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

The Design of the Chapel

Ettlinger and Holloway 27 suggest that for buildings such as St Paul’s, the use of a famous model for the building and the checking of a surveyor’s design by an architect are characteristic features of the period. They might have added that, compared with the use of a professional architect, it was almost certain to be a much cheaper solution. (St Mary’s had employed a professional architect in Joseph Pickford). It is suggested that St Paul’s could not use this approach because of the problems in funding, and that they had to seek a local surveyor with architectural experience. One candidate was Roger Eykyn of Wolverhampton, who first appeared as a master joiner, then nurseryman, then surveyor, as well as a stonemason. This is the same Eykyn who was asked to look at the structure of St Mary’s chapel. It is to be noticed that he was described then as a surveyor, and that he did not appear to come up with a report. This did not deter the trustees from appointing him surveyor to this project. His original design for St Paul’s was derived from Gibbs’ Book of Architecture and St Martin’s in the Fields in particular. After HK had written to Eykyn requesting his design he showed him the proposed site. Eykyn had met Winwood and a model of the chapel had been made, which was “to be left at the Hotel and no one to see it without a note from Mr Winwood”. On March 27th1777 HK writes “Mr Eykyn was fixed on as Surveyor at the sum of 200 guineas”. This did not mean just supplying the design but now acting as surveyor to the project. The evidence for this comes from HK’s payments. There is no single payment to Eykyn of 200 guineas, but staged payments, the last one recorded being of £50, “on account of surveying”. At this stage an architect was called in for his views on the design, following the pattern that Ettlinger and Holloway suggested was typical of that period. His name was Samuel Wyatt, another who was asked to examine the structure of St Mary’s chapel. Wyatt was an exceptional local architect and engineer, and also a successful building contractor and timber merchant. He was a close friend of many of the pioneer midlands industrialists and with his more famous brother, James, redesigned Soho House, and did other work for Boulton. Samuel and James each set up independent practices as architects in London in 1774. Wyatt presumably saw the model and drawings and HK noted twenty one observations he made, examples of which are-:         

“That the Middle Isle is too narrow and too Low          

That the Entabliture above the Capitals is Ugly          

That he thinks the Truss over the Chancel is as bad nearly as  St Mary’s          

That the Pediment at the West end is as Vulgar as can be and it would be much handsomer without it

That the Venetian Window is good in itself but not proper in its Situation          

That Groin Arches are very pretty          

That there can be nothing uglier than the Chancel Windows in the Execution          

That in General Terms he should be sorry they should build It So”

On the evening of the next day, April 15th, HK “Spent the evening with a Mr Gibson at the Hen and Chickens at Mr Startin’s request” and on April 16th we have the remarks of Mr Gibson, presumably an architect, on the model. Mr Gibson had thirteen observations to make, such as:- “That to make the Chancel Square instead of Circular would lessen the expense and look as well That he would either have two rows of windows or light it all above the Gallery That he would have the doors at the West end instead of the sides That he would not have the pediment but let the cornices run around That it would be a vast deal better to raise the whole 2 or 3 feet That it would be more expense to raise the Middle Isle than to raise the walls That it is too low and Squat That he would not advise to do it from the Model by no means with the windows throughout, they will be very disagreeable”. HK refers only to a Mr Gibson, but then following on immediately after Mr Gibson’s opinions appears the following in HK’s notebook:-

“To   Messrs Thos & James Gibson
No. 31 Queen Ann St Portland Chap

Upon Condition of his having the Estimate to peruse & if he should approve of it so as to engage in the Undertaking he would Advance 2000£ & subscribe 50£”.

This was presumably a draft of a letter to the Gibsons. Nothing further is written about the Gibsons. Was this proposal discussed with them? It would have been an extraordinary move to borrow £2000, but it perhaps illustrates vividly the magnitude of the problem the trustees were having in financing the “business”. In Colvin’s “A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840” there is a Thomas Gibson, an architect employed by the 3rd Earl of Marchmont to design Marchmont House Berwickshire. Among other references there is also a comment that he appeared to be a London architect. In addition a James Gibson, builder, has been found in documents of Marylebone for this period. It all looks plausible, and it will have been Thomas Gibson who met HK and gave his views on the design. These criticisms must have dismayed the trustees, but Eykyn responded to them. For example, two of Gibson’s proposals were adopted, the suggestion that the chancel should be square rather than circular, and that there should be two rows of windows as at St Martin’s. Generally, Wyatt and Gibson shared similar views on the design; particularly that it was too low. A striking characteristic of both opinions is that no mention is made of a steeple. The Gibson comment that the building was too low and squat suggests that there was no steeple on the model. Yet there is evidence that a steeple was intended. Thomas Hanson’s map of Birmingham in 1778 shows St Paul’s with a steeple, as does the certificate of sittings assignment in 1791 previously referred to. The absence of any comment about it suggests that the trustees had already eliminated the steeple from the design. The overall opinion of Ettlinger and Holloway is that “Eykyn must have departed further from Gibbs in his original design for the interior, but as a result of Wyatt’s trenchant criticism the final plan is very close to St Martin’s( in the Fields)”. The west gallery of the completed building had two iron columns on each side of the middle aisle supporting it. It is difficult to resist the notion that the use of cast iron was influenced by the experience at St Mary’s. It was to be four years after Wyatt’s comments, i.e. in 1781, that a letter from him was tabled at a Town meeting. The minute says “A letter was produced from Mr Wyatt respecting his opinion given about St Paul’s and St Mary’s Chapels in which he requests Mr Faulconbridge to receive for him £5-5-0. The sum is agreed to be paid to him”.

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