The Restoration of 1861-63



A tour of St John the Baptist

The Restoration of 1861-63


Welcome, in to the church and at last you see the round windows which cannot be seen from the outside. You note that the pillars on the south (right) side are different to those on the north, and the arches on the south side are lower than those on the north. If you had come in the first half of the 1800’s the scene would have been very different.

The church had got into a very poor state of repair, the drawing dated 1861 shows the old skew chancel arch, adding extra support to the now non-existent tower, the pulpit on the north (left) side and the high boxed pews (which allowed too much chattering during the sermon!)

*Local writers were pretty scathing. In 1843 Sir Stephen Glynne (said to have visited over 5,000 churches) reported that the elegant south porch had been made into a coal hole. He did not like the woodwork, roofs, pews and pulpit all painted white. ‘The interioris altogether in a bad state, the arches lean very much outwards especially on the north side, the fine roofs much out of repair and daily getting worse.’

A few years later in 1847, the Church Rambler reported ‘a few private pews were lined with green baize but the rest were for the main part dilapidated and dusty, the once handsome and elegantly carved oak ceilings of the north and south aisles were in a state of decay. An unsightly stove chimney traversed two or three windows on the north side in a diagonal direction.

The Bible could not be said to have two whole covers and the Book of Common Prayer seemed determined to share its fate. In fact everything spoke of a ruinous neglect and my own feelings ….. were melancholy and dispirited in the extreme.’  A few years later another writer felt a general lack of respect for the building with hat pegs fixed around every pillar and amongst other things the fire engine stored at the west end of the aisles.

1854 and enter Rev. George Robinson who set about fund raising for the Victorian restoration which began in 1861. His churchwardens, Mr R.W.R. Hassall and Mr Thomas Reed obtained a faculty for the complete demolition and rebuild as a worst case scenario but it did not come to that!  They employed as architect Mr B. Ferry who had worked with Giles Gilbert Scott. George Robinson did not have advantage of a National ‘Brief’ but appearsnto have been a prolific and persuasive letter writer to all sorts of people. The Bishop of Bath and Wells sent £10, he had already given to 20 churches and the year is only half done, and later wrote 'You ought to buy a licence for £1/15 to allow you to administer the Sacrament, publish banns of marriage and marry in the School Room.'

Mr H Rooke from Frenchay was ‘glad you are making arrangements for the restoration of your church which must have been a very handsome one. I am not able to give more than £50 …. at 83 it is not use making promises that will most probably never be realised.’  When told that cash would be preferable over cheques he sent half a £50 note and the rest followed a week later.

And so the church was restored much as we see it today, allowing Nickolaus Pevsner to say “the restoration has in fact given the whole interior a Victorian flavour. Yet the church was once, and is to a certain extent still an interesting building.  But not quite finished for the story goes that ** three of the stonemasons, Sidney and Leonard Mitchell from this parish and another, told the vicar ‘You have got a very shabby font, you ought to have a very much better one’ . When told there was no money for it they arranged for Mr Sheppard the mason to give the stone, they did the carving and persuaded the contractor to give the cover for it.
Do look at the octagonal bowl. Four carvings concerning the crucifixion, four with the symbols of the Gospel writers.                                                       

Note * A fuller account of the 1861 restoration is in Elizabeth Whites History

       ** F. A (Jim) Allen.                                                                

 Edmund Prideaux