Before his last visit to Germany in 1848, Sir George Gilbert Scott made an inspection of the tower of St. Mary’s Church, Aylesbury and gave a brief report of his findings to a restoration committee which had been formed earlier in the year. Buckinghamshire, at that time, probably contained the highest number of his works. These included four new work-houses, three parsonages, a new house at Chesham, an extension to Buckingham Gaol and his re-fitting of Iver Church was nearing completion. But he was not proud of most of these works and it may have been the knowledge that many in his audience knew these early buildings that increased his nervousness.
Scott was trying to build up a reputation as a careful restorer and used the lecture as a means of demonstrating the merits of his thoughtful approach to restoration. The Aylesbury Committee must have requested Scott to carry out a more detailed survey almost immediately after his lecture. He reported on 4 November 1848 but it was late spring 1849, before he was sent an official letter of appointment.
St. Mary’s is the largest medieval church in Buckinghamshire so it must given Scott considerable satisfaction to secure this work in his native county, even though it was another central tower job. It was largely built in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and stands in the centre of the town on a small limestone hill. Scott reported that ‘there is scarcely one wall or pillar of the orginal date, which has not gone out of the perpendicular’, the tower had been given additional buttresses and arches had been walled-up to stabilise the structure. It was in an appalling state but he could not understand why a building founded on rock should have failed so comprehensively, until he dug down to the foundations. There he discovered that instead of resting on a solid bed, it stood on ‘a mass of loose stone and earth, thrown in without order and without cement’. As with many other churches at the time, graves within the church also contributed to the problem. He advised that these should be removed and the surrounding areas filled with concrete. The great piers supporting the tower should be successively underpinned so that new foundations could be provided of hard stone and the piers themselves rebuilt in Darley Dale Stone from Derbyshire. He also suggested reconstructing the nave roof in oak, straightening the nave columns, repairing the tower staircase, the clerestory and the roofs of the aisles and the transepts.
Scott’s idea of what he calls ‘a good joke’ arose from his alarmist report. The vicar was annoyed that his communion services were being interrupted by the sound of the clock striking twelve so the sexton secured the clapper by a long wire to one of the pews below the tower. As he said:
When the hour of trail came, the clock made violent spasmodic efforts to strike twelve & at every abortive stroke lifted up a corner of the crazy old pew & let it down again, & the congregation, fresh from the alarm caused by my report, came to the instinctive conclusion that the tower was coming down & … rushed from the (supposed) falling church en masse.
In May 1849, tenders were invited for the work and Cooper of Derby, who was already building Holbeck Church at Leeds for Scott, was selected with a tender sum of £2,744. Eventually the committee managed to raise £2,000, and that was thought sufficient for a contract to be signed on 20 November 1849. Scott transferred Charles Hannum, the Clerk of Works at Ellesmere, who was obviously experienced in central tower problems, to supervise Aylesbury. The church was closed, with services being held elsewhere until May 1851, but it was not until 1854 that new seating and a new pulpit were provided made by W. W. Thompson of Aylesbury. The chancel was finally reopened in 1855, the repairs and restorations costing £8,000. Even then the exterior had hardly been touched.
Scott produced another report, dated 7 November 1864 and a new restoration committee was set up. By September 1865, £1,558 had been raised for the next stage of the restoration. In the following spring, work started on the west end with clearing the outside walls of plaster and renewing much of the stonework. Scott removed post-medieval windows and replaced them with new ones in the Perpendicular style in the north aisle and in the Decorated style in the north transept. At the end of the south transept, he removed a porch and replaced it with a fine Perpendicular-style doorway flanked on either side by niches containing statues of St. Peter and St. James which he donated himself. He rebuilt the top of the tower and straightened the little spire, but it was in the chancel that he made the greatest impact. Here he reconstructed the lancets in the side walls forming an internal pattern of windows and blank arcading, removed the big late Perpendicular east window and replaced it with a trio of lancets surmounted by a small round window. The old window was re-erected in a nearby garden, where it still exists, testifying that it was not the deterioration of the stonework which induced Scott to remove it, but rather his desire to give the chancel, with its lancets on the side walls a more unified appearance. Scott may not have liked the rather clumsy-looking old window, but its removal does seem to have been totally contrary to the manifesto that he so eloquently delivered to his Buckinghamshire audience some twenty years before.
In 1853, the Venerable Edward Bickersteth (1814-92) was appointed Vicar of Aylesbury. He was a young and ambitious cleric, at the time, who in 1872 became the Dean of Lichfield where Scott had been restoring the cathedral since 1856. Scott described him as ‘My valued friend & patron’ in 1872, and clearly Bickersteth was pleased with Scott’s somewhat drastic approach to Aylesbury. Presumably the other clergy in the Archdeaconry were also pleased with his efforts at Aylesbury, as even after the final completion of the chancel in November 1869, Scott received at least thirteen new commissions to restore medieval churches in Buckinghamshire, including his beloved Hillesden.
Brandwood, G., ‘’A Disgrace to the Town’: Aylesbury Church and its Restoration by George Gilbert Scott’, Bucks Records, XXXIV, 1992, pp. 5-6.
Scott’s Recollections, II 88-9, IV 65.