Friday, September 17, 2021

St Neots, Huntingdonshire

Stand-out steeple

When it comes to skylines in small towns, it’s often a church that dominate the scene, not necessarily a large industrial building like the flour mill in my previous post. But here in St Neots, where I noticed that flour mill, is a fine Victorian church tower that makes another notable contribution to the skyline. Like the mill, it’s also (mainly) in brick, and it turns out to be the work of the same architect, Edward Jabez Paine (1847–1926). The Paine family owned the mill that Edward J. Paine designed, and they were religious nonconformists, worshipping at what was then a Congregationalist church (now a United Reformed church), so there was a close personal connection between architect and client here too. In fact the architect’s father was actually a deacon of the church, so Edward Paine was a natural choice for architect.

Paine built a good gothic church, with a spacious interior, well lit with big windows, and with a west gallery for extra seating. But the striking feature is the tower. This starts as a square structure and turns into an octagon part-way up. At the point where the metamorphosis takes place there are pairs of square pinnacles at each corner, and there are single eight-sided pinnacles at the corners of the octagon too. The octagon is topped with a short spire. The spire is slightly stocky, but this doesn’t detract form the overall effect – to my mind it sets off the octagon, showing off the brickwork and dressed stone of this part of the tower. St Neots was fortunate to get this building in 1888, a time when many dissenting churches were benefitting from the wealth of the successful business- and tradespeople in their congregations. In my opinion, the Paines did their church – and their town – proud.

Friday, September 10, 2021

St Neots, Huntingdonshire

‘Go’ in St Neots

Although I like to think I am good at spotting small, unregarded buildings, sometimes my attention is drawn irresistibly to the large and showy structures that stand out, whether in a rural landscape or in a town. Pulling into a car park in St Neots recently, there was one such building that I couldn’t miss, because its massive tower with corbelled top and striking tiled roof dominated the skyline in that part of town. The tower seemed to be an essay in polychrome brickwork, built to stand out, but what was the building that it was standing proud above? And how old could it be – was it from the brash 1860s or maybe somewhat later?

A stroll in its direction revealed a structure every bit as showy and massive as I’d expected from the tower. It was Paine’s Flour Mill, and its exterior walls are a riot of yellow brick, gothic arches, diaper patterns, and something resembling a Star of David beneath the arches of the upper stage of the tower.* Paine’s were a well established St Neots company founded by James Paine. They began as brewers and built their brewery into one of the town’s biggest businesses. But James’s entrepreneurial son, William Paine, expanded and diversified into all kinds of areas – flour milling, timber, and dealing in everything from building materials to coal. The interest in flour milling seems to have started when he bought a mill on this site, where he also built maltings for his brewing business. The mill was rebuilt in the 1880s, but the building that survives seems to be later than this one – there was a fire in 1905 and a rebuilding. A photograph online shows the present structure, with its gothic arches, under construction; this image is dated 1910, although according to Lynn Pearson, the mill reopened in 1909, so the actual date of the photograph is probably just before this.†

Another image of c. 1920 shows the mill complete with the tall corner chimney, which has now been taken down (its stump is visible in my photograph). Even in its current state, converted to flats, it’s still an imposing building and testimony to the industrial flair of the Victorians and their successors, who saw that a striking factory could be an effective advertisement. The architect was Edward J. Paine, grandson to the founder of the firm, suggesting that the building is also a memorial to a lineage that had in spades that active, strong-willed quality of movers and shakers that the Victorians called simply, ‘go’.

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* It’s not a perfect star but in any case the symbol was not, for the Victorians, associated only with Judaism; I’ve seen such stars in brick on 19th-century nonconformist chapels.

† See Lynn Pearson, Victorian and Edwardian British Industrial Architecture (Crowood Press, 2016).

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Puddletown, Dorset

Here comes the Sun, or, Odd things in churches (14)

People who look carefully at old buildings will know all about the Sun Fire Office. It was an insurance company, founded in 1710, and it’s still going in a different form. It’s familiar to devotees of old houses because the company’s clients used to fix a metal plaque bearing the company name and symbol (the Sun in splendour, naturally) to the fronts of their houses. Then when the Sun sent out their fire-fighters, they would know you’d paid for the service and would attack the blaze with whatever equipment they had.

One aid to fire-fighting was provided by fire buckets filled with water or sand. One often sees bright red metal ones hanging on the platforms of stations on preserved railway lines. But back in the days when the Sun Fire Office first started, canvas buckets were also in use. I’d never seen these in a church before, but at Puddletown several remain, hanging from hooks under the west gallery. There are many more hooks than buckets, so perhaps originally there were more. More would be a good idea, as they’re not very large and a couple would not go very far when extinguishing a fire of any size larger than a smouldering pipe left in an absent-minded church warden’s pocket. These fire buckets now go on an informal list I keep in my head of fire-fighting equipment I’ve spotted in churches – fire hooks for removing burning thatch and the occasional rare hand-pumped fire engine are also included. All a far cry from today’s enormous fire engines with their turntables and ladders, but as welcome in extremis as their diesel-powered descendants can be today.

Sunday, August 29, 2021


For filling up

A recent visit to Buckingham, en route for a destination further east, saw us taking a stroll along Well Street, a way I’d never gone before. It wasn’t long before we passed this building, which I immediately wanted to photograph, although this was not easy because the street is not very wide. It’s a facade that’s wearing at least part of its history with pride. The building has most recently housed a restaurant, although this business seems now to have closed. The preservation of a pair of petrol pumps shows how the restaurant took its name and branding from the previous use – it was a garage and the restaurant was called The Garage. They even changed the globes atop the pumps to a pair bearing the letter G, specially made for the change of use, no doubt.

But the garage business cannot have been here much before the beginning of the 20th century; more likely it dated to some time after 1900. What was it before? The design of the front, with its symmetrically arranged windows and plain but decent brickwork, suggested to me a nonconformist chapel and that’s what it originally was. It looks early-19th century and a little research reveals that the structure was first a Presbyterian Meeting House. Although the frontage is Regency, the building behind it actually dates to 1726, with numerous further alterations in the 19th and 20th centuries. At some point after it ceased to be a chapel, it housed a school, before the wide doorway was fitted, no doubt part of the conversion to a garage. I’ve seen a chapel converted to a garage before (there’s one, for example, at Upton-on-Severn), but not one quite as elegant as this – the central doorway, though large, far from ruins the visual effect. Even the changes to the ground-floor windows do not completely destroy the symmetry.

In recent years many garages have closed, especially small town ones where a street-side site can make filling up with petrol an activity that holds up traffic. Country filling stations have been closing too as the profit margins are so narrow and the trade is now so dominated by the supermarket chains. So a few years ago this one closed and the restaurant arrived. Now it appears that the building is on the market again and conversion to residential use is one the cards. I hope its new owners will not erase the layers of its history that are still on show.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Sherborne, Dorset

Surprised in Sherborne, 2

Sherborne’s Cheap Street is a very attractive jumble of architectural styles – from late-medieval timber framed structures to stone buildings from virtually every later date: a hotch-potch, mostly with recent shop fronts, but much of it given unity by the glowing stone. Even in this good company, the bow-fronted building above is outstanding. Living near Cheltenham, I’m used to stucco-covered Regency buildings decked out with classical cornices, columns and iron balconies, but even so this one made me pause. It’s small, with just a single window on the upper floor of its curvaceous facade, but what a window – the full Venetian, with a pair of rectangular sections bookending a round-topped central portion, the whole surrounded by elegant mouldings and highlights picked out in white. A neat cornice and parapet, balustraded in the centre, complete this upper floor, which rests on four stone Ionic columns that frame the modern shop window. The iron balcony is the finishing Regency touch, vital for the safety of those inside who want to open the big window, which extends down to the floor.

As with the shop front in my previous post, I wondered what this building was used for when it was first put up in the early part of the 19th century. The upper room looked to me like the spacious drawing room of a middle-class house, the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Brighton. But there was no clue to what was originally where the modern shop window is now. The answer turns out to be that the building belonged to the Sherborne Savings Bank, who erected it in 1818. 

This was the formative period for savings banks in England. These banks were set up to provide banking facilities for poorer people – those who were not normally the customers of the established banks, whose accounts did not normally bear interest at this time. Savings banks welcomed small investors, including those who could save only intermittently, as their incomes were unreliable and varied according to the seasons or the availability of work.* Although savings banks did not help the very poor, who found it impossible to save any money at all, they were attractive to those such as artisans, small farmers, shopkeepers, and domestic servants, among whom were many who had a little money to save and who liked the idea of self-help. Savings banks were not perfect: in an era before elaborate state regulation of financial institutions, some folded as the result of fraud or incompetence. But for many they played a useful role.

Whoever designed the Sherborne bank’s building did their best with what was clearly a confined site. Ideally, the sweep of the bow front should stick out over the pavement area, so that it can make an impression whichever way you approach it. But the building to the right already sticks out, so this wouldn’t have worked without invading too much pavement space. So here it sits, standing proud of one neighbour and slightly in the shadow of the other, making its impression nonetheless.

The delicate architecture of this frontage is not what I normally associate with banks. The banks I’ve admired on this blog in the past have been rather chunky buildings, with the kind of solid-looking masonry that suggests strength and security. They seem to tell you that your money will be safe here. This building is very different. It’s impressive, but in a gentler, more domestic way. Its columns and the overhang they make possible offer shelter from the rain and seem inviting. ‘Come in,’ they say, ‘and you’ll receive a warm welcome.’ The effect seems wholly appropriate for a savings bank set up for those not previously used to dealing with the estanlishged banks or money markets. It still works its charm, on one passer-by, at least.

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* Small investors could also entrust their money to Friendly Societies, but these had regulations – often requiring members to deposit money regularly, that did not suit those with irregular incomes. Savings banks did not have such rules. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Sherborne, Dorset


Surprised in Sherborne, 1

Ever since I wrote a book linked to a television series about the history of Britain’s high streets, I’ve been interested in the architecture of shops, and when I visit a town I’m often agreeably surprised to find old shopfronts still intact and fronting valued local businesses. This frontage in Sherborne was one that caught my eye. It looked to me late Victorian and the array of paired columns, wooden panelling, generous overhang, and slightly Gothic gablets poking out on top seemed to be from the more showy end of the retail spectrum. What could it have been, I wondered to myself: a high-class grocer’s, or maybe something more outré such as an oil and colour merchant or a specialist in well made leather goods? A sign painted on to the glass above the door gave a clue to a business that had been here once: ‘The Old Cycle Shop’. Could that have been the original business?

Not at all, it turns out. The other clue is above the doorway to the right, with its sign saying ‘Tavern Cottages’. A place of refreshment, then? Yes, but not the alcohol-selling place one would expect. This building began life in 1881 as the Sherborne Coffee Tavern. The late-19th and early-20th centuries saw a vigorous anti-alcohol movement. In churches and chapels there were sermons warning against the effects of the ‘demon drink’, campaigners and some nonconformist preachers persuaded people to ‘sign the pledge’ not to touch the stuff, and both campaigners and canny business people founded places where pub-goers could find alternative entertainment – from temperance billiards rooms to coffee taverns.

Coffee had been widely drunk since the 16th century and had gradually evolved from the costly luxury chosen by a few to an inexpensive drink enjoyed by many. Back in the 18th century, coffee houses had been popular among the professional classes in Britain’s large cities. Lawyers, medics, and even writers had their coffee house of choice, where they’d go to drink coffee, read the newspapers, meet friends, and discuss the day’s news. But coffee taverns were never as popular as their ancestors of the Georgian period, perhaps because they were mostly started by middle-class reformers who wanted to encourage the working class to stop drinking and give up the unruly habits of the drunk. The intended customers weren’t keen, and many coffee taverns closed after a few years.

Sherborne’s coffee tavern was bought in the 1890s by a local man, Edwin Childs, who moved his bicycle sales and repair business there. Childs prospered – this was, after all, the heyday of the bicycle – and by the early-20th century was also repairing cars. As the car business expanded, he first converted the shop, removing the big windows, and eventually put up a purpose-built garage elsewhere in the same street. Subsequently the attractive 1880s shop front was restored, and it still looks well in its dark red paint with details picked out in gold, an asset to Sherborne’s rich and varied streetscape and a survivor in an age when a liking for both wine and coffee no longer seems some kind of contradiction.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Hughley, Shropshire

Wood works

The church at Hughley looks charming from the outside – it’s very small, without any architectural separation between nave and chancel, and has a wooden medieval porch and one of those timber-framed bellcotes that nearly always make a small church look picturesque. None of this compares one for the building’s great treasure: the internal division between nave and chancel is effected with a wooden screen of great craftsmanship and beauty, a work of art more delicate and sophisticated than one would normally expect in such a modest building.

The panelled lower section is topped by bands of lace-like carving below the row of larger openings. Above this is more lacework in wood and at the very top of the coved section that would have once supported a rood loft. This curving support is carved with a pattern of radiating ribs in imitation of stone vaulting. Looking at all this more closely (below), one becomes aware how much fine detail there is in the carved portions. The central parts of the ‘vault’ are carved with ornate quatrefoils. The openwork sections a little lower down have tracery like windows, and the horizontal carved bands at the top of the screen and lower down feature more quatrefoils, tiny arches, fleurons, and even one or two faces in roundels. It’s outstanding workmanship and has survived well since it was made in c. 1500, albeit with a few small breakages and missing bits.

Pevsner’s Shropshire volume tells us that this remarkable high-class screen has siblings in three churches in the adjoining counties of Cheshire, Denbighshire and Herefordshire. More churches beckon, then, to pursue the work of this fine carver (or group of carvers), who in a time when many people traveled hardly at all, worked their way up and down the English-Welsh borders doing marvellous work that’s familiar mainly to specialists now. It deserves to be known more widely.