Churches and Religious Buildings. 1 - The Anglicans

The huge numbers of churches built during the reign of Queen Victoria, and the subsequent demolition of many of them, would appear to point to a rise and fall in religious observation. Church going was a social convention, whilst the poor may have been castigated for non-attendance, the middle-classes made a social virtue out of religious observances and the upper classes did what they had always done and pleased themselves.

Wolverhampton contains many churches built by a wide variety of denominations and though some may have fallen prey to demolition due to dwindling congregations or the pressing need for space, many still remain to delight and instruct. Still dominating the town, despite recent developments is the Collegiate Church of St. Peter. This church may at first appear to be a strange inclusion in a book on Victorian Wolverhampton, for it is after all one of the finest late medieval wool churches in the country.1 However there was a major restoration programme carried out between 1852 and 1865 by the architect Ewan Christian, which not only involved restoration, but the complete reconstruction of the choir. Although the chancel and apse are in the style of the 13th century, they are in fact by Christian, so it is valid therefore to include the building in our study.

St. Peter's Church.

Much has been said of Victorian church restoration both for and against. For everyone (like one of the authors) whose heart sinks when the words “restored by George Gilbert Scott” appear in a guide book, there is someone ready to defend the restoration programme on the grounds that the Victorians preserved many buildings that would otherwise have been lost. What were the restorer’s motives? They certainly felt that it was their duty to restore churches and it has to be said that they were the first generation capable of carrying out such a task, for they were the first architects who fully understood the constructional principles of medieval architecture.

The Oxford Movement and Tractarianism, coupled with new ideas about Gothic architecture, led many Victorian churchmen, both Anglican and Catholic, to re-assess their ideas about worship. The Eucharist was emphasized both as a great mystery and as something in which the whole congregation should take part. So altars had to be as far away as possible from the congregation, but raised so that the priest’s actions were clearly visible.  In this new architectural and theological climate elongated chancels, which separated the altar from the congregation and contained the choir stalls for re-discovered sacred music, were the ideal.

Medieval churches had many of these features, and were the pattern for the new churches built in the 19th century. However as well as renovating their fabric, the restorers could not resist tinkering with the layout. Thus genuine medieval chancels were often pulled down, so that churches could be restored according to a spurious Gothic “ideal”.

Prime movers in the Anglican church “restoration” were the Camden Society and the Ecclesiastical Commission, both motivated by Tractarian ideals.

The question of Victorian restoration of our churches is therefore a controversial subject. There is no doubt that much restoration was insensitive, arrogant and did in fact attract the criticism of contemporaries; so much so that the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was formed by William Morris when he heard with horror of the proposed restoration of Tewkesbury Abbey by the ubiquitous George Gilbert Scott. The influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement led people to admire buildings for what they were; often untidy, worn and not all of a uniform style. These new perceptions of repair and preservation, rather than wholesale restoration gradually gained influence. In Wolverhampton, there can be little doubt that the restoration of St. Peter’s was carried out with sensitivity by Christian.2

Ewan Christian (1814-1895) set up business in 1842 and built his first church, Hildenborough, near Tonbridge. In 1847 he restored Scarborough parish church and in 1850 began the restoration of St. Peter's. Christian belonged to the evangelical wing of the Church of England and was architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from 1850 and consulting architect to the Charity Commissioners from 1887. He was also President of the R.I.B.A. One of his contemporaries said that his churches were “distinguished more for quietness of repose than for architectural effect”3

Christian found St. Peter’s in a very poor state, especially the exterior: -“anomalous features have been introduced; unsightly chimneys have been erected; windows have been deprived of their mullions; and, in fact, the whole exterior has been allowed to arrive at such a state of decay and misery, that nothing but vigorous and well directed efforts can possibly restore it to anything like its former beauty”4

Looking from St. Peter's Nave towards the Lady Chapel.

Christian drew up a detailed report in which he described St. Peter’s and also made his recommendations for repair and restoration “upon a large and comprehensive scale”. The cost of restoration was met by contributions of £2,000 from Wolverhampton Council, £3,000 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and a public subscription. By 1866 work on the fabric of the building (excluding decorations) had cost £11,875.14s 5d. It was carried out by the local firm of Highways.

One of the main problems for the church was the fact that the ground around the building had risen by about five feet. Hence a serious problem occurred, as there was no means for carrying off rain water.

The part of the church which has the stamp most strikingly of the 19th century is the chancel, which was completely re-built by Christian. In regard to the then existing chancel, Christian wrote: -

“In the foregoing remarks no mention has been made of the chancel, because hardly a fragment remains to show what it once was. The existing building, erected in the seventeenth century, is wholly unworthy of the noble church of which it should form a part. The original chancel was certainly as much as four feet wider, was probably lofty enough to harmonize in external outline with the nave, and in that case must have been a very important feature of the whole structure”..5

Christian's magnificently restored Chancel.

The chancel as it stood looked a strange affair.

“The chancel was re-built about the year 1682, in a very plain manner, the few mouldings with which it is enriched being in the Italianate style. A few years ago the windows having become dilapidated, new ones in the Norman style were introduced, and the vacancy between the old and the new work, thus inserted, has never been made good. The whole building is of most congruous character, and can only be made to harmonize with the church, by being re-built in proper form”.6

The re-built chancel is one of the most impressive parts of the church. In 1872 as part of the restoration, the chancel walls were painted with frescoes of Biblical scenes by a Mr. Parkes, recommended by Christian as having “a remarkably good eye both for harmony of colour and drawing”. The frescoes were paid for by subscription from the congregation. In 1887 they were restored by the firm of Heaton, Butler and Bayonne, better known as stained glass manufacturers. Presumably the two figures on the west wall of the chancel, showing Moses and Elijah are all that remain.

Christian was very much struck by the beauty of St Peter’s, but realised there were barriers to a complete appreciation of its proportions. Any visitor to an Italian church will immediately be struck by the enhanced architectural effect occasioned by there not being any seats in the body of the church. Christian thought that the galleries and pews were a distraction from the finer points of St Peter’s and wrote so in a letter to the Rev J.H. Isles on the 12th December, 1873.

“..but as regards the remainder of the church is it necessary to put any pews? I was very much struck on my last visit with the remarkable beauty of the interior of the church cleared as it was of the obstructing galleries, and I could not help wishing that you could clear out all other obstructions, so as to allow the noble pillars to be seen in their full proportions. I think if you could persuade your parishioners to have the whole of the pewing removed and the area seated with chairs they would, when once they had seen it clear, never wish to have their church again cumbered up. At any rate it would be worth a trial so far you will not again return to the old system…”7

The main restoration work of Christian concerned the re-building of the west front which was considered at the time to be the high point of the restoration. The nave clerestory was also built and a new roof erected. Repairs were also carried out to the porch and due to their unsafe condition; new parapets and pinnacles were added to the tower.

St. Peter's Nave.

“To ensure the execution of the work in a perfect and endurable manner, I should recommend, that the greatest care should be exercised in the selection of the stone, that the whole quantity required should be quarried as soon as possible, none being put into the building which had not been properly tested; that the workmen should be carefully selected, and that a limited number should only be employed upon the work, under competent and careful supervision. I think that if such a plan be adopted, and if the work be carried out in the right spirit, and in a thoroughly complete and satisfactory manner, funds cannot, and will not be allowed to be wanting, for the most perfect restoration possible of this noble edifice, the chief and most valuable ornament of the town of Wolverhampton”.8

There are other features in the church that owe their inspiration to Christian, most notably the Gothic memorial arcading that runs beneath the windows of the south aisle. It is made up of arches with tracery and pillars, each to contain a brass memorial. Cost was, as ever, a problem. G.A. Purdey, Christian’s assistant, suggests, Nov 26th 1877, “could you not get the whole range done and charge the cost of each one to persons wishing to put up a memorial tablet?”9

St. Peter's Church from the west.

This advice appears to have been acted upon because each has a dedication. There are many monuments in the church to 19th century figures from the town. In the north transept is a plaque to Thomas Thornley, one of the two M.Ps for Wolverhampton, after its enfranchisement in 1832. Like many M.Ps who represented industrial towns, he was an advocate of the repeal of the Corn Laws. These laws, introduced in 1815, were designed to keep the price of corn stable by regulating the flow of cheap corn into England. It was also meant to give farmers a constant and fair price for their corn. To many working people and their representatives, it appeared that the price of corn was being kept artificially high to maintain farmer’s profits. In 1846, after much pressure from the Anti-Corn Law League and the consequences of the great famine in Ireland, the Corn Laws were repealed by Robert Peel.

At this point we could perhaps mention one Victorian decorative feature that is often neglected in guide books; that of tiles. We shall meet them again not only in other Wolverhampton churches, but in secular buildings, such as the Town Hall.

To many people Victorian church tiles represent all that they dislike about that age; they were mass produced and have factory uniformity that some find offensive. However, at the height of the Gothic Revival there was an enormous demand for decorative tiles. Pugin was an ardent enthusiast, who believed that the tiles should be placed “near to the head of those church ornaments which, next to stained glass, and when used in a whole-hearted way, most charm the eye”. The type of tiles that Pugin was advocating were encaustic tiles, the process of whose manufacture had recently been rediscovered. Inlaid tiles had been a feature of medieval churches but the manufacturing process had been lost, especially after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and during the Commonwealth.10

The process whereby they are made appears deceptively simple, but the technique was in fact very problematic. Plastic clay was pushed into a mould which had a raised pattern on the bottom. The tile was then left to dry and afterwards a liquid (or slip) clay of a different colour was poured into the hollows of the design. After drying, the surface was smoothed with a knife. The technical problem was to find two different coloured clays that had similar contraction rate; otherwise the second clay would pull away from the first. The name most associated with the production of these tiles is Minton. Later patents, such as the dust pressing method, which made the production of tiles faster and more efficient, allowed them to be used in a wide variety of buildings. These tiles were not only used for floors and walls, but also as memorial tablets and examples of these can be seen at the rear of the north aisle in St. Peter’s.

One of the glories of St. Peter’s is the range and fineness of its stained glass. Of Particular importance are the windows by one of the greatest stained glass designers of the 19th century, Charles Eamer Kempe. Three windows by Kempe are situated in the south aisle. Kempe was one of the most prolific of 19th century glass designers. What first catches the eye is the paleness and clarity of his glass, achieved by the use of large areas of silver and white. His figures are often golden haired, with golden haloes and richly draped robes of blue, red or green. They are dressed in medieval style, though the windows have nothing else in common with dark “Gothic” glass. Windows frequently show single figures, angels, saints or prophets, each standing beneath an elaborate canopy. The windows in Wolverhampton are classic examples of their type. On occasion however, a full scale scene is composed by dividing a large window into a number of “lights” with one or two figures in each.11 Many Kempe windows also contain his signature, a golden Wheatsheaf taken from his coat of arms (the reaper’s art of making sheaves is known as “kemping”). Many of the windows made after 1895 are signed thus.

The three South Aisle windows summarize the history of Christian evangelism. Moving from West to East, the first window (installed 1891) shows prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus. We have Enoch and Malachi from the Old Testament, to illustrate the Christian belief that the Jewish prophets foretold the coming of Jesus at his presentation in the Jerusalem Temple. The second (installed 1895) shows the four evangelists who wrote down the story of Jesus. The Evangelists are shown with their traditional symbols: Matthew a Man, Mark a Lion, Luke an Ox and John an Eagle.

The third window (installed 1890) shows early Christian missionaries who spread the Christian message.12 Here we see: St. Ambrose, a 4th century Bishop of Milan, with his crosier in his right hand. Ambrose encouraged the development of monasticism and advised several Roman Emperors about Christianity.

St. Gregory the Great, Pope AD 590-604, carries a papal crosier with a double cross. Gregory was responsible for sending St. Augustine to convert the English to Christianity after seeing some fair haired children in the slave market. Asking from where they came he was told that they were Angles. “Not Angles, he replied, Angels”.

St. Jerome, translated the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into a standard Latin text. He is shown holding his Bible. The dog-like lion is often shown with Jerome for the saint lived many years in a cave and the lion is believed to have been a fellow occupant.

St. Augustine of Canterbury built a church at Canterbury on the site of which the present cathedral stands. He is usually considered to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury, hence his crosier. The heart of fire which he carries is meant to symbolise his burning desire to bring Christianity to England.

When the final window of the group was installed, the Express and Star commented “..they are very artistic and beautiful specimens of their art”

The Jesse window in the Lady Chapel, made in 1919, is a fine example of Kempe’s influence on stained glass design long after his death. The maker is unknown, but it is very much an imitation of Kempe’s style, especially in its use of pale colours and a medieval setting. Jesse, father of David, is shown asleep in his tent or pavilion, the flaps held open by angels. He dreams of his descendents, who fill the air above him, with David over his head and Mary and Jesus top centre. Jesse windows were a popular way of showing Jesus’ supposed descent from King David in pictorial form.

The Jesse Window.

The West Window.

The West Window is in memory of the Duke of Wellington, who died in 1852. Wellington was a tremendously popular figure, both for his victories against Napoleon and his later political career; (it may be difficult for us to understand why, since he was a high Tory who opposed all reform and showed little political acumen). A pamphlet describing the window in 1855 says:
“The window was designed by Mr. Wailles of Newcastle upon Tyne, and will contribute much to maintain him in that pre-eminence in this peculiar line of art for which he has long been distinguished”.
The windows show four Biblical figures, depicted in the medieval style beloved of the Gothic Revival. Each stands beneath his own canopy, with a scene from his life beneath. They are Moses, Joshua, Gideon and King David, warriors and legislators to show the respect in which Wellington was held as a soldier and politician. The pamphlet remarks that their applicability “to the life and character of the noble Duke are evident”.

The apse windows were installed in 1867 and are therefore practically contemporary with Ewan Christian’s restoration of St. Peter’s. Their maker is not recorded.

One wonders what Archdeacon Hodson would have thought of them. In 1852 he addressed the clergy of St. Peter’s on the matter of church improvement in which he hoped the church “were not made too dark”. 

The Apse windows at the eastern end of the Chancel.

Much as he admired “painted windows of a proper character and the dim religious light which was thrown into our old ecclesiastical structure” by which their jewel colours, he felt that it should be borne in mind that the congregation “required all the light which could be obtained to enable them to read their prayer books and Bibles”.13 Of course, churches were unlit, except occasionally by gaslight and the archdeacon was reflecting a widely held opinion.

The windows were painted with blackout material during World War Two and its removal badly damaged the glass. They were repaired after the war by Green of London. They tell the story of the life of Jesus from his birth to the Crucifixion and his Ascension into Heaven. On the North side is another representation of the Four Evangelists (very different from Kempe’s version in the South Aisle and a good illustration of the diversity of 19th century glass design) and on the South side the four epistle writers of the New Testament are shown.

To the left of the vestry is a window dated 1875, influenced by the Aesthetic style which grew in popularity during that decade. It is worth comparing  the typical Aesthetic motifs of intertwined branches and fruit which surround the figures with the Gothic architectural canopies of the Kempe windows opposite. The window is divided into three lights. The centre light shows Jesus blessing the children, a poplar theme with Victorian designers. On the left, illustrating “Blessed are the Peacemakers” we see David’s friend Jonathan making peace between David and King Saul. On the right, illustrating “Blessed are the Merciful” we see the Good Samaritan.

The three windows in the north transept, now the War Memorial Chapel.
In the north transept we are confronted with a mystery: the bottom section of a window of otherwise glass contains three medallions showing Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter, Jesus blessing the children and the Good Shepherd. Beneath the medallions the blue glass tops of three further medallions can be seen.

This would appear to be the window referred to in Steen and Blackett’s 1871 Wolverhampton Guide.

There is a window in the North Transept still incomplete which we may introduce to the reader on account of its interesting character…It is composed of small circular panels, which it is proposed to fill up after time, to the memory of children…there are now  three of the panels filled with memories of little ones”.

It would seem that no more Wolverhampton children have been commemorated since 1871!

St. Peter’s contains much more fine glass, but it is outside the scope of this book, dating as it does from the First and Second World Wars. In the chancel there are some fragments of Flemish glass, which was frequently imported to “improve” English churches in the late and early 19 centuries when English glass painting was in the doldrums. 

As an expanding town in the mid 19th century, many new Anglican churches were built to cater for the needs of the growing middle classes and also in an attempt to gain adherents at the expense of the Nonconformists. (A sign of respectability amongst many wealthy Nonconformists was to abandon the chapel and join the established church. Some, however, like the Congregationalist Manders, remained steadfastly Nonconformist).  Many of these churches have now gone and it has to be said that not all of them were of the highest architectural standards. Christchurch was formed into a separate parish on October 27th, 1876 and a parish church, a plain building of stone in the Early English style, was erected in Waterloo Road in 1861 / 1877. According to Kelly’s Directory of 1896, the architect was T.H. Fleeming, but according to Pevsner, it was Edward Banks.

In Chapel Ash stands the church of St. Mark. The building itself is not of great interest, but there are two points about the church which will bear mention. Firstly there is its situation at the bottom of Darlington Street. Seen from Queen Square down, the church forms quite an impressive backdrop to the downward sweep of the street. The other noteworthy feature of the church is that it is a Commissioners’ Church. It is one of two in the town, the other one being St Georges. Commissioners’ churches were built under the Church Building Act of 1818 that provided one million pounds for new churches in the expanding towns.

St. Mark's Church, Chapel Ash.

It appears odd to us that in the years following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when poverty and distress in England reached dreadful proportions, the government should have sought to ameliorate the situation by building churches to promote the established religion; but this it did. Most of the early examples, like St. George’s, were classical in style, the latter were mostly Gothic. Although Gothic style was favoured, the ground plan of the latter churches tended to be classical with a large galleried preaching space with short chancel attached. The church of St. Mark, which was built in 1848-9, is by C.W. Orford and cost £4,850. Although, as stated earlier, we find the view of the church quite impressive, it was not received so at the time:

“In the choice of this site, an error perhaps has been committed. A better spot in nearly every respect would have been that upon which the parochial schools are erected. In as much as it would have afforded easy access from Darlington Street and Salop Street and the tower entrance would have obtained that prominence to the Tettenhall Road which it now in greater measure loses by being placed on the side of the thoroughfare”.14

At the time of writing, the future of the church of St. Mark’s appears to be in some doubt, but it is undergoing extensive restoration. The Parish of St. Mark’s was evidently a wealthy one, for in 1875 a new vicarage was erected at a cost of £2,000; exclusive of the site. Money was by voluntary contributions from parishioners and their friends. It was evidently a fine house and worthy of its parish, for it was built in red brick with Bath stone dressing. The work was carried out by Mr. H. Lovatt under the superintendence of the Wolverhampton architect Mr. Veall.

We cannot leave our survey of 19th century Anglican churches without looking at one of the finest examples in the area. To find it we must leave the artificial constraints of the Ring Road and go to Heath Town and visit the parish church of Holy Trinity in Church Road. Until recently its graceful and grubby spire could be seen over trees, when viewed from the Wednesfield Road. The church has now been cleaned and the revelation of the pink tinged sandstone under the grime came as a great and welcome surprise. The architect was once again Edward Banks who here surpassed himself.

Once again the builders were Highways. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1850. A contemporary account of the ceremony states that:

“The new church is intended to be built in the Decorated English style. It will comprise in its plan a nave and side aisles 85 by 55 feet and a chancel 36 by 19 feet. There will be a tower and a spire at the south-west angle of the nave of a total height of 150 feet. It will be entirely built of stone”15

A visitor to the church today will see at once the accuracy of this description. Above the south porch is a carving representing the Trinity; a shamrock overlaid with a triangle. Inside, the church is a delight. It is rather dark, due to the latter addition of heavily-coloured stained glass, but the whole building is beautifully proportioned. In the nave slender columns divided into six bays support the five double clerestory windows. The chancel is notable for the stone angel corbels surmounted by slender columns with much carved foliage on the capitals and a painted roof with more symbols of the Trinity. Two royal heads on either side of the chancel arch are unfortunately cut in two by the later addition of a screen.

The stained glass, although of excellent quality, does make the church rather dark. All the windows, except the Gothic East Window of 1881, belong to the early years of the 20th Century. However, there are two windows which deserve special mention. The first is the West Window, installed in the 1930s. It is unusual to find a Gothic window like this being made almost a hundred years after the Gothic heyday, but what makes the window remarkable is that it is very similar in style to the (genuine Gothic) West Window of the other Banks’ church, St. Mary at Bushbury, which also shows the Four Evangelists. By accident or design? The second special window is in the chancel, the second from the East on the South side. Dated 1922 it shows the angel announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. The window is in the style of Morris and Company, and although it is much too late to be the work of great masters Burne Jones and Morris, who died in the 1890s, it closely resembles the style of Morris and Company glass from the time of J. H. Dearle, Morris’s foreman who took over the day-to-day running of the firm after Morris’s death. If this is so, the church is privileged to have Wolverhampton’s only example of Morris and Company glass.


1. Wool churches are so-called because wool merchants built them on the proceeds of their trade. Before becoming an industrial centre, Wolverhampton was well known as a wool market as the names Farmers Fold, Blossom Fold, Mitre Fold etc. show.
2. The restoration carried out by Christian was not the first in the 19th century. Both Ebbels, the restorer of All Saints, Trysull and Beck had had a hand in the matter, but their restoration was mainly of the interior. Although their restoration was praised at the time, it was fairly cosmetic and the main problem of the building remained un-addressed. There is no doubt that Christian was greatly impressed by St. Peter's and concerned that his restoration should be carried out competently. 
3. Annonymous, "Ewan Christian", 1896, p.21.
4. Letter from Ewan Christian, "Report on the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, 1852.
5. ibid
6. ibid
7. Letter from Ewan Christian to Rev. J.H. Iles, May 16th 1872. S.C.R.O.
8. ibid
9. Letter from Purdey (Christian's assistant) to Rev. Iles, Nov 26th 1877. S.C.R.O.
10. To see some genuine encaustic tiles in situ one only needs to go as far as Buildwas Abbey where they are laid in the chapter house.
11. A good example can be seen in the South Transept of Lichfield Cathedral. Excellent examples of Kempe's work can also be seen in Wightwick Manor, where he stayed on several occasions between 1886 and 1899. The house contains Kempe windows and also a painted chimney piece and a frieze telling the story of Orpheus and Euridice.
12. The window is a memorial to Rev. Iles, who was instrumental in the restoration of St. Peter's.
13. Wolverhampton Chronicle, Wednesday 26th May, 1852.
14. Wolverhampton Chronicle. 1849.
15. Rev G. Corbett (ed), "One Hundred Years of Heath Gown".

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