Sir George Gilbert Scott’s sketchbook shows that he had visited Rochester in 1865 and in the following year he was invited by the Dean and Chapter to give his opinion on the state of the fabric of the cathedral. He examined the building in 1867 and presented his report in the June of that year. The exterior, he states, had ‘undergone such serious mutilation and disfigurement and suffered so seriously from decay’, while internally at the east end, ‘every ancient feature’ had more or less perished or been demeaned. However no action was taken. A new Dean was appointed in 1870 and The Builder hoped that this would lead to the restoration being carried out. It also reported that funds suppressed by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners now amounted to between £30,000 and £40,000, and reinforced the case for restoration by commenting that the removal of some houses on the south side of the High Street had ‘opened up a fine new view’ of the north-eastern portion of the cathedral.

Scott was duly commissioned to carry out the work early in 1871 and in the April of that year, he sent the Dean and Chapter a letter outlining his proposals. The eastern portions ‘are throughout of fine Early pointed architecture, and though sadly mutilated and decayed, their design is in the main intelligible’. By 15 July 1871 Scott’s preparations were so far advanced that The Builder announced that the work was ‘shortly to be commenced’, and the builder would be George White of Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, who was already working for Scott on Salisbury Cathedral. The first stage would be to restore the clerestory windows in the nave and The Architect said that the floor of the chancel would be lowered to reveal the bases of the pillars and that the ancient windows at the east end would be restored.

Lewis Nottingham, who had restored the cathedral between 1825 and 1840, retained a large triangular Perpendicular window at the east end of the choir. In his report Scott felt that this ‘uncouth’ window should ‘give way to the integrity of the Early English design’. He replaced the ‘uncouth’ window with three lancets and decided to raise the pitch of the roofs over the eastern parts of the church to their original level and to restore the western transepts. These had been ‘most monstrously transmogrified yet parts of the old work in an advanced state of decay (almost perished) The design had been recovered from these remains, aided by old prints’. Although Scott had persuaded the Chapter to give the north-east transept and the east end high gable walls, there was not enough money to raise the roofs behind them. He hoped ‘that the roofs might follow but as yet they have not’. In fact they never did and the two unattached gables stand today, like pieces of elaborate stage scenery.

Internally the work of lowering the chancel meant that the interior of the choir and presbytery had to be gutted, repaved and refitted. This work commenced in 1873 with Scott’s assistant, Charles Baker King, particularly involved with the choir stalls. All the old canopies, misericords and return stalls had disappeared, but by removing the later pews lower parts of the old stalls were revealed, enabling ‘almost the whole design to be made out and reproduced’. Scott also provided a new Caen Stone reredos, a choir pulpit and covered the new floors of the choir and presbytery with tiles by Godwin. These cost £382 and were ‘founded largely on portions of the old ones found some of which remain’. When lowering the stalls Scott found traces of a diaper pattern on the rear walls and on the back of the choir screen. This incorporated the fleur-de-lys and three leopards which King Edward III had adopted for his arms in 1340 and above the patterns on the side walls were traces of shields. The walls were decorated by Clayton and Bell following ‘exactly evidences clearly found excepting the shields of which we did not discover the bearings have been filled with those of the Bishops of Rochester’. Scott was helped in his heraldic research by Stephen Tucker (1835-1887), of the College of Heralds, who was a prominent member of the Royal Archaeological Institute in the 1870s, which may have been how Scott knew him.

By June 1874 The Builder reported that upwards of £10,000 had already been spent on the restoration, of which Canon and Mrs. Griffith had donated £3,000 for the fittings of the choir. The Reverend Dr. Griffith (1789/90-1879) seems to have been particularly astute with money as he brought a successful prosecution against the banker, Sir John Paul (1802-1868) and his partners in 1855, for having defrauded their customers of £22,000. Paul and his fellow fraudsters were sentenced to fourteen years transportation at the Old Bailey, the bank collapsed and Griffith was given the means to make a splendid donation to his cathedral.

J. T. Irvine arrived at Rochester as Clerk of Works, in August 1874, having completed his work for Scott at Bath, although he continued his investigations into the little Saxon church at Bradford-on-Avon. He soon became involved in supervising the painting behind the choir stalls. They had discovered some older wall decoration behind the Sub-Dean’s stall, which ‘the Dean would not permit to remain but it has been taken out & preserved in a frame, I think in the Chapter room’. In January 1875 Scott wrote to Irvine asking him to help to smooth matters between him and the Dean: ‘Cannot you get the Dean to act more cordially? I have never done anything to my knowledge to excite these strange feelings in him yet he seems to act as my opponent’. Nevertheless, the choir was reopened for services on 11 June 1875, although the work was far from complete and on 24 November, Scott delivered his fourth report to the Dean and Chapter.

This report, perhaps arising from Irvine’s investigations, is alarmist about the state of the structure of the Norman nave. Rochester is unusual in having no floors to the triforia, which are narrow double-sided galleries with views down into both the nave and the aisles and connected by passages cut through the nave piers. Scott strengthened the nave walls by filling-in these passages while the outer aisle walls, without being properly tied to the main arcade by triforium floors, were leaning over. But as Scott said, they:

are almost wholly of a date some 150 years back They no doubt had gone over so much that they were rebuilt. Their foundation was of loose chalk & had given way This is now banked up (underground) with Concrete …

This work was carried out by Irvine, who identified the true age of the so-called Norman walls as about 1664 and discovered what Scott calls ‘many interesting matters underground & has constructed many theories on them which I feel unable to explain’. Scott seems to have been rather in awe of Irvine’s archaeological expertise, as well as in his ability to calm irate clerics.

At the outset of the restoration it was intended to concentrate on the eastern portions of the church, but Irvine’s discovery of the state of the nave meant that funds intended for projects such as the new high roofs, were no longer available. By August 1877 the work was therefore practically complete and Scott was trying to find a new appointment for Irvine. In September The Architect published a list of the cost of the work, which it had obtained from the Dean. Scott had been paid £711-16s-6d in fees and White the builder, £5,238. Farmer and Brindley received £2,833 and Clayton and Bell £613. A total of £11,396 had been raised, of which had been £11,264 expended. This sum presumably included a new bishop’s throne which seems to have been a later addition to Scott’s work.

The diocese of Rochester since 1836 covered only the town of Rochester south of the Thames, and the whole of the counties of Essex and Hertfordshire to the north of the river. In June 1875 this strange arrangement was abolished by Parliament when the new diocese of St. Albans was set up incorporating Essex and Hertfordshire, and Rochester became an extended area on the south side of the river. The Bishops of Rochester lived at Danbury, in Essex, where Scott had restored and enlarged the church in 1866. Thomas Legh Claughton became the Bishop of Rochester in April 1867 but when he became the first Bishop of St. Albans in 1877, he stayed on at Danbury and the new Bishop of Rochester had to find another residence. Claughton also brought his throne from Rochester to St. Albans so Scott had to add a new throne to his work at Rochester. Rochester was Scott’s last great cathedral restoration.

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Holbrook, D., in Yates, N. and Welsby, P. A., Faith and Fabric: A History of Rochester Cathedral 604-1994 (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1996), pp. 206-8.
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Myles, J., L. N. Cottingham, 1787-1847, Architect of the Gothic Revival (Lund Humphries, London, 1996), p. 79.
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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) , 65, 66.
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Chadwick, O., ‘The Victorian Diocese of St Albans’, in Runcie, R. (ed.), Cathedral and City, St. Albans Ancient and Modern (Martyn Associates, London, 1977), pp. 74, 82.
Pevsner, N. and Ratcliffe, I., Essex, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1979), p. 155.