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A Dispute Regarding Old Saint Marys 1846

The old church from the east about 1850 [Z1086/14]
The old church from the east about 1850 [Z1086/14]

John Martin was librarian at Woburn Abbey. In the middle years of the 19th century he wrote a number of articles for the The Northampton Mercury on Bedfordshire churches. These tend to be highly critical and full of acerbic comment. His relationship with Woburn and his master’s patronage of the church did not spare it from his vituperative pen. His article appeared on 7th February 1846:

“The exterior of this church deserves every commendation; the same praise cannot be bestowed upon the interior, where Christian and Pagan architecture are strangely jumbled together. This chiefly prevails in the roofs of the chancel and nave. The ceiling of the aisles is of the ordinary sort. It is lamentable to see space sacrificed to the system of pews; there are only a few seats in the nave. The position of the reading desk and pulpit is most absurd, and compels the chief part of the congregation to be seated with their backs to the altar. It is scarcely possible to create a more palpable blemish than that which is occasioned by placing the pulpit in the centre of the nave. In a dissenting meeting house it may be proper to assign this station to the preacher, but it is quite inconsistent with the intent of our liturgy, and should never be tolerated. The situation of the reading-desk below the pulpit, like the desk of an auctioneer’s clerk, is equally inappropriate”.

“A number of common-looking lamps disfigure as well as blacken with their smoke the walls of the building; this is one result of abandoning the custom of the English Church by changing the afternoon into the evening service; when lighted up, the church presents a very theatrical appearance. The organ excludes the light from the west window of the nave and a miserable gallery stretches across four other windows in this part of the church, if open seats were substituted for pews, this gallery might be removed. The floor of the latter was strewed, when we visited it, with a quantity of nutshells”.

“The font is as much out of character as out of place”.

A week later J. D. Parry of London sent a long and spirited rebuttal of Martin’s attack on the church to The Bedfordshire Times. The letter ran as follows:

“In writing some remarks upon this subject I beg W. A., whoever that gentleman may be, to believe that I mean nothing “personal”, merely observation on opinions and the spirit in which they are expressed; - in a parliamentary sense. Quite as little would I be thought to speak in derogation of the Northampton Mercury, in which nearly my first newspaper communications (strictures on the principle and spirit of Lord Byron) were made, and which I am glad to see generally conducted with ability and charity”.

“There is no objection to any gentleman making himself an ecclesiastical “commissioner”, and amateur inspector of churches and to his passing some censures where actually called for. But it is to be wished that he should be fair and moderate. Whether W. A. be a “Pusey” I do not know, though it will be generally admitted that his suggestions and sarcasms both look that way. If so, I should much prefer his coming forward with full openness as such. I feel bound to add that I have noticed no such harshness of nature in any gentleman of that party”.

“I have read several, not all, of the “Bedfordshire Churches”, finding some things that I cannot but praise. But noticing, as I am sure others must have done, a bitterness and prejudice blinding his judgement, which I have no wish to deny, and clouding his charity, which, I hope, is more seen and felt in other matters than in remarks on churches”.

“I grieve to see, as others must have done, that W. A. gives no credit to liberality or piety shewn towards churches, if not exactly “cut after his own pattern”, a very un unenviable point in an ecclesiastical topographer. The writer has described many churches in various parts of the kingdom, and whatever be his other great demerits, has pursued a quite different course from W. A. on this matter. W. A. sometimes uses the words “poor, wretched, miserable” &c., not as to the things as intrinsically, but to their not meeting his views. But the reader may ask – “an example of both the above in the same case?” Here it is”.

“On account of a window in Harlington Church being blocked up, I believe before the donation of an organ, W. A. calls the latter a “poor looking” instrument. Now I appeal to anyone living, who has seen or will look at it, whether it is not a large and handsome one, formerly belonging to some town, and I believe 20 years ago, the best in the county after Saint Paul’s. It has three turrets, and carved work, besides bold gilt pipes and was given by the Lord of the Manor, Mr. Cooper, at a cost of about £350, besides other ornamental moulding, I believe, to about £1,000 in the whole; all carped at by W. A. with not a syllable of praise for the liberality, and an unfounded sneer at the organ”.

“I was little prepared, however, for what followed; on seeing the title of the pretty and popular church of Woburn, where from the extreme neatness and other circumstances, such as the fostering care and predilection of the late worthy Duke of Bedford’s, whose worth I suppose W. A. may have heard. I was surprised, therefore, to see a more determined and wholesale fault-finding than in any preceding effusion”.

“The outside W. A. lets alone, which is a blessing. I am thankful also that he spares the monuments, for a reason which soon will see. But, whilst it might be inferred that both the parishioners and the Bedford family had some care of the exterior, will it not be concluded that both left the interior awkward and incommodious? Whereas it is the extreme contrary. I only know three other noble families who have done as much for their parish church; and these are the former Marquis of Buckingham, at Buckingham, the Earl of Egremont at Petworth, and the “magnificent” Duke of Chandos at Canon”.

“”The interior is a jumble of Christian and Pagan architecture, especially the roof of the nave and chancel”. Now, what is the use of wantonly using hard and offensive words? Especially when a writer, in his eagerness to condemn, happens to misunderstand the origin of the terms he uses”.

“Translate Pagan into (ancient) Roman, and make the nave and chancel change places, and then W. A. may be according to his own view, right”.

“Neither “Gothic” nor “Roman” have the slightest connection in their origin with Christianity. Only, the Roman was that of the early Christians, such as the author of the Te Deum, and nearly the whole Christian world, with mere imitation or corruption by Saxons, Normans, &c., for about a thousand years. The Gothic (or “pointed”), of Asiatic birth, was used by Moslems about five hundred years before it was adopted (as a trophy of conquest, if you will) in any Christian edifice – “Here be facts I trow””.

“The “long drawn aisle and fretted vault” is, however, consecrated by “old custom” and naturalisation – just as the Pagan Greek language is, on account of a Book W. A. knows of [i.e. the New Testament]. But stones must never be thrown from a Gothic against a pretended Pagan church, because the former is a perfect house of glass, as regards its own Christian origin”.

“”A miserable gallery stretches across four windows” &c. Now this, like the Harlington organ, is a great deal too bad. Would not anyone suppose that these two end galleries were very mean and shabby, of unpainted deal perhaps, discreditable to the church and town? The fact being that they are extremely neat, only Roman, if they have any style, which is an unpardonable offence in W. A.’s eyes. Of the centre gallery, which is a very handsome one, with fluted Tuscan pilasters, he takes no notice, but states that the organ excludes from the light the west window. If so, it must be a gigantic one, as the top of this window is about 35 feet from the ground. I am informed it is about the same size as the former; it consequently cannot exclude half the light. Besides, W. A. might have seen, had he chosen, that there is a great deal too much light in Woburn Church, which has, including the clerestory, twenty-eight windows”.

“The font W. A. demolishes in one line, in the style of Julius Caesar. Yet I cannot but think that W. A. makes the offence which no one took before him. Certainly it is not in the original place, and in another point of view is not quite in rule. But until total immersion be restored, which I do not say would not be right, it is just as well as it is”.

“If the “miserable” galleries were taken down, W. A. says that open seats would supply the deficiency. Perhaps the inhabitants of Woburn would prefer the present comfortable appearance of the church, and make a sole request to W. A. to “let well alone”. But to the calculation. The writer happens to have some practical knowledge of how many persons a given space would hold. If any builder in England will thus alter the side aisles, making the open seats of proper width, about 2 feet 6 inches, - for it is not desirable for persons to blow into the ears, or kick the shins underneath of those before them, - without a loss of at least a hundred seats, he is a cleverer man than he anticipates”.

“W. A. wishes the evening service changed, because there is some smoke from the lamps. The latter might be remedied without great difficulty, and surely the former might be left to a country clergyman and his congregation, who should know what is the most convenient to them; and, hearing the Rev. Mr. Hutton has a large congregation in the evening, I suppose they do. Perhaps W. A. thinks evening service (whether right or not) a perfectly modern innovation; whereas I think I could show him that there are endowments for it in orthodox churches, in London and elsewhere 150 years ago”.

“”The position of the pulpit is most absurd”, says W. A. and, quoting a writer, most likely of the school before mentioned, most “inconsistent with the intent of our Liturgy”. Now I defy either to prove there are any signs of our intent of the Liturgy on the subject. One thing certainly was the intent of the Liturgy, to change the word “altar”, which he uses, saying the congregation now turn their backs to (as they did 35 years ago, and as part do in many other churches) to communion table. Sapienti verbum sat est”. The expressions were often confounded without meaning, I am well aware; and I like the maxim “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, much wishing it had been more apparent in remarks on “Bedfordshire Churches”.

Sir Christopher Wren would have told W. A. that the best place for a pulpit was that where the preacher could best be heard. So, I suppose, though the late Duke of Bedford, who moved the pulpit &c. giving a new one, from under one of the northern arches, a few years before his death. The same was done in the Chapel of Greenwich Hospital, about thirty years, and in Saint Andrew’s, Holborn, one of the largest churches and the most beautiful one in London, about five years ago”.

“Why Woburn Church when lighted up should look more theatrical than any other, passes my poor imagination”.

“But the worst remains behind. “When we visited the gallery it was strewd with nutshells”. Certainly a strange carpeting: rushes would have been more archaeologically correct. How many bushel baskets were used? Or were there half a dozen shells, perhaps the sole act of a little Pagan, a poor inconsiderate child of eight years old altogether? If this be not beneath the dignity of history, or the recording of a good-humoured topographer, I am at a loss to say what would be”.

““There are only a few free seats, in the nave”. This must be intended to convey the idea that the poor of Woburn are nearly excluded from accommodation in the church. The best answer to which will be that it is totally untrue, as W. A. must have seen from his “nutshell” researches in the galleries. There are also some of the sides of the cross-aisle, &c. Altogether I believe, now, about 200, (and pews under the gallery were occasionally used) besides school children. There might be more no doubt: and galleries, half the depth of the side aisles, were projected nearly thirty years since. The church contains almost 800 seats, and the population is rather under 2,000, which, for the number that can attend at one time, is a fair proportion”.

“Of the noble arched ceiling of the spacious chancel at Woburn something may be said elsewhere. I believe it to be the most beautiful piece of church ceiling in England. And I am quite certain, from examination, that it is unequalled in London and the vicinity. It was erected by John, Duke of Bedford, from designs of Sir William Chambers, about eighty years from the present date. The beautiful “Nativity” over the communion table by Carlo Maratti, was copied in the exhibition of Miss Linwood”.

“These remarks are long. But the cure of harsh representations is often a much longer process than the infliction. May the writer say an honest word as to his motives? He should be very glad, on many accounts, if this met with the fair approval of many who may become acquainted with it. Sincerely sorry for any failure. Still, in one sense of the words N’importe – never mind. The motive was good; therefore he trusts will never grieve, living or dying. He did not like to see the admired church, in which he was all but born, the parsonage nearly touching it, pulled to pieces, for decidedly the first time: and deems it probable that many inhabitants of this place – old and young – would not like to see it unhandsomely garbled by some gentleman, who, whether he have any local feeling and affections or not, certainly pays little respect to those of others. His feelings were therefore those of the “Southron” in Scotland, who warned his countrymen at the siege of Branksome

“An exile from Northumberland,
In Liddesdale I’ve wandered long;
But still my heart was with merry England,
And would not brook my country’s-wrong”".

Given that we know that W. A. was John Martin and that the initials stood for Woburn Abbey a number of Parry’s comments have a delicious irony. Parry himself, John Docwra Parry, was baptised at Woburn on Christmas Day 1799, having been born on 13th July that year. He was the son of Rev. John and Mary Parry and so one can infer from this, and from his mention of the parsonage, that his father was acting as perpetual curate of Woburn.

Of course this counterblast could not go unanswered. Martin’s retort, quite measured in the circumstances, was published on 28th February: “A correspondent in your last paper has deemed some observations on the churches of Bedfordshire, in a contemporary journal, worthy of a long notice. It would not have required any answer on my part, as he does not dispute the existence of any of those deformities which have been alluded to, but finds fault with the opinions and the mode of pointing them out. My silence might argue that I assented to his criticism, or was incapable of defending myself. You will, perhaps, on these accounts, do me the favour of inserting the few following remarks”.

“When the notices in question were first commenced, a few introductory observations were made to the following effect; that it was not the intention of the writer to attempt a topographical or architectural description, but that his aim was to point out some of the most conspicuous faults, in the humble but sincere hope, that incumbents, churchwardens and parishioners would unite harmoniously in the work of repairing them. I declined, also, entering in the slightest degree on any of those questions which have lately agitated the Church of England, to the regret of all its well wishers. Stone altars or wooden tables, black gowns or white surplices, did not enter into my plan. This will suffice as a defence to a portion of your correspondent’s charges – a word or two on some other points in his letter. I dislike organs in small churches, thinking them only adapted for very large edifices or cathedrals – this is a matter of taste. But in every instance where they have not been objected to on that ground, but as interfering with the light, or shutting out the view of the western window; and I think those who will take the trouble to examine for themselves will be of the same opinion. Even in large buildings they have been found impediments; witness Winchester Cathedral and the Temple Church. It will be difficult for your correspondent to reconcile a Gothic exterior to an interior adorned with Roman or Grecian architecture, and I greatly doubt if the accomplished architect to whom he alludes would support him in the attempt. It is very chivalrous on the part of your correspondent to enter on a defence of closed sittings and their consequent ugly galleries. They are fast giving way to a better feeling. An eminent member of the church of the present day, says “private enclosures, which are carpeted, cushioned, and warmed, to secure as large a portion as possible of merely personal comfort, and unshapely galleries block up windows, in which the beautiful tracery of other times has been replaced, when repairs become unavoidable, by the commonest materials””.

“Your correspondent insinuates that I am most probably a “Puseyite”. If an earnest desire to see out churches free from impurities, that would not be endured in our own dwellings, and rescued from the ravages of puritanism, ignorance and neglect , render me liable to the imputation, I am quite willing to endure the obloquy, if it be such. Whether I have any “local attachment”, whether I am of the house of Montagu or Capulet, or whether I drew my first breath amid the pastoral scenes of this county or the din of a city, matters not to your readers. “Patet ingenuis campus”. Disliking controversy, unless any of the facts which may be stated or disputed, I shall decline noticing the remarks of those who would give a malignant meaning to words never intended, or others who, in the better taste of your correspondent, would tempt me to break a lance in the field of archaeology”.

“The addition of so obscure a name as the writer’s would add no importance to his remarks; it will be sufficient to say that it is known in the proper quarter, should any occasion arise for demanding it”.

The last word, printed on 7th March, was Parry’s: “Many days before the letter of W. A. appeared in your pages, I had received from the best authority, as regards Woburn Church, information on some points I could not know, from long absence from the neighbourhood; and now beg to submit them without any comment as a supplementary defence”.

“1st. There never was any “disfigurement of the walls” from smoke of lamps. Four lamps under the galleries necessarily placed within two feet of the ceiling, blackened the latter a little; but this has since been remedied by large reflectors”.

“2nd. As regards the free seats, besides school children, I am as nearly right as may be”.

“3rd. The afternoon service (to which the present Incumbent has added an additional sermon, from Michaelmas to Lady-day) was not changed to the evening (certainly the oldest canonical hour) till the parishioners had been fully consulted. Besides, the late Duke of Bedford, whose family holds about 12 or 14 pews, of 87 pewholders 65 voted for the change, 20 did not vote, 2 voted against it. The ayes had it, therefore, by a pretty large majority”.

“4th. The nutshells on the floor must have been caused at some weekly practising of the children in singing, when the lady of the clergyman was unable to attend”.

“5th Neither of the five windows “blocked up” has any “tracery” rendering this a matter of regret”.

“6th. “The pulpit is in the only position” in which it could be seen from a gallery erected by the last Duke over a new vestry room”.

“I am reminded also of a fact, which I mentioned in my “History of Woburn” &c., 1831, that the late Duke laid out £4,000 upon Woburn Church. And in this, I know, my accomplished informant does not include of his own knowledge a former organ, the communion plate, and the painting in the chancel. His brother Francis also, at an expense of nearly £1500, excellently repaired and repewed it in 1801-02 just before his death. A very few words more. It is difficult for combatants to be amiable, but I have no deprecative feeling. I did not advocate the eligibility of Roman work in a Gothic church; - the great beauty, as in the chancel ceiling of Woburn, might disarm criticism; - but simply wished to protest against the distinctive term “Pagan”. Whilst the mosque cathedral of Cordova exists, the Gothic can never say, “stand by, I am holier than thou”. I believe the day is unknown when all the churches of England will be cut up into the “open benches” of a concert room. And I am sure the poor would prefer free galleries, where they should not be forced to jostle those much above them in circumstances in this world. Increase their temporal comforts and they will not grudge pews till earthly distinctions are ended. My original object was to rescue Woburn Church from unfavourable opinion. This, I believe, is done; therefore the matter for me is closed”.

The interior looking east about 1860 [Z562/9]
The interior looking east about 1860 [Z562/9]