New Work in Historic Churches

Matthew Saunders


  Restaurant in the brick-vaulted undercroft of St Martin in the Fields
A restaurant accommodated in the undercroft of St Martin in the Fields, London

It is a truism that most historic churches have been altered and embellished by each generation – nearly every village church is accretive in form. Some places of worship are finite – a complete gesammkunstwerk as the Germans would put it – whether that is the perfect medieval shrine, the unbombed interior by Wren or Hawksmoor, or a work of Bodley where everything was designed, even down to the escutcheon on the keyhole. Fine architecture of such importance and completeness cannot be changed except to its aesthetic detriment. And yet these are in a minority.

Our present day heightened sense of the sacred was largely instilled by the Ecclesiological Society. Before that, as Professor JG Davies has shown in his important work of 1968 The Secular Use of Church Buildings, there was an unsentimentality among the pre-Victorians in the extended use of places of worship.

Churches were centres of the community, the lynchpin in local government and the dispensation of justice. Some uses were located in the churchyard, as in the church alehouse or, as at Halwell in Devon, the church laundry. But it was the parish church itself which attracted the sort of extended new uses which many PCCs now hanker after. Village schools often began in the parish church and one gets the sense that the famous Putney Debates of 1647 involving the Levellers took place in the church – a belief suggested by the curious combination of revolutionary dislike of ecclesiastical authority but also because of the pivotal role of the church in the community. Christ casting out the stall holders from the Temple was an image that would have been lost on many a medieval mind which had no problem in combining a sense of sanctity within the chancel and a much greater sense of secular free-for-all within the nave.

The shock, perhaps a sense of insult, felt by many at seeing the radicalism of schemes like the new café in All Saints, Hereford, the shopping centre that fills the lower half of St Paul’s Walsall, and the even headier mix of uses at St Lawrence in central Reading would not have been endorsed by pre-Victorian generations. Even so the compromise in spatial unity, the loss of significant fittings, the violence done to the sense of peace and repose will inevitably, and quite rightly, render modern equivalents controversial.

In some ways churches are tailor-made to take the greater multiplicity of function which may be the future of many a rural or urban place of worship. Although enormous care needs to be exercised in achieving it, particularly in the archaeological record of discarded bodies and coffins, crypts often have a height, particularly under classical buildings, which invites secular use. The recent Heritage Lottery Fund supported scheme at St John’s, Hoxton in Hackney included a sports club and refugee centre in the undercroft that covered virtually the whole footprint. In the scheme at Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury, now approaching completion, the identical space is to be taken over by the Theatre Museum. One of the very first churches to embark on the extended use in the modern sense, St Martin in the Fields, opened its first centre for the homeless in the Gibbs crypt in 1919, specifically to help the discharged soldier who had nowhere to go.

The space at the base of the tower and the over large vestry can be suitably discreet locations for the lavatory and the kitchen, and much greater potential for the meeting room is given by galleries where they survive and where indeed they can be reintroduced. The new meeting room and café at the west end of St Hilda’s Parish Church at South Shields sits neatly under the present west gallery with a screen so well designed it fools the casual observer as being original. At St Leonard’s Shoreditch, Richard Griffiths has, in a scheme again largely paid for by HLF, put back the 18th-century galleries removed in the 19th century the better to recreate smaller screened rooms underneath. (This had an additional structural advantage in that the galleries help to tie in the north and south walls. The galleries had acted as a ring beam, and without them the walls were threatening to belly.)

In a symmetrical classical interior there is an argument for any infilling to be on both sides, although solid as opposed to glazed fronts can dramatically reduce natural light, particularly from the south. Sometimes the west end of one of the aisles, or an additional outer north aisle, can be subdivided with minimal loss to the welcoming sense of openness. When the shop at Sheepy Magna in south west Leicestershire closed in March 2003, the post office (open two mornings a week) was rehoused in the base of the tower, whilst the new community meeting area was formed in the west end of the north aisle. It is there that the local authority runs a community help desk every Tuesday morning. The well established tradition of the high panel-fronted cupboard at the west end has generated many examples of a sink and preparation area which can be closed up for invisibility and security when not in use.

Many of the schemes promoted by Rural Churches in the Community, with support from the Millennium Commission, adopted ‘interventions’ like these. Of course, there are major areas of conflict between conservationist instincts and the desire to modernise. We all know of schemes which have looked tatty and second-rate from the first and have shown no sense that the church is in any sense ‘special’, deserving of the best in craftsmanship and execution.


First, we in the amenity world quite rightly stress the importance of ‘reversibility’. This is not synonymous with the temporary and therefore insubstantial but rather it implies the ‘loose fit’; an insertion which can be slotted in and taken out without opening up or scarring. Screening in the aisles or the new gallery at the west end are most likely to comply with this principle. This creates a strong preference for a load-bearing role being taken by timber or steel and not concrete.

Second, as the English Heritage guidance note makes clear (see Recommended Reading, below), the aesthetic preference can often go to ancillary accommodation in a free-standing structure which is physically divorced from the main church. Sometimes there is the convenient mortuary chapel, charnel house or church stable which invite conversion, but for a facility of any size this normally points to new construction. Yes, the congregation may get wet getting there. But the structure detached from the main church can in almost all cases be larger given that the space that is contiguous will have to be low key. Being divorced by definition means there is less risk of noise transference from the whist drive in the parish hall to the funeral in the church. There is also usually a much greater possibility for nearby parking, while the kitchen in a new church hall poses much less of a fire risk to historic fabric (with the possible exception of a kitchen in the base of a medieval tower).

Third, the mantra of many congregations and clergymen that ‘pews are bad, chairs are good’ is one that cannot be accepted at face value. The advice of the CCC (see Recommended Reading) quite rightly establishes a strong presumption against the removal of medieval or box pews and, indeed, such proposals are now exceptionally rare (although the box pews at Elmstead in Essex are under threat). And yet the 19th-century pew in pitch pine should never be regarded as automatically expendable. The variety is legion; many were designed by the architect for the Victorian rebuild or restoration, and catalogue pews seem to have been a minority player.

  Exterior of church extension sympathetic to existing building in style and materials (knapped flint, ashlar quoins, etc)
  A low key extension to the existing vestry wing at St Paulinus’ Church at Crayford (Grade 1) designed by Thomas Ford & Partners to provide a new small hall and ancillary accommodation. (Photo: Thomas Ford & Partners)

Many pews remain historically evocative. The 19th-century open-back bench for the servant, the less well off or the charity children can provide an evocative contrast to the family or squire’s pew with all the luxury of height and size to keep out the draughts, and in a number of places, a fireplace to add comfort. The churchwarden’s pew at the west end adds to the sense of hierarchy. The surviving numeral on the pew-end evokes pew rent, while the name of the farm painted on, as at Ynyscynhaearn in Gwynedd or Shermanbury in Sussex, indicates the family’s right to a particular seat generation after generation.

At St Ninian’s at Whitby in North Yorkshire there is even a surviving one-seater privy tucked away discreetly at the back. At the Baptist Church, Cinderford in Gloucestershire, the pews retain holes for individual communion cups. Some pews were clearly wider to allow ladies with crinolines to get in and to sit down, while most Victorian pews will retain the metal stay and dish at each end for the rain soaked umbrella.

Other pews, as at Truston in Suffolk, were made by local people, while a surprisingly large number of unmarried daughters of the local manor and the vicar himself carved lecterns, pulpits, even reredoses, with their own hands. The Thorold family in Lincolnshire seems to have produced an unusual number of artistically talented clergymen. All this can be lost in any cavalier scheme of ‘depewing’.

Furthermore, if chairs bring flexibility and accord with modern ideas of comfort, pews have real practical advantages. Their very rigidity means they do not have to be tidied at the end of the service, while fire officers prefer them because they propel people in the event of a fire in a smoke laden interior towards the ‘aisles’ which lead to the fire exits. Unlike chairs they are impossible to topple over or, where they are fixed, steal, and the very lack of soft furnishings means that they do not have a back or base to become frayed, discoloured or stained. Pews do not need storing, movable chairs do. Chair stacks can be ugly and, as was graphically shown by the recent conflagration at Peterborough Cathedral, examples in plastic or with soft furnishings can be a gift to the arsonist with a box of matches.

Fourth, the desire for flexibility mixed with, on occasions, iconoclasm points the finger not just at the pews but to the chancel and sanctuary – the pulpit, the chancel screen, the choir stalls and the whole of the Tractarian east end now rendered largely redundant by the demise of the church choir. And yet these ensembles are very often High Victorian creations of deliberate richness and designed by architects of repute and talent.

Sometimes Victorian ingenuity itself can point the way forward. A number of pulpits were provided on runners – there are surviving examples at Carlisle and in Glasgow – allowing them to be pushed to one side when not in use, giving the congregation a clear view of the east end which can otherwise be impeded. As an alternative to wholesale ejection choir stalls are sometimes ‘halved’, with the seating for the choirboys lost and those for the men retained with the lectern-cum-frontal pushed back. And yet this too can be at the expense of an important ensemble. The discarded pulpit pushed ignominiously into the transept much like the disgraced pupil sent to face the wall can look very sad (although this is infinitely better than destruction). At Witney in Oxfordshire a not completely happy compromise was reached by the removal of the shaft which means that the bowl fits unceremoniously and directly on the church floor.)

Fifth, nothing perhaps divides the traditional from the modern school of thought more than the church carpet, very often the corollary of ejecting the pew and the choirstall. The ‘hard’ surface of the flagstone and the wood block floor laid herringbone fashion not only lend durability but can be very evocative where they embrace ledger stones and inscriptions. Covering these with often inappropriately coloured carpet, supposedly to add a touch of domestic cosiness and to reduce the embarrassment of the latecomer trying to make his or her way without the clattering of shoes, is nearly always at the expense of the aesthetic pleasure of the interior. And the worn carpet, particularly the carpet square, is not only unworthy and potentially dangerous but adds a further cost of replacement every decade or so. And there is the added expense of the breathable underlay which is essential if the concealed ledger stone, monumental brass or Victorian or encaustic tile is not to be damaged by the trapped bit of grit or unventilated moisture.

Sixth, painting stone walls may be a cheap, effective way to brighten the interior, but it is a temporary solution, since after a few years the paint inevitably peels, disfiguring the interior. Maintenance becomes a regular and expensive necessity. Most paint systems also prevent the natural evaporation of moisture, causing the structural deterioration of the wall, since evaporation is focussed on the gaps, the cracks or wherever the paint surface ends, causing moisture migration and a concentration of salts at the point of evaporation. It is the crystallisation which causes the most damage. Limewash provides a breathable alternative, and in some cases may be highly appropriate. In other cases cleaning the stonework may be the only way to achieve the brightness required. But even this solution should not be undertaken lightly. Apart from the cost, most cleaning methods are highly aggressive and the likelihood of damaging the surface is high. Its success depends on the skill of the person who carries out the work, as well as the specification itself.

To say that there will always be conflict between those for whom the church is primarily a place of worship and those for whom it stands as a work of art and the easiest way to communicate with the higher thoughts of past generations is simply to state a truth. We on the conservationist side of the fence always hope that decisions will be taken with appropriate understanding of the greatness, craftsmanship, design and character that those past generations have achieved.


Recommended Reading

The most accessible introduction is New Work in Historic Places of Worship published by English Heritage in 2003 [Editorial note: a 2nd edition was published in 2012]. Also very useful as a tour d’horizons is English Heritage’s Conservation Bulletin Issue 46 for Autumn 2004.

The literature list of the Council for the Care of Churches remains comprehensive and is regularly updated. Particularly useful in the context of the discussion on pews is its 2003 Guidelines on Seating in Churches. Individual diocesan advisory committees also have their own publications – particularly good are those published by Chelmsford on The Changing Church.

Also highly recommended is this annual volume of Historic Churches published by Cathedral Communications and the magazine Church Building published by Gabriel Communications.



Historic Churches, 2005


MATTHEW SAUNDERS is the secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society and honorary director of the Friends of Friendless Churches.

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