After his tour of North Wales in 1845 Sir George Gilbert Scott made some sketches of Chester Cathedral. The great building was in an appalling state. Its soft red Runcorn sandstone has poor weathering qualities. The Dean, Frederick Anson, had had the whole of the building surveyed with a view to a comprehensive restoration, but he died in May 1867, before anything had been implemented. His successor was the vicar of Wisbech, Dr. John Howson, whose place at Wisbech was taken by Scott’s older brother, John.
On his arrival at Chester Howson immediately implemented the restoration that Anson had intended. It was then the cathedral serving Liverpool and Howson’s persuasive abilities could be directed towards the wealthy merchants of Liverpool, which along with his personal funds, provided the means to realise his ideas. He was a great admirer of Scott, both personally and professionally, and knew that Scott was the ideal architect to continue the restoration. In 1868, Scott with Ewan Christian, the Architect to the Church Commissioners, was asked to report on the cathedral. They estimated that necessary repairs would cost £22,531, desirable repairs £7,000 and improvements £20,000, which together with architect’s fees would give a total cost of £52,031. A public meeting was held in June which resulted in a great flood of money. The Commissioners had promised £1,000 for a general restoration and there were further contributions, particularly from the Dean and Chapter.
In the summer of 1868 Scott started to restore the cathedral by underpinning and repairing the buttresses at the east end. He discovered that the Lady Chapel was standing on very poor foundations and concluded that the sixteenth century chapels on either side were added to support its walls against the thrust of its vaulting. Much to his delight he found remains of buttresses to the Lady Chapel which seemed to be of the same design as his precious buttress at Bangor, so in his restoration he ‘made use of the more perfect evidences procured from Bangor’. He wrote that the exterior stonework of Chester Cathedral: ‘was so horribly & lamentably decayed as to reduce to a mere wreck like a mouldering Sandstone Cliff The most ordinary details could often only be found in corners more protected by accidental circumstances than the rest. I can assert for Myself & My able & lamented Clerk of the Works Mr. Frater that not a Stone retaining like its old surface has been wilfully displaced nor a single evidence of detail disregarded. I am the more specific on this point because the tremendous extent of decay – forced upon me most unwillingly.’
James Frater was Scott’s Clerk of Works from 1868 until 1875, when he died, and is commemorated by a brass plaque which Howson erected in the north choir aisle. Scott’s restoration started on the east end of the cathedral with Howson contributing to certain aspects, such as planning the sanctuary, and encouraging Scott, if much encouragement was needed, to indulge in one of his archaeological explorations into the walls of the east end of the building. Scott’s sketch book shows that on 22 May 1868, he examined the junctions between the ends of the choir aisles and the later chapels on either side of the Lady Chapel. The building of the chapels had necessitated the destruction of thirteenth century apsidal terminations to the aisles and he found that both apses had stone roofs, but the one on the south side was very different to the moderately high roof on the north side. He said that:
on removing a part of the later timber roofs of the south chapel, and some of the rubbish which had accumulated beneath it, we found concealed by it portions of the sloping surfaces of the old apse roof of that side. These were small in extent, but potent in evidence. The first thing which struck us was their excessive steepness of slope – almost like the spire of a church; and on tracing up these slopes to their intersection, what was my surprise at finding that they represented a stone roof of no less than 42 feet high above the tops of the walls [!]
He also discovered fragments which seemed to indicate that this spire-like structure had a flat west side, like a tall gable. Nothing like this existed in English architecture but he said that there were ‘several instances found in France’, and cited Norrey just west of Caen, which Whewell and Petit both mention. Here two such structures project from the apse of the church.
Scott must have then had a rush of blood to the head as he made the extraordinary decision to demolish the southern chapel and replace it with one of these strange structures. The Builder, rarely critical of Scott, said the scheme was based on ‘little more than conjecture’. It denounced the structure as ‘an entire mistake’ and ‘an ugly excrescence’. Scott was forced to publically explain this apparent vandalism. On 8 June 1870 he read a paper to the local archaeological society, where he tries to justify his action by claiming that not only had he discovered this ‘architectural curiosity’, but his quarrying in the stonework of the sixteenth century chapel had revealed details of the Early English Lady Chapel which could now be seen as it was in the days of Edward I. ‘Many architectural antiquaries were consulted’ and the apse was reproduced ‘with almost absolute precision and perfectness’.
Tenders were invited from various builders for the reminder of the restoration, including Beanland, but the work was awarded to John Thompson of Peterborough, who had just ended his partnership with Francis Ruddle. Thompson quoted £21,263 to carry out the work and the contract was signed on 6 October 1869. In February 1870 a fund-raising meeting was held at Liverpool. Howson explained to the audience that £35,500 had already been expended and although there was £7,000 in the bank, an additional £5,000 would still be required for such work as vaulting the nave. Four months later the Restoration Committee reported that the money in the bank had risen to £11,500, due mainly to a grant of £5,000 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.
By June 1870 Scott had completed the restoration of the choir and the work was advancing along the south side of the nave towards the south porch and the west end. The roof of the Lady Chapel and its eastern gable would be carried out without delay and the nave re-roofed. In the following October, the restoration of the tower was completed and Howson’s young daughter laid the top stone.
In July 1872 Scott says that he had, by then, rebuilt the southern walk of the cloister, added stone vaulting to the nave aisles with the north aisle receiving support from the rebuilt cloister walk. When it came to main nave roof, rather than subjecting its high old walls to the weight of stone vaulting, he gave it oak vaulting with support on the south side from flying buttresses. The choir also had new oak vaulting which was decorated by Clayton and Bell with Howson directing the iconography. However the greatest change in the choir came in 1875 when the late fourteenth century choir stalls, one of the great treasures of the cathedral, were shunted back to their original position east of the crossing and restored and expanded. As had happened in so many of his other cathedral restorations, it was decided that Scott would open-up the nave to the choir by removing the choir screen which supported a huge organ. Scott replaced these with a magnificent open-work timber screen by Farmer and Brindley with a central opening for which Skidmore supplied iron gates. Over this Scott installed a small choir organ and from the east crossing arch above the screen he hung a beautiful cross made by Skidmore. Pevsner exclaimed that this ‘would be an ornament to any exhibition of Victorian art’. But it was removed in 1910 and the great cross, redundant and out of fashion, ended up at Dunham-on-the-Hill Church in 1921.
Scott provided a new reredos, which was designed by John Clayton and executed in mosaic by Salviati, with Howson again contributing to the iconography. The choir pavement has incised marble figures of subjects suggested by Howson to complement his ideas for the vaulting. Scott also designed a new bishop’s throne based on the old choir stalls and it was carved in oak by Farmer and Brindley and placed at the eastern end of the stalls. This replaced an amazing structure incorporating part of the fourteenth century shrine of St. Werburgh as its base. The idea, which dated from the Reformation, of using the shrine as a seat for the bishop was, of course, completely abhorrent to Scott, and he says that he had the substructure of the shrine moved ‘into the S. Choir Aisle adding to it some parts recently discovered’.
Scott did little to the north transept but what he did do seems to have been with the aim of reducing its dark and overcrowded appearance. On the north wall, presumably in an effort to let in as much light as possible, he retained the shape of the big and almost square four-centred arched window, but changed its dull grid-iron Perpendicular tracery into a more lively version of that style. While at the south end of the transept, he ensured that there would be an open view into the crossing by placing an open gallery on marble columns across the end of the transept, on which he stood the organ in a beautiful case made by Farmer and Brindley. On the opposite side of the crossing the south transept is altogether a grander place than the dingy little north transept. But it was the parish church of St. Oswald, and much to Scott’s chagrin, he was not able to do anything to its interior. It was, he says, ‘a sad wreck of a once beautiful decorated structure still remaining to be undertaken but with the energy of Dean Howson I do not despair of its completion’.
Scott built a new church to accommodate the congregation of St. Oswald, in Parkgate Road, a mile to the north of the cathedral. It was started in 1869, but the work was very slow and it was not until December 1877 that Scott submitted his final fee account. Even then its intended south-east tower never materialised and it was left to John Oldrid, after Scott’s death, to complete the nave. It is a dull lancet hall-church with some capitals at the east end still awaiting carving. In 1880 the congregation moved into the new church, which is dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury. With the removal of St. Oswald’s church, the solid screen set up in 1828 to separate the cathedral from the transept, was removed. But for Scott this was too late and his death in 1878 meant that his successor, Sir Arthur Blomfield, carried out the work in 1882.
From the outset of his restoration Scott had always wanted to add a spire to the central tower of the cathedral. A model was exhibited in the Chapter House in 1869, but The Builder felt that it would rob the cathedral ‘of part of its architectural dignity and grandeur, and give it a patchwork appearance’. Seven years later it condemned the spire as a useless project, which, ‘we hope, is now abandoned’. It was.
In 1865 the Bishop had decided to build himself a new palace beside the river and vacate the old structure which before the Reformation had been the Abbot’s residence on the north side of the cathedral. In 1875, Blomfield was commissioned to design new buildings for the King’s School on the site of the old palace. The palace included a fine thirteenth century vaulted chamber immediately adjacent and at right angles to the west front of the cathedral, and concealing everything north of the edge of the great west window. Scott incorporated the vaulted chamber into what was virtually a new two-storied building with the upper floor as part of the accommodation for the school. By using buttresses on the south wall, he was able to push its upper part sufficiently far back for his new turret to be formed to balance the existing turret on the other side of his restored west front of the cathedral. The little building has traceried ground floor windows and a conically-capped staircase turret on the corner closest to the school. It was described by The Builder, while it was being built in August 1876, as a ‘remarkably effective bit of work’. The lower portion became the Song School and, after the King’s School moved to a new site in 1960, the upper room became the Cathedral Library.
Scott’s restoration of Chester Cathedral was completed in 1876, and in the September The Builder published a particularly forthright critique of his work there. It claimed that the refacing of the conspicuous parts had produced ‘a modern Gothic church, a reproduction of a Mediaeval building by modern workmen’. But its greatest criticism was, of course, reserved for the ‘extraordinary pyramid of masonry’ which terminated the southern aisle. It did, however, concede that with the interior ‘there is little room for anything but congratulation on the result’. A slower and more painstaking restoration would have been more appropriate for Chester but perhaps it was Howson’s drive and highly successful fund-raising that led to such a drastic restoration. A few years later in 1880, the establishment of Liverpool as a separate diocese would have meant that donations obtained from that wealthy source would have been less forthcoming. Scott’s wholesale restorations were becoming increasingly subject to critical comment. It was only six months after The Builder article that William Morris’s famous letter to The Athenaeum appeared, criticising the methods that Scott had employed over the last thirty years. Nevertheless his work seems to have been to the liking of his clients, and Howson, in particular, was unwavering in his support and encouragement. But even after his resolve to reduce his work load, Scott could not resist further invitations to add to his already impressive list of cathedral restorations.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 78 [c], 26 [a].
Pevsner, N., and Hubbard, E., Cheshire, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1971), pp. 45, 171, 205.
Victoria County History, III,, p. 193.
Cole, D., The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott (The Architectural Press, London, 1980), p. 90.
See letter to The Times, 6 April 1878, p. 11, col F.
The Builder, XXVI, 7 March 1868, p. 184.
Murray, J., Handbook to the Cathedrals of England, Northern Division, Durham, Chester, Manchester, Part II (John Murray, London, 1869), pp. 376-7, 385-6, 435.
Scott, G. G., On the Architectural History of Chester Cathedral etc. (Chester, 1870), pp. 14, 15, 18, 19, 24.
Scott’s Recollections, III 346-7, IV 146-7, 152, 191-2.
Petit, J. L., Remarks on Church Architecture (James Burns, London, 1841), vol I, p. 162.
Whewell, W., Architectural Notes on German Churches (Deighton and Parker, London, 1842), p. 195.
The Builder, XXVII, 18 December 1869, p. 997.
The Builder, XXXIV, 16 September 1876, pp. 845, 895, 897.
The Builder, XXVII, 3 April 1869, p. 272.
The Builder, XXVIII, 26 February 1870, p. 173.
The Builder, XXVIII, 4 June 1870, p. 452.
Pevsner, N., and Metcalf, P., The Cathedrals of England: Midland, Eastern and Northern England (Viking, Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 51, 58-9.
The Builder, XXVIII, 8 October 1870, p. 814.
Addleshaw, G. W. O., ‘Architects, Sculptors, Designers amd Craftsmen, 1770-1970, whose work is seen in Chester Cathedral’, in Architectural History, 1971, XIV, pp. 87, 97.
The Builder, XXXIV, 5 August 1876, pp. 750, 760-1 (illustration), 904 and 16 September 1876 for illustration.
Bennett, F. L. M., Chester Cathedral (Phillipson and Golder, Chester, 1925), pp. 60-1, 113, 117.
RIBA Drawings Collection, Ledger of Scott’s Office, 1875-1914, p. 45.
Cotton, V., Liverpool Cathedral, Official Handbook (1951, 11th edn), p. 9.
See letter to The Times, 6 April 1878, p. 11, col F.