The Building of St Paul’s Church, Birmingham in the 1770s

The collapse of part the gallery of St Mary’s chapel

In 1776 part of the gallery in the chapel collapsed during morning service. There were reports that nobody was hurt but that some ladies lost their handkerchiefs and some gentlemen their hats. However it was a serious matter and it called for a Town meeting of the inhabitants in the chamber over the Old Cross, and was written up in the Town Book. The meeting resolved that “Mr Wyatt of Burton be applied to make a thorough inspection into the state of the chapel and to recommend what he would do to put into a Good, Firm, Substantial Condition”. Mr Wyatt, a well known architect, was to be used by the trustees of St Paul’s. The signatories at this meeting included Henry Kempson, James Kempson, Elias Wallin, John Startin and Thomas Lutwyche. Seemingly there was not much response from Wyatt, as at the next meeting it was resolved “to fix upon a surveyor to inspect St Mary’s chapel”. Mr Eykyn of Wolverhampton was to be asked to do it immediately. Mr Eykyn was also to be used by the trustees of St Paul’s. There was no further mention of Eykyn on this matter. The next stage was to talk to the chapel architect, Joseph Pickford, but there may have been some reluctance on his part, as towards the end of the year a special messenger was to be sent to him to request his presence at a meeting. In early January of 1777 it is resolved that “Edward Winfield and Henry Kempson be appointed to enter into Arbitration Bonds in behalf of the Town with Mr Joseph Pickford to settle all matters of dispute between the Town and him relating to St Mary’s Chapel and a group appointed to fix the Arbitrators and settle things”. Six months were to pass and then we learn that “ Mr Pickford offered £400 in settlement” , but they were not ready to settle because they still wanted the views of Samuel Wyatt and Mr Hiorne. This is the first mention of Mr Hiorne. Brothers William and David Hiorne were architects who had had a number of assignments in Birmingham including, it is thought, the design of St Bartholomew’s chapel, but David had died in 1758 and William in 1776. Francis Hiorne was the elder son of William and succeeded to his business as an architect and builder. There was to have been a joint report from Wyatt and Hiorne, because we learn that “the meeting of Messrs Wyatt and Hiorne is very precarious on account of Mr Hiorne being out of the country”. This nicely fits with Francis Hiorne as his record shows that his assignment on the building of St Anne’s church in Belfast finished in 1776. Nonetheless they decide to settle. By mid September the £400 is in the hands of the churchwardens of St Martin’s and St Phillips and the wardens of St Mary’s, and the meeting resolves that Mr Hiorne be asked to survey the chapel. In November the survey arrives and reports that “The roof is very safe and likely to continue so as long the Timbers are kept dry, and the gallery may be made safe by drawing in timbers and supporting the same with a number of Iron columns”. The suggestion by Hiorne in 1777 of the use of cast iron columns structurally in this way, albeit on a very small scale, was probably regarded as very innovative at the time. The first major structural use of cast iron was to take place in 1779 with pioneering technology involved in the building of the Iron Bridge in Shropshire. The use of cast iron columns in industrial buildings did not start until the 1790s, to be followed by cast iron beams. The use of cast iron columns in churches has not been researched here, other than noting the claim of St John’s church at Hanley that the church, built in 1788, “is probably one of the world’s earliest surviving buildings to be constructed with cast iron”. However, it is also claimed by St George’s church in Everton, built in 1814, that it was “the first church building in the world to be constructed substantially from cast iron”. The use of cast iron columns at St Mary’s, and doubtless an understandable sensitivity by the trustees to safety, are likely to have resulted in the use of the four cast iron columns as gallery supports at St Paul’s chapel. Another problem St Mary’s seems to have had was in the payments of their sexton. The Town Book records that there was a Vestry meeting at St Martin’s church on March 14th 1775 at which two resolutions were passed. The first was “That every grave to be dug at St Mary’s chapelyard shall be dug at least 6ft deep from the surface of the ground and that the sexton for digging every such grave shall be paid one shilling and six pence and for every grave deeper to be paid at the same rate as in other churchyards already fixed”. The second resolution was to the effect “that the sexton be paid for Ringing or Tolling the bell at every funeral for the first hour sixpence and for every hour afterwards one shilling”. It is surprising that this needed the signature of J Parsons, the Rector of St Martin’s, and J Riland, the Curate of St Mary’s (otherwise known as the minister), Elias Wallin and Thomas Lutwyche, the churchwardens of St Martin’s, and others, presumably the wardens of St Mary’s and also Daniel Winwood.

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