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Commissionersí Churches

Christ Church, Hilderstone, is a ďCommissioners ChurchĒ. In the early part of the nineteenth century Northern Europe was a hot bed of political revolution. This spirit of revolt did not spread to England to any great extent, and it may be that the building of churches such as Christ Church played a role in containing the mood of rebellion on the other side of the English Channel.

Following the battle of Waterloo there was real concern that social upheaval may disrupt Great Britain. The industrial revolution was well under way in England. Agriculture was being affected by change as well. To achieve economic success from recently discovered processes and newly invented machines depended on having a quiescent body of artisans and labourers prepared to move themselves and their families and alter their lives to enable maximum advantage to be taken of the new developments. After the success over Napoleon, there was a confidence abroad in England, but this was accompanied by a fear that the disease of political revolution still festering on the Continent may infect the populace.

One of the methods which was perceived as preventing the people from becoming involved in unrest was to strengthen the Church of England. This was at a time when the very forces the establishment was seeking to protect had resulted in a movement of populations away from the long established villages centred around the village church into new centres of population. The people who had moved were not necessarily without religion, but were often drawn to the nonconformist religions, at the time viewed with suspicion. Parliament set about trying to rectify the matter by ensuring that there was ample supply of Anglican churches in the freshly created towns and suburbs. Accordingly, by way of the Church Building Act 1818, £1,000,000 (a huge sum in those days) was made available for building new Church of England churches. The Act was seen at the time variously as providing a means of saving souls, a thanksgiving to God for protecting England from wicked French freethinking, and a method of halting the rising tide of Dissent.

Sir John Betjeman likened the motives of the promoters of the 1818 Act to those of Ebenezer Elliott (1781 1849), one of the poets of the industrial revolution, who wrote:

When wilt thou save the People?
O God of mercy, when?

The people, Lord, the people,
Not thrones and crowns, but men!

Flowers of thy heart, 0 God, are they;
Let them not pass, like weeds, away,
Their heritage a sunless day.
God save the people!

The churches built with the aid of funds made available under the Church Building Acts are known as Commissionersí churches.

The Lords Commissioner of the Treasury, who acted much as do the officials of the Treasury today, administered the monies used to assist the funding of Commissionersí churches. The churches built using their funds had it represent good value for money. They were to be built "with a view to accommodating the greatest number of persons at the smallest expense within the compass of an ordinary voice, one half of the number to be free seats for the poor".

The Commissionersí laid down specific stipulations as to design and personally approved the pans of all churches funded by them. Examples of requirements are "the windows ought not to resemble modern sashes; but whether Grecian or Gothic, should be in small panes and not costly" and "The pulpit should not intercept a view of the altar, but all seats should be placed so as to face the preacher". As you view Christ Church, Hilderstone you can see the application of these requirements.

Staffordshire was much affected by the social changes the root of the new legislation with the development of the pottery and textile industries in the middle and north of the county and the engineering industries in the Black Country in the south. It was in areas such as this that Commissionersí Churches were built.

Surprisingly only one church was built in Staffordshire funded from the first tranche of monies provided by Parliament. This was Christ Church, West Bromwich. Sadly that Christ Church, which was opposite the school attended by the author of this note and is well remembered by him, has been demolished in the second half of the twentieth century. Francis Goodwin designed the church, which cost £17,431. It was built in the Perpendicular style with windows in three light tracery of cast iron. Practically the Commissioners' paid for the whole of the cost.

A second allocation of money was made in 1825 (£500,000). Grants were made from this fund for between 10% and 80% of the cost of the church usually between 10% and 20%. It is from this fund that assistance came to build this church.

Thirty-eight churches were built in Staffordshire with funding from the Commissionersí. Of these 36 are built in the Gothic style; one is Norman (Holy Trinity, Lower Meyer Street, Hanley, by James Trubshaw the father of Thomas Trubshaw) and the remaining Commissionersí church is classical in style (St. Georgeís, Wolverhampton, by James Morgan).

Commissionerís churches (and others built at the same time) have characteristic features. They have lean proportions. A large rectangle with the altar at the end set in a short chancel. There is often a pulpit on one side of the chancel with a reading desk at a lower level on the other. The organ is in a West gallery. Beneath the West gallery is the font. Windows were long and pointed. Often they have lancets or pairs of lancets or windows in late Geometrical, Decorated or Perpendicular form with shallow buttresses between. Many of these features may been seen here at Christ Church.

The Victorians did not favour Commissionersí churches. They regarded them as cheap and unworthy. The design and structure of Commissionersí churches did not lie easily with developments in the Anglican liturgy and theology in Victorian England. Victorian architects despoiled the vast majority. Betjeman says (in the Collins Guide to Parish Churches of England and Wales, London 1980, p 61) that he is aware of only one Commissionersí church which has survived exactly as its architect designed it. He refers to Christ Church, Acton Square, Salford. There is at least one other. You, dear reader, are standing in it at this moment. Good fortune and a lack of funds have meant that Christ Church Hilderstone is very much as Thomas Trubshaw designed it: a splendid example of a Commissionersí church. Christ Church, Hilderstone, is the work of a local architect and builder taking the opportunity to erect a tranquil house of God.

The Commissioners laid down specific stipulations as to design and personally approved the pans of all churches funded by them. Examples of requirements are "the windows ought not to resemble modern sashes; but whether Grecian or Gothic, should be in small panes and not costly" and "The pulpit should not intercept a view of the altar, but all seats should be placed so as to face the preacher". The application of these requirements can be seen in Christ Church, Hilderstone. Commissionerís churches (and others built at the same time) have characteristic features. They have lean proportions. A large rectangle with the altar at the end set in a short chancel. There is often a pulpit on one side of the chancel, with a reading desk at a lower level on the other. The organ is in a West gallery. Beneath the West gallery is the font. Windows were long and pointed. Often they have lancet windows with shallow buttresses between. Each of these features may been seen in Christ Church.

The Victorians did not favour Commissioners churches. They regarded them as cheap and unworthy. The design and structure of Commissioners churches did not lie easily with developments in the Anglican liturgy and theology in Victorian England. Victorian architects despoiled the vast majority of them. Betjeman says (in the Collins Guide to Parish Churches of England and Wales, London 1980, p 61) that he is aware of only one Commissioners church which has survived exactly as its architect designed it. He refers to Christ Church, Acton Square, Salford. Christ Church, Hilderstone, is another. Good fortune, and a lack of funds, has meant that Christ Church Hilderstone is very much as Thomas Trubshaw designed it. There have been only minor changes to the furnishings. Although the building has been lit by electricity since 1947, the original candlesticks are in place at the pew ends!

In his "Buildings of England: Staffordshire", Sir Nikolaus Pevsner says

"Christ Church (1827-29) by Thomas Trubshaw. Commissionersí type, but with a North West steeple carrying a recessed spire. The church has lancets, with flattish buttresses between, and typically clumsy pinnacles. The interior has originality - ignorance breeding originality - with its octagonal piers, each side carrying fluting or a sunken panel, and its leaf capitals. Angel corbels for the roof inform us of the people connected with the new building (Ralph Bourne, the donor, the parson at the time, and the architect). Box Pews. Stained Glass. The east window with its glaring colours typical of its date: 1829 by Collins of London [CPPD]."