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Houghton Conquest Church Alterations and Additions

The church from the north-east by Fisher - about 1820 [Z49-372]
The church from the north-east by Fisher about 1820

Most of the structural history of the church can be found in detail in Bedfordshire Historical Record Society Volume number 77 of 1998 Bedfordshire Churches in the Nineteenth Century: Part II: Parishes H to R put together by former County Archivist Chris Pickford from numerous sources some held by Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service and some held elsewhere or published.

Wills tell us there was a new rood loft in 1531 [ABP/R3f58] and that the church was covered with roughcast in 1535 [ABP/R4f36d]. Dr. Thomas Archer had the seating altered in 1593 [P11/1/2].

The 17th century saw a new bell-frame in 1614 and a fifth bell in 1626 [P11/1/2]. Dr Archer refurbished the chancel between 1623 and 1626 [P11/1/2]. As Chris Pickford points out Archer’s mark - the initials TA with an arrow – can be seen on a double piscina in the chancel and on the vestry door. An inscribed oaken altar step which fronts the sanctuary is dated 1625.

A new ring of six bells was installed in 1724, made by Thomas Russell of Wootton [P11/1/4]. Churchwardens’ accounts [P11/5/1] mention repairs to the church in 1792, 1794-1795 and 1804-1805.

By 1800 the church seems to have been in a poor condition, as reported by a number of commentators. As can be seen in the picture above the east window was partially mortared over. Archdeacon Bonney in one of his inspections ordered: “Mortar be taken out of those parts of the window where glass ought to be, and the parts be glazed”.

The church from the east - 1843
The church from the east 1843

Henry John Rose became Rector of Houghton Conquest in 1838 and began to correct the neglect of past years. He had the chancel re-roofed and given a new ceiling  and the bells re-cast in 1841 [P11/28/2]. A more ambitious restoration was also attempted. This was described, in part, by John Martin. He was librarian of Woburn Abbey and wrote a series of scathing articles for the Northampton Mercury either side of 1850 describing, usually in phrases redolent in equal measure of pomposity and sarcasm, all the churches in Bedfordshire. His article on Houghton Conquest appeared on 27th September 1845, it was one of very few positive reviews he was to write: “This noble Church, which has been sadly neglected, is now undergoing a fitting restoration under the direction of its accomplished Rector, aided by the willing support of those who frequent its holy walls. The glorious high-pitched roof remains nearly in its original beauty, and it was most grateful to behold its great superiority over the miserable ceiled roofs which parsimony or vulgar taste had substituted, in most of the Churches we have hitherto visited”.

“The tower itself has been recently restored. Where the restoration is going on under such able direction, it would be impertinent to point out objectionable matters which will of course disappear in the progress”.

“The roof of the Chancel had been repaired and decorated in very good taste, and we have no doubt that two or three pews in this part will soon be removed. What is going on in this church forms an admirable example to Incumbents of other Churches in this county of what patience and perseverance, united with good taste, may effect. We heartily wish it may be followed. In truth nothing is here attempted beyond what Archbishop Bramhall [Archbishop of Armagh 1661-1663] declared, that our churches should be “advancements of order, modesty, decency, gravity in the service of God; to be adjurements to attention and devotion, furtherances of edification, helps to memory, exercises of faith, the leaves that preserve the fruit, the shell that preserves the kernel of religion from contempt. And all this with due moderation, so as neither to render religion sordid and sluttish, nor yet light and garish, but comely and venerable”.

Churchwardens’ accounts [P11/5/1] describe works on the tower. Vestry minutes also record some of the details of Rev Rose’s restoration [P11/8/1]. In 1853-1854 the north aisle was partially re-roofed and in 1856-1857 the seating was rearranged to accommodate Sunday school children in the church [P11/8/1].

The interior looking east from the Victoria County History
The interior looking east from The Victoria County History

This good work did not, however, erase the years of neglect and on 21st January 1861 the Bedfordshire Mercury reported that the church was again “in need of repair”. In 1868 the renowned church architect George Gilbert Scott drew up a scheme [P11/8/2]. This included a new roof in the chancel, alterations to window tracery, including the restoration of the east window and the re-building of the south porch. The church was also re-seated and new pulpit, lectern and organ were installed. An iron gate and screen in the west tower arch were also fitted, the old screen being restored and painted. In the chancel new tiles, altar rails and stalls were provided.

The south porch January 2016
The south porch January 2016

New heating apparatus was installed in 1877 [P11/28/1]. The east window was filled with stained glass by Clayton and Bell in 1880 [P11/28/1] given by Dean J W Burgon of Chichester who has researched the church extensively in earlier years.

The interior looking east about 1920 [Z1130-62-7]
The interior looking east about 1920 [Z1130/62/7]

In 1922 the church clock was installed as a war memorial [P11/28/2]. Other 20th century work was as follows:

  • 1932-1933: installation of a hot water heating apparatus [P11/2/2/41];
  • 1938: installation of electric lighting [P11/2/2/42];
  • 1938-1940: repairs to the organ [P11/2/2/43];
  • 1946-1953: repairs to roof, rainwater pipes, internal plasterwork and churchyard gates [P11/2/2/45];
  • 1958: repairs to chancel and tower [P11/2/2/46];
  • 1966: repairs to the tower [P11/2/2/48]
  • 1970-1971: repairs to roof and guttering [P11/2/2/51];
  • 1970s: changing place for the choir in the south-west corner [P11/2/2/52];
  • 1981-1983: major restoration of north walls and tower [P11/2/2/52];
  • 1987-1988: installation of electric heating in the chancel [P11/2/2/52];

1987-1988: repairs to the nave roof [P11/2/2/52].