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Clapham Church Alterations and Additions

The church from the south-east April 2010
The church from the south-east April 2010

Most of the structural history of the church can be found in detail in Bedfordshire Historical Record Society Volume number 73 of 1994 Bedfordshire Churches in the Nineteenth Century: Part I: Parishes A to G, put together by former County Archivist Chris Pickford from numerous sources some held by Bedfordshire Archives and Records Service and some held elsewhere or published.

The tower was repaired in 1826 and in 1848 the vestry discussed a restoration. Perhaps this was a result of an article by Woburn Abbey librarian John Martin in the Northampton Mercury of 26th June 1847. Martin wrote a series of articles on Bedfordshire churches for the paper in the years either side of 1850. They are usually highly critical, pompous, snide and splenetic. Of Clapham he wrote: “It was with great pleasure we contemplated a visit to this church, well acquainted with its venerable tower, a monument, we believe, rare everywhere, and unique in this county. We fancied to ourselves the delight we should receive when finding that reverence for its antiquity had preserved the building in a condition that would afford unqualified commendation; grievously we were disappointed, and it is with difficulty that we can find words sufficiently strong to express out indignation at the disgraceful sight we witnessed. If the architectural antiquary should wander to this quarter to contemplate the beautiful Norman tower, we would almost advise him to be content and not to seek to view the interior; but if he does, and having obtained the key (kept at a most inconvenient distance), on his admission he may well exclaim “voi qu’intrate, lasciaie ogni, speranza”*, for hopeless indeed is the view that will burst upon him - he will behold one mass of damp, dirt and decay; the chancel more pre-emnient perhaps than the erst of the building. A dirty and ill-paved floor, a ceiled roof lowered from its original height, as the weather moulding will prove, a mean altar railing, a piscina stuffed up with rubbish, a large chest, and dirty and worn-out hassocks piled within the railing, two decayed wooden kitchen chairs converted into stools - all wretched in the extreme, and looking the more so from the care expended on a square box in this quarter fitted up with the comforts of a sitting-room. In the nave he could see a timber roof certainly, but in such a state as will cause him to shudder; a miserable gallery, a large ugly box containing nearly a fourth of the accommodation for the rest of the congregation, and so arranged as to prevent the humble occupants of the low open sittings behind having any chance of seeing into the chancel while the communion service is being read; the reading-desk, pulpit, with its sounding-board, all heaped up together; and will see all around him in miserable neglect of which he will perhaps find the most flagrant instance in the mouldering remains of a very early and curious alms chest. Should he wish to ascend the tower he will be told that the staircase is unsafe. He will find the roof of the chancel tiled and that the churchyard is only accessible on Sundays”.

“If he asks if there is a resident clergyman? He will be answered in the negative; if there is a school? The reply will be to the same effect; he will see close to the church the fast decaying remains of the ancient grange, even in its decay proudly contrasting with the modern utilitarian farm buildings surrounding it. Thus will the spectator depart, having witnessed a church in decay. A parish without a pastor, a population without instruction; and he may well tremble for the fate of the noble which has braved the storms of more than eight hundred years”.

“In conclusion, we warn those that are responsible for the preservation of this venerable relic, that should destruction come upon it owing to their neglect, their condemnation will be severe, their repentance unavailing, the cross irreparable. On that site may raise the grandest tower, the most graceful spire; but however lovely the material form, however delightful to the outward sense, it would be a miserable compensation for the associations connected with a Norman tower. About its walls flit shadowy forms; every stone seems haunted with some vision of by-gone days; the spirit of the past hovers in the air around; and these things cannot be brought back…”

The restoration, evidently very necessary, was first planned in 1858. The Bedfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society opined that the ancient fabric should be restored carefully and not entrusted “to the tender mercies of some local Mr Compo”. In the event some ancient features, including some believed to be Anglo-Saxon, were indeed destroyed by local contractors.

Clapham church elevation by George Gilbert Scott [P117/2/2/11/3]
Clapham church elevation by George Gilbert Scott [P117/2/2/11/3]

The restoration carried out by George Gilbert Scott in 1861 and 1862 was an almost complete rebuilding of the main body of the church. An extra arcade bay to both aisles was built at the east end and the whole chancel, including the Norman chancel arch, taken down and rebuilt. The external walls, the roof, the pews and the decorative ironwork all date from this restoration. Bedfordshire Archive and Record Service is lucky in having an unusually large number of plans and elevations, some drawn and signed by Scott, from the restoration [P117/2/2/11/1-83]. Stained glass windows in the south aisle date from the time of the restoration.

The church from the east by Bradford Rudge in 1840 [Z50-29-10]
The church from the east by Bradford Rudge about 1840 [Z50/29/10]

In 1897 the roof of the tower, which had carried a short leaded spire until at least 1840 as shown in Bradford Rudge’s drawing above [Z50/29/10], was renewed [P117/2/2/14-25]. In 1913 mosaic panels were placed in the porch [P117/5/27].

In 1915 a plan for electric lighting was drawn up [P117/2/2/27]. A chiming apparatus for the bells was installed in 1934 [P117/2/2/29]. Following the death of John Howard Howard of Clapham Park a new oak pulpit was installed in his memory [P117/2/2/30].

In 1956 a pipe organ was introduced [P117/2/2/32] and overhead electric heaters six years later [P117/2/2/33]. Around 1960 the roofs and rain-water goods needed repair [P117/2/2/47]. By 1965 the tower needed repairing [P117/2/2/35 and 46] including the bell-frame and fittings [P117/2/2/39]. Oil-fired heating was installed in 1971 [P117/2/2/49]. The church was re-ordered with pews moved from the front of the nave into the aisles, re-siting the organ console and other things in 1978 [P117/2/2/57].

In 1980 the tower was repaired externally and the bell-ringing floor repaired [P117/2/2/58 and 60]. Three years later the harmonium was disposed of [P117/2/2/59].

*“abandon hope all ye who enter here from Dante’s Inferno