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English Church Architecture -

Bradford (U. A.).


CLAYTON, St. John the Baptist (SE 118 320)     (September 2016)

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Westphalian Series, Elland Flags from the Lower Coal Measures)


“This church”, declared the Bradford Observer in its long report of the ceremony for the laying of the foundation stone at St. John the Baptist’s, Clayton, on Tuesday, 29th May 1849:

 “is remarkable for what the Vicar, in his address, calls ‘decent simplicity’.  It is a village church, devoid of ornamental decorations, but of proportions which at once give it a character which cannot be mistaken.  Considering the pecuniary means at the disposal of the architects, for the supply of the required amount of accommodation, it speaks no little for their judgment and taste in the design of a building which contains all the elements of architectural propriety, combined with the most rigid attention to economy.”


This was hardly a case of journalistic exaggeration.  A very substantial church (shown from the northwest above and from the southeast below), containing five hundred and ninety-two free seats and one hundred and ten rented pews, was shortly to be erected here for a total of £1,903, equivalent to £2.14s.3d per sitting.  (See Port, M.H:  Six Hundred New Churches: the Church Building Commission, 1818-56, 2nd edition, Spire Books Ltd., 2006.)  It was a figure to contrast with the estimates the Crown Architects had produced when asked by the Treasury in 1818 what it would cost to construct new churches in the burgeoning manufacturing towns of England with church accommodation for sometimes as little as one tenth of the population.  Robert Smirke (1781-1867) thought a church to accommodate nineteen hundred persons could be built for £24,000, equivalent to £12.12s.8d a sitting, John Soane (1753-1837) considered two thousand could be seated comfortably for £33,000, or £16.10s.0d a sitting, but John Nash (1752-1835) was more optimistic and produced a variety of designs in both Gothic and Classical styles, all to seat two thousand and estimated to cost between eight and ten thousand pounds each, or between four and five pounds a sitting.  However, in coming up with these figures, Nash “scarcely played fair" (Port) for he added a further £1,920 for pews, pulpit and reading desk as if they were optional extras, his cheapest design was “hardly more than two-dimensional”, and all of them were notable for “that papery thinness familiar in a number of late eighteenth century Gothic churches”.  Thus, even allowing for various the cost-cutting methods introduced since 1818, Mallinson and Healey’s achievement was still quite extraordinary.  Here was a building to form the dominant local landmark, then and a hundred and seventy years later, designed by a well-respected firm which - in W.A. Pike's memorable phrase (in an obituary for Sir Arthur Blomfield in The Builders' Journal for 8th November, 1899) - “excelled in the charitable but unremunerative art of keeping down the cost”.



St. John the Baptist's, Clayton, completed in 1850, is one of the more than six hundred "Commissioners Churches", so-called such for having been part-funded by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners after the Government allocated one million pounds in 1818 and a further half a million in 1824, towards the provision of "additional churches in populous places"  (Church Building Act, 58 George III).  Since the whole purpose of the grants was to kick-start the erection of as many new churches as possible within the available budget, it was natural that preference would often be shown towards parishes able to contribute a significant amount themselves, and unsurprising that many of them would be characterised by flimsy construction, a complete lack or ornament and, in the worst cases, the rapid onset of structural problems, but better architects produced happier results than lesser men, of course, as illustrated by the Scott and Moffat partnership's very successful Holy Trinity, Halstead (Essex), built in the same year as the present church.  Holy Trinity, however, cost £4,690.15s.0d altogether, and had two less seats than St. John the Baptist's (the equivalent to £6.13s.5d per sitting). Here at Clayton, Thomas Healey (for there can be little doubt that it was chiefly he) designed a very solid, even handsome structure, comprising a W. tower, aisled nave, and chancel with shorter N. and S. chapels, for an absolutely paltry sum, and although its elaborate interior today is the result of the extensive adornments in coloured marbles undertaken by the pre-Raphaelite artist, Gaetano Meo, in 1913, at the expense of the local mill owner, Harrison Benn, yet even when the mind's eye has stripped all these away, we are left with a worthy and very "proper" church in the strict Victorian sense, that would have amply fulfilled contemporary expectations:  the chancel is well developed, allowing for a suitably reverend separation of the altar from the congregation; the well-proportioned tower rising in three stages to battlements, announces any passing Nonconformist (then in the majority in much of the West Riding) that "This is none other than the House of God";  the fenestration throughout is simple but subtly and attractively varied, composed of linked pairs of trefoil-cusped lancets in the aisles, trilobes in arched splays in the nave clerestory, and geometrical tracery in the chancel E. wall and tower W. wall; and the very sturdy interior (shown below) features chunky five-bay nave arcades formed of octagonal piers with large octagonal capitals supporting double-flat-chamfered arches, a strong collar-braced nave roof with 'V"-struts above the collars, and a chancel roof framed in seven cants with scissor-bracing.  It is all a massive advance on Mallinson's Holy Trinity, Queensbury, of 1843, just two miles up the hill to the west, and If this was the partners' new statement of intent, they could hardly have bettered it.  To produce so much for so little while simultaneously undertaking so much else, seems little short of Herculean.  Little wonder, perhaps, neither partner was destined for a long life.

 "...it is not in our power", opined The Bradford Observer, "to do justice to the eloquent and fervent and truly Christian address of our esteemed Vicar [immediately after the laying of the foundation stone], which was listened to with an attention well worthy of the subject and occasion;  and will be remembered for many days to come.  After the address, the Benediction was pronounced, and the assembly dispersed, the scholars to be regaled with buns, &c.; and a large party of the most influential members of the church in Clayton and the neighbourhood, to the School-room, where a beautiful cold collation was provided, by Mrs. Wade, of the New Inn, Bradford, presided over by John Hirst, Esq., after which the appropriate toasts were given and speeches made."