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 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 is usually credited to George Gilbert Scott, and the earliest attribution seems to be that in the Dutton Allen Directory of Berkshire in 1863, “under the direction of Mr Scott”. In the Reading Mercury of 25 June 1866 a column, "Rides and Rambles Round Reading" by "Viator" also mentions the restoration "...a few years since...under the able direction of Scott". A report of the Newbury Field Club visit in September 1873 uses exactly the same form of words as do nearly all later accounts, including those by Keyser (1911), Jackson-Stops (1981), the Victoria County History (1924), Pevsner (1966) and Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire in 1882. Englefield does not receive a mention in Scott’s autobiography Personal and Professional Recollections, though he dwells at some length on his work at 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 60 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”.
Recently a copy of Keyser’s book has been found in the vestry and this opens up a new line of enquiry. Inside are two loose sheets of paper, one of which has the address “The Lambdens” and is dated May 1966. 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, seemingly about the time that Blore and Armstrong were working for Richard Benyon’s brother. 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.
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. Armstrong had a son, also Richard, who was apprenticed to his father in 1860. Two other churches in villages nearby that form part of the wider Englefield estate were also rebuilt at Richard Fellowes Benyon’s expense: St Peter’s at Ufton Nervet (1862) and St Mary’s at Stratfield Mortimer (1869). Both are very similar in style to Englefield and are credited to Richard Armstrong. 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.
Armstrong and Hardwick probably knew each other well and had worked together before and 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. All three, in varying degrees, were noted exponents of the Gothic Revival and all three played some part in the rebuilding of the estate. It is possible that they were all involved in different ways. 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 as to exactly who was responsible 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. Certainly, though, the records of the Cambridge firm of ecclesiastical woodworkers Rattee and Kett 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. Amazingly the evidence seems to have been there all along in the shape of a letter concerning the Englefield Chapel sent by Scott from his Spring Gardens office to Richard Benyon and dated 26 September 1855. This letter is, or was in 1998, in the possession of a Professor Connors of the University of Northern Iowa and confirms that Scott did drawings for both the building and its fittings.
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, almost certainly by Armstrong for it is identical to the ones at Ufton and Mortimer that he 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
© 2019 Richard J Smith