(« back to home page)

English Church Architecture -



NEEDHAM MARKET, St. John the Baptist (TM 087 553)   (July 2008)

(Bedrock:  Upper Cretaceous, Upper Chalk)




Until 1901, this church (shown above, from the southeast) - consisting of a nave and chancel in Perpendicular style, built in five bays without structural division except for a rood stair in the wall to the north and a step up into the chancel - was a chapel-of-ease to St. Mary’s, Barking, a mile to the southwest.  The S. porch with its ill-fitting Lilliputian bell-turret, is an addition of 1880, the work of “some ignorant and insensible architect” (Pevsner), who appears to have been Edward Charles Hakewill, architect of St. Mary’s, Wivenhoe (Essex), and brother of John Henry Hakewill, whose work often made a similarly poor visual impact but who, according to the anonymous church guide, had previously submitted plans for a proper W. tower and spire here, that were subsequently abandoned.   However, although this is not a commendable building externally, it is of real importance inside due to its remarkable nave roof.  The church is aligned to the southeast, rather than the east, apparently as a result of what in the late fifteenth century, was already a restricted site, but in the notes that follow, it will be convenient to describe it in the usual way.


To begin with the outside then, the church is set out in five bays, with doorways in the second bay from the west (the N. doorway being blocked), and three-light four-centred windows in the others, with restored supermullioned tracery, strong mullions, and castellated supertransoms above the central lights.  (The five-light E. window appears to be new.)  The chancel is supported by diagonal buttresses at the northeast and southeast angles, of which the former (shown right) is pierced by a narrow opening, suggesting there was once an adjoining wall or building here that would otherwise have prevented passage around the church.  The half-timbered nave clerestory with two-light square-headed windows will be considered with the roof below, but its unsatisfactory external appearance (apparent in the photograph above), which is almost reminiscent of the upper storey of a row of nineteenth century weaver’s cottages, is certainly a blemish on the design, notwithstanding its appearance inside.   The S. porch, mentioned above, projects only shallowly and is topped by the offending, shingled bell-turret, which houses not only the bell but also a clock below.  The large W. vestry of 1909 has little more to commend it, though it doubtless serves its purpose.  The room above was only added in 1991.


Inside the building, the nave roof  is constructed in six bays and the chancel, in four, with two bays to each of the five masonry bays below.  The chancel roof has been wholly renewed but the spectacular nave roof (shown left, looking east, and below right, looking west) is mostly original (apart, inevitably, from the carved angels) and of single hammerbeam construction of exceedingly unusual type, for the hammerposts are some three times the expected height at approximately 17 feet or 5.2 m., and rise to support, first cambered tie beams at the halfway stage, and then the principal rafters of the low-pitched roof above, between which there rises the clerestory, creating “the impression of a whole church in mid air” (Pevsner).  The roof is coved beneath the hammerbeams on each side (i.e. across the spandrels of the arched braces) with carved wooden panelling, then rises vertically to the level of the longitudinal cross-strutting, about a third of the way up, and is then canted out again, this time to meet the hammerposts at a height a little above the tie beams, from where the clerestory ascends.  (Note: the cross-section of the roof illustrated in the church guide is misleading because the wall posts and arched braces beneath the hammerbeams are actually set back behind and not in front of the ashlar pieces, such that the roof appears canted out at two levels and not just below the hammerbeams, as implied by the diagram.  However, the arrangement seems so wholly without precedent that any description is apt to confuse and can probably only be satisfactorily understood in conjunction with a photograph.)  The tie beams and longitudinal struts are castellated above and supported by arched braces with carved spandrels, and there are carved pendants hanging beneath the hammerbeams.  In short, then, this is such an exceptional piece of carpentry viewed internally that it can only be a matter of regret that the carpenters were unable to make it look better outside.  As it is, considered overall the roof must be judged a failure, but it is a failure on an heroic scale which remains, nonetheless, an outstanding example of the mediaeval carpenter’s art