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’.

- - - - -

* 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.