In 1859 Scott urged the students at the Royal Academy to go to St. Albans to see that ‘glorious old temple’. He had wanted to go there while he was staying with the Kings’ in 1826, and although it is less than seven miles from Latimer, he never went and it was only when he was at Edmeston’s that he finally saw the huge Norman pile. Its architecture has none of the grandeur of Ely, Westminster Abbey or even Peterborough, but as at one stage he ‘almost dreamed of St. Albans’, he must have been delighted in 1856 to be requested by the Rector, Dr. Henry Joseph Boone Nicholson (1795-1866), to report on the state of the Abbey. The Cottinghams had been in charge of the Abbey since 1833, and with the death of N. J. Cottingham in 1854, Scott probably felt that he was free to approach Nicholson, perhaps with an introduction from Donaldson, who was Nicholson’s brother-in-law.
It was proposed to form a new diocese of St. Albans with the Abbey raised to the status of a cathedral, and Scott’s report was commissioned as a basis for raising funds to enable this to take place. The public meeting, which was held following the production of the report, was the one that Grimthorpe ‘accidently’ attended, and it ended with Scott giving a conducted tour of the Abbey. But the proposal to raise the status of the Abbey failed to materialise, and nothing was done until the next call for cathedral status in 1871. However, Scott did manage to ensure that he remained in the fore-front of the minds of the inhabitants of St. Albans with an almost continuous stream of work stemming from his Abbey involvement.
In 1871, when the proposal to raise the Abbey to cathedral status was resurrected, Scott was commissioned to make another report and he found that he had yet another central-tower problem on his hands. The great Norman tower, built of Roman bricks, had in the past shown signs of instability so Scott examined its Norman supporting piers drawing alarming conclusions. The tower was showing unmistakable signs of giving way. As Scott was ill at the time, he immediately sent his son Gilbert, now aged thirty, to supervise emergency works, and he ‘was a great service in arranging the system of Shoring’. On the north-east corner of the tower young Gilbert and John Chapple, the Clerk of Works, had to carefully remove the shattered parts and replace them with hard brick work in cement. They used liquid cement to fill many other gaps that they had discovered in the supporting piers. Below the south-east corner pier, much to their horror, they found that a cave had been dug out and filled with timber. This, Scott thought, could have been an abortive attempt to destroy the tower. Early in spring of 1871, he was well enough to inspect the tower and on 22 June, St. Albans Day, to attend a public meeting in London ‘for the furtherance of the work’, where he said it would not cost less than £50,000. But the meeting was hardly a success, as Scott says, the funds that were raised were ‘about one quarter of what was needed’.
However, by August 1872, Scott was able to write that the repairs to the tower had now been completed and the abutting walls strengthened, ‘So I trust the old tower is now safe & sound again’. Scott’s greatest excitement was in finding pieces of the early fourteenth century supporting structure to St. Alban’s Shrine. Earlier, in Nicholson’s time, they had discovered ‘a number of beautiful purbeck marble fragments which we concluded to belong to this structure’, but no progress was made towards reconstructing it prior to strengthening the tower. Scott, it seems, was decidedly miffed when his ‘zealous assistant’, John Thomas Micklethwaite (1843-1906), took it upon himself to re-assemble these pieces into the shrine and thus depriving Scott of the pleasure of solving this jig-saw puzzle. Micklethwaite had been in Scott’s office since 1862, as a pupil at first, but must he must have left soon after his work on the shrine, perhaps upset by Scott’s reaction, as he had set up in practice on his own by 1869.
Scott placed the shrine ‘exactly in its old place, stone for stone and fragment for fragment’, in the presbytery, immediately behind the High Altar, and described it as ‘a magnificent piece of work’, the position shown by the knee marks of pilgrims. The Restoration Committee disallowed the work under their account, the fees of £52 being unpaid, but Ruskin guaranteed the cost if necessary. Carried along on a wave of enthusiasm, he ‘also found and in part set up the shrine of St Amphilabus! This is of a later date & of common stone’ and was originally erected in the mid-fourteenth century to support the remains of the Christian cleric who had converted Alban to Christianity and for whom Alban was executed for sheltering. This too, is only a base, or at least, part of a base, as some of it has never been found.
By February 1877 Scott wrote that ‘At the present moment the work is in abeyance’ awaiting further funding. He had by now completed the eastern portions of the main structure and although much work had been done to the Lady Chapel and the two side chapels, with funds raised by the Marchioness of Salisbury, more money was still required to continue the obliteration of the ravages of three centuries of school-boys in the Lady Chapel. Lady Salisbury was the wife of the third Marquis of Hatfield House, who was the brother-in-law of Beresford Hope.
The dinner in July 1875, which Grimthorpe attended at St. Albans, was organised by Scott as President of the Institute ‘to the Council of the Institute & many friends & we had a jolly field day in the abbey’, in another effort to raise the outstanding £30,000 required mainly for the west front and for work on the nave. In fact the state of the nave was worse than imagined, and soon after the dinner, Chapple gave Grimthorpe the opportunity to become actively involved in the restoration, by asking for his financial help in shoring-up the clerestory on the south side of the nave. This was the start of his interference in the restoration of the abbey and the hounding of Scott in the last few years of his life.
Scott cautiously wrote in February 1877:
I forebear to say anything of our operations in the Nave till they are more advanced and the difficulty involved by the leaning out and of the five western bays on the south side of the Nave are passed God grant us success!
He was being urged by the Reverend William John Loftie (1839-1911) to be more conservative, while on the other hand he had to endure Grimthorpe.
I am in this, as in other works, obliged to face right & left to combat two enemies from either hand the one wanting me to do too much & the other finding fault with me for doing anything.
In his Recollections Scott confessed to getting into a muddle over doorways in the aisles of the presbytery and St Albans seems to have been a particular worry. Scott describes Loftie as the leader of a ‘narrow party’ and it is significant that in 1879 George Gilbert junior omitted ‘narrow’ from the published text. In the two intervening years, what Scott had considered to be a small affair had grown into a huge movement against the restoration methods that he and his generation of architects had employed.
St. Albans duly became a cathedral, with its first bishop, Thomas Legh Claughton (1808-92), coming from Rochester where Scott was also working. His enthronement took place on 12 June 1877, with scaffolding still supporting the south side of the nave. On the following day the builders, Longmire and Burge, started work on the nave, but, as Grimthorpe said, ‘If the work had not fallen into the hands of a builder who knew more of mechanics than the architect, it would never have been done at all. Longmire did it in his own way, but had no end of trouble from Scott’s ignorant clerks interfering with him’.
Scott’s sudden death a few months later and the chronic shortage of funds gave Grimthorpe the opportunity to use his wealth to take over the restoration himself and to dispense with the services of an architect completely. John initially took over all his father’s restoration work backed up by a diminishing Spring Gardens team led by the faithful Charles Baker King. But in 1880 he lost St Albans when he refused to carry out Grimthorpe’s design for the west front. Grimthorpe had just obtained a faculty to restore the cathedral at his own expense and commented that John ‘was very foolish to throw up such a job almost at the beginning of his career. I am sure his father would not have done so at any time’. Grimthorpe, of course, destroyed the large Perpendicular windows at the west end and at the ends of transepts, and left the Abbey with his efforts only too obvious today.