The Victorian Reconstruction
Richard Fellowes Benyon, who inherited Englefield in 1854, was clearly one of those landowners influenced by the Ecclesiologists and in Country Life in 1981 Gervase Jackson-Stops called the nave and chancel of St Mark’s “a perfect illustration of a Victorian squire’s Tractarian sympathies”. An earlier view, from F G Brabant in 1911, was that it was “...another melancholy illustration of the mischief often done by well-meaning and liberal lords of the manor” and he said that “What should have been the finest church in the neighbourhood has been transformed into a tasteless modern building”.
This is perhaps putting it a bit strongly for, as we know, there were many other local churches similar in appearance to St Mark’s before its reconstruction and nothing that we can see to mark it down as a particularly fine example of anything. Betjeman and Piper in 1949 also refer to “…an unhappy combination of textures without and a high, dark, pinched cavern within, aisled, chapelled, over-pewed, screened, picture-hung…” but go on to admit “…as the eye gets used to the dimness, rich and full of details…” and say that the Englefield Chapel is a beautiful building.
Like many other churches at the time it was probably in a poor state of repair anyway, so the rebuilding may have been a necessity carried out in the style of the age. Nowadays we tend to place a greater value on Victorian Gothic and at least we have the opportunity to view both styles in the locality.
Only a year after Benyon inherited, the Reading Mercury of 26 May 1855 reported the erection of a new church at Englefield on the site of the old one then, it said, already in the process of removal. What emerged was the building we see today - straight from the Ecclesiological design book and apparently from the 14th century, but in reality now only a mere 160 years old. Further work continued throughout the remainder of Richard Benyon’s life that saw the interior of the church increasingly transformed. The rebuilding went on until 1857 or 58 and during that time, services were held in the Long Gallery at Englefield House, which Mr Benyon had fitted-out for the purpose.
The work has always been credited to George Gilbert Scott although Englefield is not mentioned in his own book Personal and Professional Recollections (edited by his son), though he dwells at some length on his work at nearby St Andrew’s, Bradfield, in 1848. Nor do any of the catalogues of Scott’s work include it. The Journal of the Royal Institution of British Architects published in 1958 a supposedly complete list of Scott’s buildings which does not include St Mark’s but notes the exclusion from the list of a further 21 buildings “that were mere consultations”.
The 1850s and 60s were a very busy time for Scott, as recollected by Sir Thomas Jackson, a pupil from 1858 to 61: "He was up to the eyes in engagements and it was hard to get him to look at our work. I have seen three or four men with drawings awaiting correction or approval grouped around his door. The door flew open and out he came. ‘No time today!’; the cab was at the door and he was whirled away to some cathedral where he would spend a couple of hours and then fly off to some other great work at the other end of the kingdom”.
A number of stories concerning Englefield seem to have arisen, or at least been published more widely, during the 19th century without any evidence cited and later sources are no more dependable for most simply repeat (sometimes almost verbatim) the unattributed comments in the earlier works. In this case a report of the Newbury Field Club visit in September 1873 provides the template for nearly all later accounts, including those by Keyser (1911), Jackson-Stops (1981) and Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire in 1882.
Nor is Scott the only candidate, for in a copy of Keyser’s book found in the vestry are two loose sheets of paper, one of which, dated May 1966, has the address “The Lambdens” making them probably the work of Vice Admiral Richard Benyon (Shelley) who inherited the estate in 1959. On them are some notes referring to Keyser’s text. Regarding the rebuilding, there is a comment “Restoration in 1857 by P C Hardwick. Further restoration in 1874 by Sir George Gilbert Scott and this includes the tower and spire”. A reference is made to “Martindale and Lister” apparently as the source of this information but no trace of anything by these authors can be found. The 1949 edition of Murray’s Berkshire Guide, written by Betjeman and Piper, also attributes the work to Hardwick and Scott with the same dates, though is not specific about the tower and spire.
Philip Charles Hardwick (1822-1892) was an architect who trained under Edward Blore and The Dictionary of National Biography refers to him as “in the second rank of the Gothic Revival”. Like Scott, Hardwick submitted a design for the Albert Memorial and although Scott’s was chosen by the committee the Queen is said to have preferred Hardwick’s. Betjeman and Piper in 1949, and Pevsner a decade or so later, say that the Rectory, built 1870, is by Hardwick who also built Aldermaston Court in 1848-51 after fire destroyed the original house. The house was then bought by Charles Keyser in 1893. Pevsner credits Hardwick with the building of a new Rectory at Englefield in 1870 and Betjeman and Piper attribute the new school to him in 1863.
The architect employed by Richard Benyon to work on Englefield House at that time was Richard Armstrong who also acted as Clerk of the Works for Edward Blore between 1839 and 1843 during the building of Haveringland Hall in Norfolk for Edward Fellowes, Richard Benyon’s brother, at about same the time that Hardwick was in training. Armstrong had a son, also Richard, who was apprenticed to his father in 1860. Scott certainly knew the Armstrongs, for when Richard Armstrong junior applied for Fellowship of the Royal Institution of British Architects in 1876 Scott was one of his supporters. Scott, Armstrong and Hardwick were all, in varying degrees, noted exponents of the Gothic Revival and all three played some part in the rebuilding of the estate. The Dictionary of Scottish Architects in a section on Richard Armstrong, says that “For the restoration of Englefield Church, George Gilbert Scot was brought in…”.
As a great many things said about Englefield or the church can easily be seen to be wrong, or at least not necessarily right, a certain amount of scepticism is not unwarranted in the absence of any hard primary evidence. For example, a date of 1874 for the building of the tower and spire, by Scott or another, is obviously wrong, for the Newbury Field Club report in 1873 says they were added “a few years ago”, consistent with the normally given date of 1868.
However, there is a letter sent by Scott from his Spring Gardens office to Richard Benyon, dated 26 September 1855 and concerning the style of the Englefield Chapel which would seem to settle the matter and confirm that Scott certainly did drawings for both the building and its fittings. The records of the Cambridge firm of ecclesiastical woodworkers Rattee and Kett also show that they delivered a new oak reredos to Englefield for GG Scott in 1858 so he (or at least his practice) was certainly involved somehow.
Probably the day to day supervision of the work was by Armstrong and two other churches in villages nearby that form part of the wider Englefield estate were also rebuilt at Richard Fellowes Benyon’s expense by him shortly afterwards: St Peter’s at Ufton Nervet (1862) and St Mary’s at Stratfield Mortimer (1869). Both are very similar in style to Englefield and we know for certain that Armstrong built St Mary’s, for the Clerk of Works for the Englefield Estate, William Rhind, kept comprehensive and meticulous records. The gate screen and lodges at the end of the private drive to Englefield House, built in 1862, are in similar style and materials to the Rectory and school (both supposedly by Hardwick) are attributed by Historic England to Armstrong.
It is unlikely that the church was completely demolished as the newspaper reported, although the chancel seems to have been, but the simple rendered finish on the outside was replaced by knapped flint and the square-headed windows became pointed Gothic lances. The inner part of the wall probably remained for there are a number of pre-1855 memorial tablets on the east and south walls of the aisle and the doorways all retain their original arches. The interior restoration seems to have been confined to the removal of some galleries, the replacement of the (possibly box) pews with those in use today and the rebuilding of the niches containing the two recumbent figures in the south wall. With these constraints the insertion of the new windows in the south elevation involved a certain amount of accommodation on the inside to preserve the external symmetry. The western one abuts the porch a little too closely due to the off-centre placing of the door and from the inside the buttressing of the doorway intrudes into the window opening. The eastern window appears well-placed from the outside but from the inside it will be seen that it has had to be fitted around the monument to Mary Benyon.
In 1868 the tower was rebuilt and the tall, pointed spire added, identical to the ones at Ufton and Mortimer that Armstrong was building around the same time. A priest’s vestry was accommodated at its base. The last addition was in 1907 when a choir vestry was added alongside the one for the priest, on the very spot where on the night of Tuesday 19 March in that year the weathercock from the spire had landed after being blown down by a gale.
From the outside it is hard to believe that the Victorian transformation, with its spire, knapped flint walls, lancet windows and new porch, is the same church as that depicted by Tomkins.
St Mark's Church
© 2021 Richard J Smith