St. Peter’s Church, as we know it today, owes a lot to the architect Ewan Christian, who carried out a major restoration of the church, beginning in 1852, followed by the rebuilding of the chancel in 1865.

Ewan Christian, born in 1814, had an impressive career. He became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1840, a Fellow in 1850, rising to Vice President in 1880 and finally President from 1884 to 1886. In 1887 he was awarded the Institute's Royal Gold Medal.

From 1851 until his death in 1895, he was Architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and as such had considerable control over the construction and restoration of many church buildings. He oversaw about 1,300 restorations and designed around 90 new churches.

His many restorations included Carlisle Cathedral; St Giles' Church, Skelton; St. Mary's Church, Scarborough; Southwell Minster, York; Carlisle Cathedral; and of course St. Peter's Church, Wolverhampton.

His report gives us a unique insight into the fabric of the building and a brief architectural history. His restoration saved the building, which was in a poor state of repair, followed by the design and building of a beautiful chancel, which restored the church to its former glory.

Bev Parker

The Report

The noble edifice which is to form the subject of the following report, is one of the largest churches in the county of Stafford. It occupies a very elevated and commanding position in the centre of the town, and is, without doubt, whether antiquity or beauty be considered, its finest and most interesting ornament. In its existing state, shorn as it has been of some of its most beautiful features, partly by the ravages of time, partly by repairs parsimoniously and imperfectly executed, it is hardly possible for the cursory observer to realise how splendid a structure it once was, or how great would be its value if faithfully restored to its original condition.

It will probably be interesting previous to entering upon the chief subject of this report, briefly to describe the general arrangements of the church and to relate, so far as may be gathered from architectural features, the history of its erection. A reference to the plan given in plate 2, in which is shown the position of the several parts of the building, will facilitate the comprehension of the subject.

It will be seen from this, that the church possesses the usual features of a cruciform arrangement, and consists of a central tower, nave, north and south aisles, north and south transepts, south porch, with a room above, and a chancel; there is also a vestry of modern erection. The pulpit is of stone, the body of it, together with a part of the shaft of the pillar which it adjoins, being cut out of a single block. The font is placed in the north transept. At the south west corner of the tower there is a staircase which was formerly the approach to the rood loft.

In speaking of the various styles of Gothic architecture discoverable in the building, Rickman's classification will be followed as being that most generally known and understood. Although it is more than probable that from the earliest times a church has occupied this site, yet there appears no good reason for believing that any part of the existing building was erected anterior to the commencement of the fourteenth century. To this period, the lower part of the central tower, and the greater part of the south transept, undoubtedly belong; and it is probable that the wall of the south aisle, and the encased western wall, were erected at the same time, or not much later.

As regards the tower, the evidence of this remains nearly perfect, in pillars and arches which though partially concealed from general view, may nevertheless be clearly made out by proper examination (a sketch of the capitals and commencement of the arches is given in plate 3).

In the south transept, subsequent alterations and additions have partially concealed or destroyed the original outline, but in the east window, and in the form of the buttresses, there still remains sufficient evidence to show to what period its erection belongs. It may be remarked in passing, that the central pier in this window is of modern introduction; the opening was doubtless formerly filled with mullions and tracery of decorated character. The south window was probably at one time of the same form as the eastern one: but in the addition of the clerestory at a later period, it was considerably shortened, and a depressed arch introduced instead of the higher one, to admit of the continuation of windows correspondent with those of the nave.

Similar causes have been followed by like results in the wall of the south aisle, Were it not for the form of the buttresses, the depressed four centred arches of the windows in this aisle, would at first sight lead to the supposition that the wall in which they were placed was of perpendicular character; but a closer examination will I think clearly prove, that the upper part of the wall has been rebuilt at a later period, and that at that time the present arches were inserted. The buttresses, the entrance doorway, and the body of the porch, are certainly of an earlier date, and belong to the Decorated style of the former half of the fourteenth century (the several features here alluded to will be seen by reference to the general view in plate 1).

The western wall having been cased externally, and its original features destroyed, its date is not now exactly discoverable; but the small size of the western window, the outline of which I believe has not been greatly altered, would seem to show that it belonged to an earlier period than the side walls of the nave, because at the time when these were erected, large western windows were almost universally used in such churches. I think therefore that the south aisle and western nave walls, together with those of the lower part of the tower and south transept, enclosed a church, no part of the interior of which is now standing. The older church may possibly have been destroyed by fire or other accident, and it is by no means improbable that fire was the cause of its destruction, as the interior of the walls has evidently been cased, especially about the windows, in a manner which would otherwise appear inexplicable. This however is only a suggestion, it would be beside the purpose of this paper further to follow up such an enquiry.

The north transept, or Lane's Chantry, is the next in point of antiquity; and it is, with its very beautiful roof, wholly of one date and character. It was erected either at the close of the fourteenth, or the beginning of the fifteenth century. The windows of this transept, undoubtedly original, are very remarkable. They have none of the usual mullions or tracery, but are each divided into two parts by a large central pier. These piers, and the jambs and arches of the windows, are finished on the inside with a series of bold and connected mouldings. The form of the windows will be better understood by a reference to plate 4, in which a sketch of the upper part of the transept is given. The glass is now supported by large iron bars, which from their injudicious position have contributed to the decay of the stone; and these being modern, have probably replaced others of more ornamental character. It is most probable that this transept was erected and completed previous to the destruction of the more ancient nave.

In the next era in the progress of the church, the pillars and arches of the nave were erected as high as the base of the clerestory walls. These belong to the earlier half of the fifteenth century, and are of bold and simple character. The very beautiful pulpit, forming part of one of the southern pillars, gives, in the character of its details, additional evidence to the accuracy of this date.

The upper part of the tower above the clerestory, was probably the next point to which the builders of the church directed their attention, and shows, by the fineness of its proportions, and in the beautiful character and vigorous treatment of its details, the great skill and taste of those who superintended its erection.

Last in the history of this fine structure, come those portions of it which are now most decayed, the clerestory of the nave and south transept; and these may I think be correctly dated in the close of the fifteenth century. Erected in the decline of the art, they nevertheless show that those who directed the building were excellent artists’ men fully capable of carrying out work of the highest character, and stamping upon it no small measure of originality and beauty. Thus it will be seen, that during two whole centuries was this great edifice in progress; gradually rising under the hands of successive generations of men, each striving to improve upon the example of his predecessor, and to do his part in carrying out the work to perfection. At the close of the fifteenth century it must have been a truly glorious structure. Since that time it has been gradually decaying, or suffering mutilation at the hands of those who should have been most anxious to have preserved it, until now, when the accumulated effects of time and evil repair have in some parts worked such ruin, that, unless speedy measures of restoration are adopted, it will be impossible to discern any of its original external features.

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, which was certainly as much as four feet wider, was probably lofty enough to harmonise in external outline with the nave, and in that case must have been a very important feature of the whole structure. That the chancel and church should at any time have been well united internally, is almost impossible, owing to the narrowness of the tower archways. This does not appear however to have been much regarded by the architects engaged upon the church in the fifteenth century, because they still further narrowed the opening of the archway next the nave; and the staircase at the south-west angle of the tower, which is an addition of later date than the tower itself, evidently shows that the nave was terminated by a rood loft and screen, etc., of unusually large dimensions, placed to the westward of the archway against the tower wall. The doorway in the upper part of the staircase, now built up, the outline of which may be seen in the south east corner of the nave above the arches, was probably used as a means of access for the purpose of decorating the rood on occasions of high festivals, etc. The whole of the ground floor area of the tower appears to have been enclosed by screens about the same time, two of which now remain, one of which is shown in plate 5. The floor above them was then erected as a part of the rood loft. This rood screen must have been very lofty, and was probably a fine architectural feature, but it must have completely concealed the chancel, and thereby damaged the good effect which so great length would otherwise be calculated to produce.

This historical sketch would possibly be considered incomplete without some allusion to the very remarkable pillar which stands on the south side of the church. Various theories have I believe been broached with regard to its date, but judging by the slight traces of architectural design visible on its surface, I think it may be pronounced to be of Norman workmanship, and it may have formed the shaft or pedestal of a cross, the upper part of which has been long destroyed. The material of which it is composed being sandstone, and the block being set contrariwise to its quarry bed, the weather has greatly acted on its surfaces, and, by ploughing them out in grooves and holes, has produced marks and indentations which have so much the appearance of the carver's work, that at first sight it appears much more richly wrought than a closer examination proves it to have been. The upper step is circular in form, and is a single block of stone seven feet in diameter. Other steps probably lie buried beneath the surface, the soil having been much raised in this part of the churchyard.

Having thus given a slight outline of the history of the church, it will now be necessary to proceed to the main subject of this report; and to describe, first, the present state of the fabric; and, next, the repairs necessary to restore it to a sound, durable, and perfect condition. And first of the roofs:

The Nave Roof  - The roof of the nave which was erected nearly a century ago, is perfectly sound as regards its timbers, the whole being of substantial modern construction, though entirely out of character with the architecture of the church. The lead covering, especially in the gutters, is in a bad state; it has been much repaired, and the repairs have greatly conduced to its present imperfections.

In fixing this roof, the masonry of the north parapet was damaged very materially, the bases of the pinnacles having been cut away to give room for the gutters, consequently the overhanging weight has caused the whole parapet to lean inwards.

The North Aisle Roof  - This roof is generally in tolerable condition, both as regards its timbers and their covering, probably because the lead has in a great measure been protected from the action of the sun's rays. The dormer windows which have been introduced to give light to the gallery in this aisle, are almost entirely rotten. Water penetrates in many parts, and will seriously damage the roof unless these defects are speedily amended. The gutters on this roof are in a very bad state, and need to be re-laid throughout.

The South Aisle Roof  - This roof, which was erected about half a century ago, is exceedingly defective in construction, and has consequently settled very considerably. On the south side, the principal beams rest upon a slight wall of stone in which there are three windows for lighting the gallery. This is built on the inner side of the main aisle wall, giving space for a gutter between the wall and the parapet. The pressure arising from the settlement of the roof has caused this wall in the middle of its length to swerve from the perpendicular to the extent of three inches in its height of about four feet. The main trusses of this roof being too far apart, and the intermediate timbers not being of proportionate strength, the external surfaces are extremely crooked, and the roof is in bad condition, and not waterproof. These defects can only be effectually remedied by the removal of the roof, and the substitution of another. Internally, there is a ceiling beneath it of plaster groining, which is miserably poor.

The South Transept, or Leveson's Chantry  - The roof on this transept appears to have been constructed about the same time as that of the nave, and consists in part of the old timbers from a former enriched ceiling, which was probably like that on the north transept. The timbers appear to be generally in sound condition; but the boarding which covers them is partially in a bad state, and the same defects exist in the lead, as those described in the nave roof. This covering should be removed and the lead re-cast. The lead on this roof was recently repaired, but, previously it had been long neglected, and water having been allowed to penetrate in various parts, in one or two places incipient rot is visible in the timbers.

The North Transept or Lane’s Chantry  - This roof is the original one. It is formed with carved and moulded beams, with cross ribs and beautifully carved bosses at the intersections (see plate 4) and is in its main timbers apparently sound; some of the smaller ribs have however been destroyed, and the boarding is in part decayed. The lead coverings and gutters require to be relaid, the latter being especially defective, and the flashing having been removed water has penetrated to the interior and rotted the gutter boards. The whole roof should be carefully repaired, and fitted for permanent durability.

The chancel roof, covered with lead, is in fair condition.

The Walls  - It is satisfactory to be able to state that the walls, which are chiefly built of red sandstone, are substantial, and appear to be generally sound at heart, being free for the most part, from fractures or settlements; almost all of them are true and perpendicular. They have been built with excellent mortar, which generally remains still strong and good to the surface. The external face of the stone is however much decayed, and in the greater portion of the main walls is so rotten, as imperatively to require replacement. The tower only is an exception; being built of a superior stone, it remains as regards its surface, to a very considerable extent in an almost perfect condition. The pinnacles and parapets however, are not the original ones; and like almost all more recent work, are in very unsatisfactory condition; the former are barbarous in design, not perpendicular, and hardly safe, rocking visibly in a slight breeze.

In most parts of the church, repairs have been executed at various times, but generally with little regard to the preservation of the original features of the structure. These have been effected in a lighter coloured stone than that used in the first construction, and it is remarkable, that of but few parts can it be said that the modern is in as sound condition as the ancient work; in many parts it is much worse, and in some, as in the south clerestory windows of the nave, the partial and imperfect nature of the repairs has actually tended to the destruction of the adjoining masonry.

It will serve no useful purpose to enter much into detail with regard to the walls, the defects in which are clearly evident to the most cursory observer; it will be sufficient for present purposes to note those parts of them which are chiefly in need of instant repair. Although of most recent erection, the walls of the clerestory of the nave are in worse condition than any others in the church, and are in fact becoming ruinous with extraordinary rapidity, wasting day by day with still increasing injury to the fabric.

The repairs which have been executed here, have as has been already noticed assisted in the destruction of the old work; the mullions of the windows having been faced only on the exterior, the rain has driven through the joints thus made, and the walls have thereby been greatly damaged. In plate 6, sketches are shown to a large scale of one bay of the clerestory, illustrative of the present condition of the walls, and of their original state, as it may be learned from still remaining fragments. It may be well to add that the modern parapet on this clerestory is in a very loose and shaky condition. The walls of the south transept, especially the eastern one, and the western wall of the north transept, are also in very bad condition externally, and need speedy attention. Much damage has been caused to the latter, by removing an ancient staircase, and by cutting into the walls for the formation of flues for stoves, by which the transept wall has been fractured. No attempt has been made to restore the walls injured by the removal of the staircase; the parapet on the north wall remains incomplete, and the timbers under the gutter, and on the top of the wall, are openly exposed. Following these, the walls of the side aisles require attention, and, though of very recent workmanship, the casing of the western wall already gives evidence that before long it will need to be replaced.

In other parts of the church, 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 stage of decay and misery, that nothing but vigorous and well directed efforts can possibly rescue it and restore it to anything like its former beauty. It will now therefore be necessary to point out the repairs required to be done; but before proceeding to particularise them, I think it most essential to call attention to the state of the churchyard in immediate proximity to the building.

From the accumulations of centuries, the ground has been allowed to rise to a considerable height above the floor of the church, and next the south aisle especially, it lies against the wall not less than five feet above the floor. The drainage is very defective, and in some parts there is no legitimate means for carrying off the rain water. Such a state of things ought not to have been suffered to exist, and cannot too speedily be amended. An open area ought to be formed round all the walls, sunk below the level of the floor; and an efficient system of drainage should be constructed for the purpose of keeping the whole of the walls perfectly dry.

The Repairs  - I think it cannot be doubted, after what has been already said, that the whole fabric of the church needs to be repaired, and I think also that it is certain that nothing short of an entire restoration of its ancient architectural features throughout, can possibly produce a satisfactory result. The repairs hitherto executed have not been exact restorations, and, as has been already observed, the modern, is even now in many parts, in a worse state than the remains of that which is ancient. There is sufficient of what has never been altered to guide the architect to its exact reproduction. To follow the example of what has been done in recent times, would be to destroy such original features, and replace them with others, less expensive it is true, but not harmonious with the character of the structure; but, as I entertain a strong opinion that the ancient character of the church should be reproduced, and that the whole fabric should be restored in all its integrity; I cannot recommend the adoption of any intermediate course. Thus much may be said as regards the walls.

As respects the repair of the roofs, more than one course is open for adoption. Excepting in the roof over the south aisle, which must be renewed; I have reported the timbers to be generally sound, but all require that their lead coverings should be taken off, recast, and re-laid upon new boarding, brought to a regular and even surface, this may be done at a moderate cost, and the roofs will then be in excellent condition. To do this in the nave however, would be to perpetuate a mistake of former times, and it becomes therefore a question for consideration, whether the present roof should be re-covered and left in its existing state internally, or whether it should be replaced by an entirely new roof, in accordance with the surrounding architecture.

In my opinion the latter is the only proper course to be pursued, and in plate 7 I have given a sketch of such a roof as I would propose for erection, to harmonise with the character of the building. The corbels shown in this sketch are the originals.

The south aisle roof must as has been already said be renewed; and in the new one, which might be of the form shown on the sketch in plate 8, a better means of giving light to the gallery might be introduced, without interfering with present arrangements, but to the manifest improvement of their architectural character.

The north aisle roof appears to be so sound generally, that I think it would be unnecessary to disturb it for the present, further than to remove the very defective windows, and to re-lay the gutters throughout. To the south transept roof the same observations will apply as to the nave roof. The north transept roof requires the deficient mouldings and enrichments to be replaced internally, and the timbers repaired; the lead to be re-cast, and re-laid on new boarding. The tower roof requires that its gutters should be repaired.

To Recapitulate:

The south aisle roof must be entirely new. The nave and south transept roofs may either be renewed in accordance with the architecture of the church, or the lead being stripped off and re-cast, it must, in order that the work be perfectly done, be re-laid upon new boarding brought to an even surface.

The north transept roof must be repaired, the lead re-cast, and re-laid on new boards, as before. The north aisle roof must have new gutters, and the lead must in part be re-laid. The tower roof needs only slight and partial repairs.

In order to make this report complete, it will perhaps be desirable to add a few remarks upon the present condition of the chancel, although it is believed to be the province of a private individual to repair it. The roof has been already noticed as tolerably perfect. The walls also appear to be substantially sound, but externally they are in a very imperfect condition. The chancel was rebuilt about the year 1682, in a very plain manner, the few mouldings with which it is enriched being in the Italian 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 incongruous character, and can only be made to harmonise with the church, by being rebuilt in proper form.

I have now I believe, in connexion with the sketches which accompany this report, given a sufficiently full account of the existing state of the fabric of the church, and in describing the restorations proposed, have confined my remarks almost entirely to the structural defects of the building, and to what is absolutely necessary to be done to rescue it from its present unseemly and wasting condition. That much might be effected for the improvement of the interior also, cannot I think be doubted by anyone who has seen its arrangements; but I do not conceive it to be my duty to enter upon this subject whilst any defects of the exterior remain to be amended.

In conclusion, I think it would be much to be regretted, if the restoration of the church to its ancient dignity were to be neglected, now, when thorough repairs are absolutely needed; and as I do not believe that they can ever be satisfactorily done, except upon a large and comprehensive scale, I cannot recommend any other course to be adopted. But although the whole expense of such extensive works must necessarily be heavy, it is right to observe that it need not, nor ought it to be, altogether an immediate expense. I conceive that on every account, the best method of conducting the restorations, would be to make them extend over a period of two or three years. That in the first instance the plan should be accurately laid down for the whole work, and that upon this plan the repairs should be carefully executed, commencing with those of most pressing necessity, and gradually progressing until the whole are completed. To insure the execution of the work in a perfect and durable 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 only should 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 a 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.

Ewan Christian, Architect.

London, October, 1851.

Other images

St. Peter's Church with the earlier chancel.

The pulpit and its lion.

The Deanery.

St. Peter's Church with Ewan Christian's magnificent chancel.

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