Arts & Crafts Churches : Madness in the Marches - by Alec Hamilton

Madness in the Marches: three eccentric churches and the ‘silly money’ that paid for them...

Stained Glass, Rodborough Chapel.


The Arts & Crafts movement was different not just depending on who you were, but where you were. It was one thing in Surrey – quite another in Yorkshire – and yet another on the Welsh borders. This post looks at The Marches – Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire – and how these deeply rural counties, and the people who lived there, shaped the way Arts & Crafts expressed itself in church architecture around 1900.

Gloucestershire attracted Arts & Crafts men who wanted to escape – but not completely. They did not want to be too far from London – it was possible to get up to Town from your Cotswold hideaway, and back the same day. (It still is: Stroud to Paddington takes about 100 minutes.) The county was not yet prosperous, so it was cheap.

Ernest Gimson and Ernest Barnsley were Assistants in John Dando Sedding’s office. In 1893 Gimson travelled to Cirencester by train with Sidney Barnsley, Ernest’s brother, to find a cheap and peaceful base where they could make simple, honest furniture – the opposite of Victorian over-elaboration. Earl Bathurst offered them Pinbury Park, tucked into a fold of the Cotswolds. Ernest joined them, and they later moved their workshops to Daneway, a mile or so south, and took houses at Sapperton, at the head of the Golden Valley – which retains its trustafarian hippy-ish remoteness even now. It was all about the simple life, honest toil, back to nature, unshackling from wage-slave drudgery.

All three trained as architects, but only Sidney built churches, and then only a couple, and only one of them in Gloucestershire. Gimson was in charge of the building of Rodmarton Manor, the largest new-build Arts & Crafts house in the Cotswolds. Its chapel, the last element to be built, was completed by Norman Jewson, Gimson’s son-in-law, who carried on the Rodmarton project after Gimson’s death. We will come on to those later.

Herefordshire – though it now has a flourishing Craftsmen’s Guild – did not attract craftsmen around 1900: simply too far away from London – and not near enough to Birmingham either. Ditto Shropshire.

But for those with money – the kind of people who might build a church – the Marches were a different kind of escape altogether: an idyll. Somewhere to have your country house – or, if you had new money, to build or acquire one. And it was not just the Cotswolds that appealed, but the whole country drained by the Severn – so deliciously unlike the Home Counties – so good for hunting – so deeply rural – so cosy and snug. Blandings Castle is in Shropshire.


The ‘big three’ Marches churches are these...

First, and perhaps the craziest, is All Saints, Brockhampton, Ross, Herefordshire (W R Lethaby, 1901–2).

For some, it is the epitome of an Arts & Crafts church – largely because it was designed by W R Lethaby, whom Alistair Service called the ‘leading ideologist of Arts & Crafts architecture’. Lethaby built very little – and this was his only parish church. (He also built the tiny private chapel at Melsetter on Orkney.) Peter Blundell-Jones called it ‘the image of rural tranquillity, oddly timeless, as though it had always been there.’ That was the idea – but a thatched church with a Herefordshire wooden belfry (and only one bell) over the porch? Come now. Was it designed to shock historicist purists? Eclectic? Joie de vivre? Or cocking a snook? 

Architectural historians tend to see Brockhampton as a work of original, cerebral genius. They admire its boldness and daring: ‘the architecture of adventure’ in Lethaby’s own phrase. Pevsner wrote about it wonderingly in ‘Lethaby’s Last’, Architectural Review 130, 1961, pp 354-7. But it is a rather strange church. Though fun-loving and welcoming externally, with its smorgasbord of fenestration, once one goes inside, it seems to express something which is not especially religious, let alone Christian. It is idiosyncratic to an almost excessive degree.

All Saints, Brockhampton. Interior shot by Geoff Brandwood.

One example: the ‘crossing tower’ lantern (unprecedented in any English parish church I know) is admired for its imaginative use of light. But in practice it disconnects congregation from chancel, detracting from the focus of the altar, which the light rather obscures. Is it simply too self-conscious and clever? On the other hand, the much-noticed sharply pitched arches are not so much modern as learnedly reminiscent of the cruck-like timbers at the base of the tower of Upleadon church (14 miles away).    

As architect, Lethaby was quite a catch: from 1896 he had been Head of the Central School of Arts and Crafts (Principal from 1902), and from 1901 Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art. In short, an architectural lion. The lion-hunter was Alice Madeline Jordan (1863-1932), heiress to the largest department store in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1885 she married Arthur Wellesley Foster (1855-1929), a junior member of the Lancashire Black Dyke Mills dynasty. At the time he was in holy orders – he gave up the cloth at once. 

When it came to deciding where they would live, Jeremy Clay, Madeline’s great-grandson, tells the story: ‘She looked through Debrett’s, and chose Herefordshire because there were no duchesses there for her to compete with. She told her parents to buy her Brockhampton.’ They did. The 1500-acre estate included Upper Court, an 18th-century rectory, which was entirely rebuilt as a full-blown neo-Tudor country house, and renamed Brockhampton Court. The Fosters lived a leisured country house life: Arthur was Master of the South Herefordshire Hounds. 

The medieval parish church was hard by the Court. Oh dear. That would never do. The old church was abandoned. Madeline’s new church was built at the far end of the Court’s 400-metre-long drive, on the other side of the main thoroughfare. Jeremy Clay again: ‘I couldn’t say whether Madeline was a great churchgoer. I expect she had the Rolls[-Royce] drive up to the house to take her.’ 

The church has a sort of cartoon after-life. In 2009 Japanese entrepreneurs used it as the model for a wedding chapel constructed on the 21st floor of an Osaka hotel, at two-thirds size, and with large west doors for the happy couple to emerge from, which Lethaby unaccountably did not think to include.


There is a link to the second of the ‘big three’ – and not far away.

Lethaby originally intended to be on site at Brockhampton himself, but was in the event too busy with educational work, so delegated the detail to A. Randall Wells (1877–1942, but not AWG – he could never muster enough votes!). Wells was a handful. Experimenting with mortars, he allowed an arch to collapse, but didn’t think to inform Lethaby or the Fosters. He decided to make the tower 10 feet taller than specified. There were problems with foundations and the west end. Allegedly it drove Lethaby almost to breakdown.

Edward the Confessor, Kempley, Glos (1902-4)

Unabashed, Randall Wells went on to build Edward the Confessor, Kempley, Glos (1902-4), at the entire expense of autocratic old money – an aristocratic aesthete, William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, of Madresfield, Worcestershire, and lord of the manor of Kempley. (The chapel at Madresfield – a wedding present from his wife – is an instructive example of Arts & Crafts’ taste for richness and simplicity in equal measure.)

Kempley’s ancient parish church was dilapidated. The Earl said he would build a new one. He was not religiously indifferent like Madeline Foster, but devoutly High. His church was to have a chapel for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, and a rood. He was artistic too – at first he acted as his own architect, but ran into difficulties, and invited Wells, then at Brockhampton, to take over. Wells insisted on a free hand – up to a point, he got it. But the Earl had very particular liturgical requirements – there was to be no east window (presumably so as not to detract from the altar); most of the lighting should be from the west end; and the eaves were to be kept low.

Edward the Confessor, Kempley

Wells ‘did not propose to hamper the building with pre-arranged drawings of details.’ The negligible skills of the local masons meant a minimum of ornament. There are exceptions. In the porch is a Virgin Mary, at the east end a Crucifixion, and over the entrance a relief of Christ, the figure cut by Wells himself. Everything else, though designed by Wells, was carved by local men under the meticulous direction of Laurence Turner (1864–1957, AWG 1886).

‘Perhaps the most startling modern note’, wrote Lawrence Weaver in 1916, ‘is… the straight-lined tracery of the western light. The absence of curve and cusping makes a notable variant on older Gothic practice.’ Wells explained it ‘had to be as wide and as high as possible if the church was not to be gloomy; this suggested to me the idea of building the west end as a piece of stone trellis work, and then glazing it.’ It is known locally as the ‘jam tart’ window.

Edward the Confessor, Kempley

The third of this tri-ecclesiate is St Catherine, Hoarwithy, Herefordshire (J P Seddon, 1878-1903).

In the 2012 Pevsner Alan Brooks calls it ‘the most impressive Victorian church in the county.’ It is certainly unusual and exotic: another church built to please a personal taste and idiosyncratic credo, and paid for by new money, but this time tempered by socially conscious religious intent. William Poole (1819–1902), Vicar of Hentland from 1854, possessed large estates all over the country. He used the rents to ‘beautify’ Hoarwithy church. His architect was John Pollard Seddon FRIBA (1827–1906), whose practice had produced, by 1874, 31 new churches, mainly in Monmouthshire, Glamorgan and Herefordshire. The benevolent Poole also built a Reading Room for his parishioners.

St Catherine, Hoarwithy

The church – a Commissioners’ chapel-of-ease (1840 or 1842) – was not pulled down: its walls were encased in new sandstone, and jazzed up with eye-catching carving, much of it unorthodox and original: drip-mouldings end with a hand holding a lizard, a fist, a snail. Poole and Seddon added a claustral walk to the south, an apsidal east end and a lofty campanile.


St Catherine, Hoarwithy

Inside, it is gaudy in every detail: this could be the church of a sybarite – but we know it is not. Poole was rather against enjoyment: he didn’t care for jewellery, drinking or sex; he inveighed against Quo Vadis, a play at the Adelphi Theatre – ‘sacred texts employed as mere ingredients in a sexual hodgepodge’. The chancel columns are red-veined grey marble, on Egyptian porphyry. The altar is inlaid with lapis lazuli, and the central cross of tiger’s-eye (chrysolite). Gosh. The choir stalls strike a somewhat rumbustious note in such company, carved by Harry Hems of Exeter in 1883, to Seddon’s designs: scenes in the life of local saint Dubricius - exorcising a devil in the form of a bat; miraculously producing cider from an empty cask.

In short, all three are churches to meet the personal satisfactions – whims even, fancies certainly – of their clients, who were doing just what they wanted to do, and far from the judgemental eyes of scholars and ecclesiologists, down narrow lanes, in sequestered corners. Yes, the architects expressed their own ideas – but always subservient to he or she who paid the piper. 

All Saints, Richards Castle

Other Marches churches

Elsewhere, less well-known churches similarly express the expensive tastes of self-confident incomers and their artistic, compliant architects.

At Selsley, Glos, the local millowner had Morris and friends provide all the glass in his new Bodley church (1860-2) – their first big commission.

All Saints, Richards Castle, Shropshire was built by the eminent and fashionable Norman Shaw, 1890-2, for another of the Foster dynasty. She had to be persuaded not to have her village’s medieval parish church torn down – Shaw was smoothly diplomatic. Once the church was built, the Fosters moved away.

Cheltenham College Chapel: glass by Louis Davis, wood carving by Harry Dean.

At Cheltenham College, the bold new school chapel (H A Prothero, 1893-1907) became a sombre Boer War memorial, and unwittingly a showpiece of Arts & Crafts craftsmanship through work by Harry Dean and Harry Breckin of H H Martyn & Co (vivid naturalistic wildlife carving on the Myers memorial), James Eadie Reid and members of the AWG, Louis Davis and John Dixon Batten.

Gloucester Cathedral, Stained Glass in the Whall windows of the Lady Chapel. Images courtesy of Richard Cann. 

At Gloucester Cathedral Christopher Whall (AWG 1889) had his greatest opportunity: from 1898, a complete scheme of glass for the Lady Chapel. The guiding hand was an artistic Dean, whose connections with the Arts & Crafts – so avant-garde for church work, and at that moment, edgily fashionable – were decisive. Veronica Whall completed the scheme by 1929.

St Michael, Onibury, Shropshire

At St Michael, Onibury, Shropshire the medieval church was handsomely conserved 1902-3 by the SPAB’s top man, William Weir – who then went on to turn the interior into an unexpectedly  theatrical space, with elaborate lighting like beacon fire-baskets. All the work was paid for by the son of glove-manufacturing millionaire John Derby Allcroft. Allcroft père – surprise – had intended to demolish the church: the threat was averted by his death. His son had a keener sense of history, but little interest in liturgy, or, reportedly, church-going. Weir was a success: it was loftily reported, ‘Mr Allcroft is pleased with the result.’

North Cerney, Glos.

From about 1912 at North Cerney, Glos, local bigwig Will Croome had ‘his’ village church re-fitted as a personal vision of a pre-Reformation setting for High Church ceremonial. His accommodating architect was F C Eden (AWG 1915). They went on trips to Italy together (and with Walter Tapper) to find exquisite antique objects for the furnishings, including the Christ on the re-imagined Rood Loft.

Christ Church, Chalford, Glos

After the Great War, the impulses continued – art and craft in the willing service of eccentric religious energies. In 1924, at Christ Church, Chalford, Glos an adventurous cleric had his church refitted by Norman Jewson and Peter Waals and others who had worked with Gimson. In 1925 Sidney Barnsley turned a coach-house into a chapel for the numerous and lively young people of the Rodborough Nonconformist Tabernacle, near Stroud, at the entire expense of a local businessman. At Rodmarton Manor, Glos, Norman Jewson completed the large house’s tiny chapel (1929) for Mrs Biddulph – it has an imposing inscription to her; her husband was churchwarden at the nearby parish church: she went over to Rome after his death.


As well as these, my book Arts & Crafts Churches, lists a further 10 Marches churches to discover and discuss.

Hardback • 352 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
250 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223219 • Publication: September 24, 2020

All photography unless otherwise stated, courtesy of the author.

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