ. Where appropriate, the original colours should also be reinstated as part of the restoration process.


There is more to conservation than repair and restoration. Systematic maintenance is paramount and should include periodic inspections, the provision of written repair schedules and adequate budgets, as well as staff training to promote effective care.

When repairs are necessary they should be shaped by a sound and well-informed conservation approach. As with other forms of historic fabric, historic church ironwork should always be recorded, before, during and after conservation work, including details of repair methods, drawings with measurements, and photographs. The way in which historic fabric has been maintained (or indeed neglected) over the years is, of course, an integral part of its history. Knowing and understanding how an object has been treated in the past can also provide vital clues about how best to protect it for the future.


Historic Churches, 2009


PETER MEEHAN completed an honours degree in archaeological conservation at Cardiff University, and has spent time working for English Heritage and as a practical conservator for a number of national museums. He is now director of Dorothea Restorations and an occasional consultant for UNESCO.

Further information


Churches (general)




Cast iron

Wrought iron

Site Map