Shortly before he died, the Dean of Peterborough, George Butler, commissioned Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1853 to underpin ‘the foundations of a part towards the North East’ of the cathedral and his successor, Augustus Page Saunders (c.1800-78), soon afterwards appointed him to design decorations for the ceiling of the choir and the apse. Scott noted, ‘My works here have been slight. and [sic] being mainly safety for their object. Much should be done but there are no funds and little zeal. The decoration of the Choir ceiling my chief concern’. He mainly had to deal with the structural problems of a big old building standing on a low-lying site, but he was not given an easy time by the Dean and Chapter. The lack of funds and enthusiasm led to the work taking an inordinate amount of time, with eventually his professional judgement being questioned and at one time, so he thought, encountering downright hostility.
The Chapter called for another architect to give his views on the state of the building. He reported that there was no problem, but a third architect made the Chapter ‘at last admit the danger’. Scott duly strengthened the north aisle, but not before some of the members of the Chapter had suggested that this could be done with flying buttresses. Scott did not like this idea as ‘it would so seriously affect its aspect’, and anyway his measures were adequate.
One eminent Canon Dr. Westcote was so offended with me I fancy because I was not favourable to the adding of flying butresses that he would hardly deign to speak to me – & when at last I saw him & innocently went up to him to shake hands he put his hands behind his back least he should contaminate them by contact with mine! His meaning I cannot divine – as I never uttered a word or proferred a thought which was disrespectful to him as one lives on one finds a few such enigmas!
But Scott was writing about one of the leading theologians of the day and a highly respected Bible scholar, Brook Foss Westcott (1825-1901). The fact that Scott mis-spells his name reveals that although he describes him as an ‘eminent Canon’, he must have known little about his accomplishments, while Westcott was well-known for being remote and aloof.
Scott’s work at Peterborough was, as he said,‘slight’, but the greatest benefit that he obtained from the work was his introduction to two natives of Peterborough, the stonemason John Thompson, and the carpenter Francis Ruddle. Together, or separately, they produced a considerable amount of work of the highest quality for Scott for the rest of his career. Scott was quickly impressed with their talents, as it must have been very soon after he first consulted about Peterborough that he employed Ruddle at Doncaster.
In 1874 Sir George Gilbert Scott had reported that the tower of Peterborough was in a parlous condition and needed repair but he was ignored. After his death in 1878, the warnings of his successor, Pearson, also went unheeded, until on 3 January 1883, the tower cracked and the whole structure started to move. Immediately two steam engines were rushed to the cathedral, where they dismantled the tower stone-by- stone. Pearson rebuilt it exactly following the old design by re-using the salvaged masonry.
Scott’s Recollections, III 296, IV 73-4, 76-7.
Cobb, G., English Cathedrals, The Forgotten Centuries, Restoration and Change from 1530 to the Present Day (Thames and Hudson, London, 1980), p. 101, n. 31.
Quiney, A., John Loughborough Pearson (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1979), pp. 186-8.
Scott’s Recollections, III 296.