Proposed Removal of Pews

at St. Thomas's Church in Hanwood


The Proposed removal of Hanwood Pews by the Church authorities in the face of strong opposition from the Village - see also letters
a brief historical context by Jan Glover email janglover100@hotmail.com


There are many different reasons why the majority of the population of Hanwood are against the proposed changes, however the purpose of this document is to highlight the historical context which makes it imperative that the singularly attractive and peaceful interior of St Thomas’s is not sacrificed to satisfy aims which though presumably well-meaning are actually misguided and myopic.
 
There are three aspects to consider when assessing the importance of the traditional wooden box pews in St. Thomas’ Church Hanwood; their own aesthetic value as vernacular architecture, their role as part of the church building and their role as part of the church in the heritage of the village.
 
It has been necessary to refurbish and refit the pews due to their heavy wear and tear (see later for an explanation of the success of the village during the Nineteenth Century) several times during the history of the church building. The following table, from the Shropshire Archives is just one example of this, when the famous John Carline (who worked on St Alkmund’s, Grinshill Church, the Welsh Bridge, the Draper’s Almshouses just to mention a few) was asked to work on the “dilapidations” including the framing to the pews.
 
465/756  
Date May 18th 1810
Title
Estimate of dilapidation
Description Valuation of the dilapidations to the Chancel of the Church, Rectory house, farm-buildings, cottages and gates to the glebe &c. of Hanwood viz:
Repairs to the roof-tiling, glazing to the windows floors and framing to the pews &c. of the Church. £13.
To the Rectory House, bans, cowties and stable and fences and gates, and gates to the glebe.£55
To the cottage under building the walls and oven. The floor of the livingroom and other necessary repairs which must be done amount to £25 £93.
Signed by John Carline.
Docketed: Estimate of Dilapidations taken by Mr. Carline the 18th May 1810.
 

The most dramatic refurbishment came during the 1850s when the church was “almost completely rebuilt” (again, see later for how this gives an insight into the fortunes of the village). It was at this time that the pews in their current form were created and where their value as vernacular architecture becomes apparent. Firstly, the pews themselves (according to an acknowledged expert – the Historic Churches Advisor for The Victorian Society) are far more than just good solid examples of Victorian style carpentry and carving. They fit perfectly into the space they occupy, having been custom made, presumably by local craftsmen. They have served generations who have found them perfectly comfortable, particularly when using the cushions and kneelers (again custom-made with loving care by parishioners). More importantly, according to the expert’s opinion “the pews themselves are really very unusual, being 'box' pews with hinged end doors, a style of seating that had almost completely died out by 1856, and now rarely survives anywhere.” He also says that “St Thomas’ Church is a remarkably complete mid-Victorian interior of a very unusual kind” and the point is re-emphasized “surviving box pews are now extremely rare, and to find a set from as late as 1850s is almost unheard-of. The building’s architectural and historic interest, for which it is listed at grade II (English Heritage), resides largely in the quality and relative intactness of its interior. If these plans were to go ahead, St Thomas’ would be left with little to distinguish it from other modest 19th century chapels, and only fragmentary evidence of the special character it once possessed.” These points alone should be enough to ensure the preservation of the pews.

 

In all previous refurbishments the Rectors and their parishioners have been sensitive and careful in preserving the historic and aesthetic appearance of the seating in the church. It is believed that the previous incumbent (Paul Towner) suggested a scheme which included some unnecessary modernisation, but he wisely took the strong views of the villagers into consideration and did not proceed.

 

Secondly, to consider the church building as a whole, this has undergone several phases during the last two centuries, as already suggested. Improvements and adjustments have been a natural result of the passing years; an impressive new organ in 1858 for example – important enough to be reported in the Shrewsbury Chronicle- was welcomed although its installation must have required some changes in the church fabric. In the 1990s a glass screen was erected near the back of the church, partly to try to give the Sunday School some privacy. Feelings about the role of this screen appear to be mixed in the village at the moment. Some people would argue that the removal of this screen to improve access is acceptable as it would actually help to return the more traditional vernacular appearance of this area of the church. Others argue, understandably, that they were asked for donations to this project only a few years ago and so feel hurt and let down by the lack of forethought and understanding shown by the proposers of the changes. One of the most recent and dramatic changes has been the church extension. This has caused the external appearance of the church to be vastly altered, however it was undertaken with some sensitivity (and the visual impact was minimised by the presence of the churchyard yews). The point here is that the population of Hanwood has generally welcomed positive changes to the church building over the years; they are not backward thinking and against change per se. The widespread and deeply felt opposition to the current proposals has to be seen in this context.

 
The final point, and a very important one from a local heritage point of view, is to consider the wider importance of retaining the historical and aesthetically pleasing interior of St Thomas’ church as evidence of the exciting history of the village. Many people who drive through the village daily and even many residents are unaware of the importance of Hanwood in the Nineteenth Century. There is virtually no archaeological evidence left of the Coal Mine (the pit registers of 1872 – 1881 show over 300 employees). The solidly built Station House, which gave a visual indication of the importance of Hanwood in the Nineteenth Century, was demolished in the 1990s. Who would now guess, based on a complete lack of physical evidence, that Hanwood was important enough in the 1860s and 1870s to have a railway station and sidings large enough to employ three signalmen, three porters, a booking clerk and a station master?
 
The only evidence of another part of Hanwood’s important industrial heritage, Marshall’s Flax Mill (later the Barytes Mill) are the few remaining mill workers’ cottages in Weir Rd, these cottages had been built in the mid nineteenth century at a similar time to the refurbishment of the church. (Incidentally the demolition of many of the other Weir Cottages by the local council in 1975 caused immense bad feeling in the village with angry local meetings and two petitions; concern about the lost industrial heritage of Hanwood is not new).The most prosperous period of the mill coincides exactly with the major rebuild of the church in 1856, indeed the report on the work in the Shrewsbury Chronicle says the work was necessary due to the “increasing population having rendered its enlargement desirable”. The church building and its interior are therefore vital and increasingly rare evidence of the lost heritage of a prosperous, influential and industrial Hanwood.
 

I have tried to be succinct in the information presented here, which together with the time restraints that I am under has inevitably led to some superficiality. A lot of the evidence I have cited is based on the research I carried out in 1997-1998 for the University of Wales dissertation I wrote on the changing role of the village. I have not had time to recheck my references, but I do have the reference numbers for Shropshire Archives if information needs verifying.

 
A final point I would make involves the view that future generations would have of a decision to destroy the beautiful church furnishings that their predecessors made and enjoyed. A comparison can be made with the decisions made by Shrewsbury’s town planners in the 1960s. For example, I’m sure many progressive arguments were put forward for the demolishing of the beautiful old buildings in The Square and for the building of a modern building like the spectacularly ugly Princess House to cope with the demands of a modern world but who now would see that decision, and others like it, as justified? This is not to say all modern building is wrong – as stated previously the church extension at Hanwood was largely accepted as justified and did not face serious opposition. However all decisions taken about historic buildings should take the wider context into consideration, and the view of the vast majority of Hanwood’s residents who will have to live with the consequences is that the proposal to destroy the pews is short-sighted, misguided, thoughtless and totally unacceptable.

Many of you will have read the front page report in the local newspaper published on 14th September 2006.

Theer is one point I would like to correct. St. Thomas's is not being modernised for community use, in Hanwood we have have a very good village hall for that purpose.

Our concern is to provide a flexiable, comfortable and accessible space to enable a variety of forms of worship which are developing in today's church. We also ned space for other events related to the mission of the Church in our community.

Michael Whittock reprinted from St. Thomas's Church Parish Magazine for October 2006


There has been a series of letters concerning the above proposal that will be reprinted here shortly by kind permission of the writers.


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