One of the worst acts of vandalism to a Yorkshire church occurred 40 years ago, on 7 April 1974. It was not the act of local youths with a taste for arson or the result of a crazed and tormented soul who was not responsible for his actions. It was committed by the Church of England and the local planning authority. It was the demolition by dynamite of Holy Trinity church in Bingley, West Yorkshire.
Why single out this church, when so many others have been demolished over the years? Between the late 1950s and the late 1970s hundreds of Victorian churches were pulled down, their congregations either having drifted or been moved away in slum clearance drives (and many of these churches were built to serve the poorer areas of our cities). Sometimes, though, it was not the lack of a congregation but the inability of the people whose job it was to care for a church to see its merits not only as a place of worship but also as a piece of architecture.
In the middle of the last century appreciation of anything Victorian was at a low ebb. It was considered either ugly or comical – hardly ever as great. This applied especially to architecture – perhaps inevitably, as there was so much of it around, and it was difficult to distinguish the really good from the mediocre, of which there certainly was plenty. In our own day many people have had – and continue in many places to have – the same horror of the concrete neo-brutalist buildings of the 1960s.
As far as Victorian architecture is concerned, though, we have progressed in our taste and appreciation. One of the catalysts for this change was the founding in 1958 of The Victorian Society, with John Betjeman as its first Secretary. At first theirs was an uphill battle; one of their first fights was to try to save the Euston Arch – that great Greek-style entrance to Euston Station – and the station itself. That battle was lost. But thereafter the Society gradually educated the tastes of the public; by the early 1980s the battle was largely won, and very few, if any, major Victorian buildings have been diminished since then – though too many have been mutilated by ill-advised changes and additions.
The fate of Holy Trinity, Bingley, was, tragically, decided just before this change of attitude – ten years later it would undoubtedly be saved. The Victorian Society battled hard for its retention, but forces were against them. But why was it worth saving?
The parish of Holy Trinity was carved out of the larger All Saints parish in 1869 – the parishes were then in the Ripon diocese. In preparation, local benefactor Alfred Harris had put up much of the money to build a new church. To design it he chose Richard Norman Shaw, one of the greatest of later 19th-century architects. The church was consecrated in 1868. New fittings were given later, including a mosaic reredos for behind the altar, and in 1880 a tower and spire were added, giving it a new magnificence.
Form the first it attracted praise for its simplicity and strong character. It was described as ‘among Shaw’s most notable achievements, and arguably his best church’; the architectural critic Harry Goodhart-Rendall wrote that ‘no modern church I know is finer’ – a view quoted with approval by Pevnser in the West Riding volume of ‘The Buildings of England’; the American writer Henry-Russell Hitchcock described it as ‘one of the finest examples of the ‘Early French’ phase of the Victorian Gothic’ and that ‘for the first time . . . one senses a real respect, at once intelligent and intuitive, for the differing nature of materials.’
A visit to the church was an uplifting experience; outside it was austere and was dominated by the soaring tower. The interior was austere, too, with, except for the rose window at the west end, simple lancet windows. There were a few splashes of colour – the square pulpit of red and white marble and mosaic; the reredos, also of marble and mosaic; and, in the east window, glowing stained glass by Morris and Company. As Norman Shaw’s biographer Andrew Saint wrote in 1976, soon after the building’s demolition, ‘It was among the most consummate, most assured church interiors of the High Victorian Movement; its destruction was an inestimable loss.’
It was the tower that sowed the seeds of its fate. Because it was an afterthought, the foundations were not quite strong enough, and the tower’s weight caused some problems. By 1973 the cracks were widening and, to be safe, the church was closed. The Victorian Society, and other bodies, argued that there should be a full, professional structural inspection to find a remedy. Today, that would have been done without question, and a possible solution found; in the early 1970s the cracks seemed a godsend to clergy and congregation who saw their ugly Victorian church as a liability. Foolishly, a local firm was employed to take the top off the spire, which then became more unstable. A local Victorian Society member remarked that as soon as she heard the name of the firm appointed she knew that the church would end up being dynamited – and with the approval of the Church and the local authority, it was.
Why, apart from the loss of a very fine church, does this matter 40 years on? It matters because it’s very easy for us to be blinkered by both our own tastes and our own needs, and to work on the principle that what suits us must be right. As William Morris put it, back in the 1870s, ‘We are only the trustees for those who come after us’. It was true when he wrote; it was true in the 1970s; it is as true now. Holy Trinity Bingley should be a salutary lesson for us all.
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