The Style Council

Holy Trinity, York

In 1853, York’s Anglican minister George Pownall described the church he wanted, which should be in the Early English Gothic style, constructed of local stone, with jarrah pillars inside.[1] Today’s tourist has no difficulty locating such a church, one that Tripadvisor rates as the eighth best thing to do in York. This church was most definitely styled after Early English Gothic (1189-1307), with granite walls and a good use of jarrah. So Pownall got what he wanted, then? Well, no. The Gothic church is the Roman Catholic St Patrick’s, dedicated in 1886,[2] while the Anglicans ended up with an Anglo-Norman Revival building thirty years earlier.

St Patrick's Catholic Church, York - Wikipedia
St Patrick’s, York

Although many will already know, the quickest way to spot the between Anglo-Norman (or Romanesque, buildings from 1066 to 1189) and Gothic is to look at the arches. Are they round or pointed? Semicircular arches mean Norman, pointy ones mean Gothic. It’s that simple. (It isn’t, of course, but this is just a blog.) As far as I can tell, no one before now has asked the question: why is Holy Trinity (the Anglican church) not in the style its rector wanted? Let’s start with why he wanted Gothic in the first place.

Pownall had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had joined the Camden Society, an organisation devoted to restoring the Church of England by accurately repairing old churches and making sure only the purest Gothic was used to design new ones. When he wrote to the Colonial Secretary, William Sanford, saying “I should much prefer Early English to any other style” he was paraphrasing an important Camden Society publication, one Pownall would certainly have been familiar with: “The style in which a church ought to be built must depend on several considerations… Nothing for example can be better suited to a small chapel than Early English.”[3]

The success of the Camden Society and architects like Augustus Pugin meant that Gothic and Christian practically became synonyms when it came it architecture from the 1840s. At least, for Anglican architecture. Later in the 19th century, a Perth architect, J. J. Talbot Hobbs, could design in a variety of styles, yet all his churches are Gothic. We know Hobbs owned a copy of an Episcopalian guide to American church design, Francis Parker’s wonderfully titled Church-building and Things to Be Considered, Done, Or Avoided in Connection Therewith (1886).[4] As you might guess from the title, Parker was not one to be subtle about what he thought: “As to the order of architecture, it is not worth while to throw away time in discussing which shall be adopted; that question has been practically settled in favor of the Gothic. The Protestant sects [e.g. Baptists, Methodists, etc.] and the sect of the Jesuits [i.e. Roman Catholics] should be allowed the monopoly of classic and renaissance architecture.” Hobbs evidently took this advice when designing his Perth churches, such as Christ Church, Claremont, or St Alban’s, Highgate.

Perth church designed by Talbot Hobbs celebrates 125 years - ABC News  (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
St Alban’s, Highgate

There is even a clue the earliest plans for Holy Trinity were Gothic, since a journalist reported the proposed church would have “narrow lancet windows… filled with colored glass from England”.[5] Lancet windows are a feature of Early English Gothic, not Anglo-Norman architecture. It should be clear, then, that Holy Trinity not being Gothic is problematic. Should we blame the architect for changing their mind part way through the project? The first issue here is to establish exactly who designed the church, which is not as easy as most sources would have you believe. Both the State Heritage Office and Wikipedia will tell you the designer was the government architect, Richard Roach Jewell, and he certainly did draw up the plans.[6] But was he was not acting alone in this project, and the lead ‘consultant’ was the Colonial Secretary, Edward Sanford. We know this because correspondence from Pownall and his successor, Rev James Brown who oversaw the completion of the project, only ask Sanford’s advice and for plans. While it is possible they saw Sanford as the ‘middle man’ for Jewell’s solo project, there is no indication of this in any of the many letters.

So instead of seeing Holy Trinity as simply Jewell’s building it is, at the very least a Sanford-Jewell design. But this only makes matters more complicated because Sanford, like Pownall, was educated at Trinity College and a member of the Cambridge Camden Society. He should have preferred Gothic architecture and when it came to a building which is definitely by his hand, although Jewell again probably drew up the plans, the Old Boys’ School on St Georges Terrace is decidedly Gothic. But since there is no possibility anyone else other than Sanford and Jewell designed the Anglo-Norman church which stands in York, who did make the decision to adopt the final design? And why?

First, a quick but necessary diversion. Up until now I have been treating the Anglican Church as if it were a single, unified body in the 19th century. It was not, either then or now. There were multiple factions, but only two need concern us here: the High Church mob and the Evangelicals. The former believed the Anglican Church was in decline because it had drifted too far from its Catholic roots. What was needed was more ritual, more pomp, more candles and, above all, more Gothic architecture. Their opponents, the Evangelicals, can be thought of as the jeans and a t-shirt wearing vicars who want to keep up to date with the music and the culture. Perhaps ironically, it was the High Church who made the most efforts to reach out to the unchurched, while the Evangelicals were happy to cater to a mostly middle-class audience who would never have visited a poor area of the city in their lives.

So when it came to building new churches, the choice of style was a key indicator of which faction that congregation was supposed to support. The more authentically Gothic it was, the Higher the Church, but something Romanesque (or here Anglo-Norman) you were definitely Evangelical (or Broad Church, but that just makes things more complicated than we need here). It is important to distinguish the meaning of Ecclesiastical Romanesque in the mid-19th century from its use a few decades later when the Richardsonian version of Romanesque was imported from America for reasons of defining a national style. The difference is slightly blurred by Henry Stirling Trigg’s use of the style for both Trinity Church on St Georges Terrace (1893) and his Congregational Hall, Claremont (1896), but the American influence on the former is very strong and completely absent from Holy Trinity, York.

Trinity Church, Perth - Wikipedia
Trinity Church, St Georges Terrace

The final decision on church design depends on many factors, such as budget, but there is always a committee, the Trustees, who is in charge. And this takes me to the question of local politics in York in the mid-19th century. While not exactly a squirearchy, the majority of agricultural land around the town was controlled by a handful of key people. Smaller producers were forced onto land some distance from the centre. While this situation was regularly criticised in the media, nothing ever changed. So these important men (and they were all men) saw themselves as being in control of York, its future, and any important decisions which might affect these. And this power was not something they were going to easily surrender.

To oversimplify, yet again, a High Churchman saw the priest as the supreme authority within the church, and even in the wider community. For the Evangelicals, a minister was just one of the lads. Sure, with a particular job to do, but not exalted above, say, a major landholder. When the first Bishop of Perth, Mathew Hale, formally consecrated Holy Trinity in February 1858, he was handed a letter from the church trustees. It stated, in no uncertain terms, that the most important part of any church was the ordinary congregation (the laity) and, while they would be happy to assist the clergy, his role as their employee must be firmly understood. These trustees probably expected Hale to support them, since he was well-known to have Evangelical sympathies, but this was probably a little too much. It was all very well to support the congregation, but the Bishop was not going to strip his priests of all authority. So, in a diplomatic answer, Hale said the letter was very interesting, he agreed with most of it, but the minister was a “servant of God’s people for Jesus’ sake” so the main role of the congregation was to pray for the minister to his job as well as possible.[7] In other words, yes the trustees were important, but not quite as important as they thought they were.

We know the key movers behind Holy Trinity, Pownall and Sanford, would have wanted a Gothic church. We can be fairly sure the local trustees would have understood that such a church would elevate the role of the priest within the local community, and that the big landholders had no desire to lose any power at all. So now I have to engage in some speculation. Did these trustees demand a change of design to make it clear who was in charge in York? Did they see the Anglo-Norman as representing the authority of the people (those who mattered, anyway) over the church, while the Gothic represented the power of the Church over the people? To be fair, I should also mention that a brick Romanesque church may have been cheaper to build than an impressive Gothic edifice, so that must have played some part in their calculations.

So, after all these historical diversions, I am so close to solving the mystery of York’s Anglo-Norman church, but missing the smoking gun. It may be out there in some minutes of a church committee meeting, or a piece of correspondence between Sanford and one of the two ministers who oversaw the project. If it’s out there I will find it.

[1] AJCP 4 April 1853: Pownall to Sanford

[2] West Australian 23 February 1886

[3] Cambridge Camden Society, ‘A Few Words to Church-builders’ (1841)

[4] See John Taylor’s PhD thesis

[5] Perth Gazette 3 November 1854

[6] Perth Gazette 3 November 1854

[7] Inquirer 24 February 1858