Thomas Nicholson and the Victorian Restoration of Leintwardine Church: A talk by David Whitehead 19th October 2016

Vandal with imagination and competence??

Ecclesiastical architecture has, since the first building was ever erected for Christian purposes, been moulded and shaped into the style that most closely answered the interpretation of the current belief. Thus by the time that Thomas Nicholson was called upon to restore St Mary Magdalene in the early 1860s, he was compelled to work towards a scheme that reflected the new-found robust confidence of the Victorian religious hierarchy and to draw in wider congregations by waking up a sad and increasingly neglected church.

Leintwardine Church was not particularly exceptional with its needs although it was unusually large for a village church. As the waves of change washed over these historical buildings down the centuries, severely interrupted and reshaped by the Reformation and later Civil War, the fate of churches nationwide was affected by theft (some within the clergy and laity), vandalism and ultimately decay (even part of Hereford Cathedral fell down due to neglect). The Victorians thus felt there was a great need to impose the healing hand on crumbling structures, to re-embellish them as in Medieval times, to ‘put something back’ to quote David Whitehead. Some were pulled down and completely replaced. However, unlike Shobden church for example, the original Norman building being replaced with a wedding cake style Strawberry Gothic structure, St Mary Magdalene was spared such a fate though it is not without controversy that the restoration work may have over exceeded its brief and too much change was made that has not always been either acceptable, necessary or appreciated.

Thomas Nicholson (1823-95) may have been the best choice for this job, however, as he was known for never doing unnecessary work. He was Diocesan architect for Herefordshire and was extremely prolific within the county even though Herefordshire spent less than any other diocese at the time on church building and restoration being both the poorest and endowed with the greatest number of buildings to care for.

With St Mary Magdalene, Nicholson attended to the stonework where necessary but left the Norman decoration around the West Door untouched. The box pews were banished, replaced by the pews we now know – this was viewed as a useful way to introduce greater equality across the social spectrum.   The 13thC Arcade was left untouched but David Whitehead described the Chancel as being more-or-less closed off accessed only by a small entrance. This, he said, was due to ‘the mystery of the Sacrament having gone’ therefore causing the High Altar to be unnecessary. A point on this matter was raised after the talk; it appeared to be a contentious idea as in fact the Chancel was far more easily accessed than was suggested by the speaker but there was no doubt that the Chancel restoration could then accommodate the Anglican practice of choir in the Choir stalls leading the congregational singing thus involving everybody.

Victorian taste also embraced glass and was far less in favour of tombs and funeral monuments which tended to turn churches into burial places and took up far too much space. Glass was encouraged both for private family memorials and for window embellishment and restoration.

Nicholson liked church roofs and deemed that of St Mary Magdalene good after it was exposed by his work in 1864. The encaustic floor tiles, made by Messrs. Godwin & Co of Lugwardine became an essential part of the refurbishment to allow for the newly installed heating system to belch forth piped warmth through the new iron gratings (in those days of coal fired boilers and endless supply!) to provide comfort for the congregation particularly during long sermons. The tower was restored in 1865 with the addition to funds of a very generous donation of £400 from John Colvin of Leintwardine House.

Nicholson applied his skills to many other projects including The Hall at Brampton Bryan (a new porch and re-fenestration to the sash windows), a school in Mansel Lacy and Hampton Court chapel parapet. David Whitehead considers Nicholson’s greater strength lay with smaller churches which he obviously enjoyed.

His final point was to ask us to consider Nicholson’s competence but nevertheless, perhaps he was an architect without verve?

This very enlightening talk threw new understanding behind the motivation and drive of Anglican belief during 19th century ecclesiastical restoration. Whether or not Nicholson was an imaginative and competent vandal and an architect with no verve has to rest with the listener.

 Bridget Sudworth


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