A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
Saint George’s Roman Catholic Church, Taunton
by Richard Barton (1997)
St. George’s Church in Taunton replaces an earlier chapel situated in The Crescent, Taunton, which was opened in the summer of 1822 and is now used as The Masonic Hall.
In 1858 Canon John Mitchell was given the present site at the top of Billet Street by the Franciscan Convent so that he might build a new and larger church. He employed the architect Benjamin Bucknall to draw up his plans with ‘a spire to rival that of Salisbury’. There is a beautiful framed engraving of the architect’s plan hanging in St. George’s Rectory. The cost of the Church, minus the tower and without altars, was a figure just below £4,000. The tower was added some years later at a cost of less than £1,000. The first stone of St. George’s Church was laid on 19th August 1858, by the Right Rev William Clifford, the Bishop of Clifton, and the building work commenced. The church was opened on 24th April 1860.
The attached Rectory was completed shortly after the church, while the school building, which is close-by, was opened in 1870, again, Bucknall seems to have been responsible for both of these projects. Work eventually continued on the tower, and we know from the local newspaper that further funds were collected in 1875. The original design included the spire which would have taken this landmark to a height of two hundred feet. That design will never be completed now – perhaps it is just as well as the added height and weight may well have created structural problems and would probably have caused its disappearance long ago. During 1876, one of the builders, George Toller, died, after falling around 100 feet from the scaffolding. Perhaps, it was because of this tragedy, that we find no record of a topping-out ceremony.
The erection of the altars and then the considerable amount of carving subsequently done in the nave and chancel, completed the church and son, on St. George’s Day, 1912, the church was solemnly consecrated. During the year 1969-1970 the exterior of the church was restored and the interior was unfortunately re-ordered to conform with the requirements and expectations of the reformed Liturgy. The new Parish Centre was opened in 1992.
ITS ARCHITECTURAL IMPORTANCE
St. George’s Catholic Church was designed by the ecclesiastical architect, Benjamin Bucknall (1833-1895), a disciple of Viollet-le-Duc, who learnt his profession from the Catholic architect, Charles Hansom, who designed a number of churches for the Clifton Diocese including Woodchester Priory Church and Convent Chapel, St. Gregory’s Cheltenham and St. John’s Bath. Bucknall’s own masterpiece, Woodchester Park, in Gloucestershire, has gained him prominence in recent years. He certainly demonstrated tremendous versatility designing a number of churches, convents, schools and his domestic portfolio includes a number of fine Cotswold stone buildings in the Stroud Valleys and a series of villas in Algiers. It has also come to light that during the early 1860’s Bucknall designed the presbytery and school at Fairford, the church there having been built by Canon Mitchell during his time as Missioner at Chipping Norton.
St. George’s Church uses an early fourteenth century style and is constructed from red sandstone rubble with Bath stone ashlar dressings. It consists of a clerestoried nave with aisles, chancel and side chapels which are dedicated to Our Lady and St. Joseph, respectively. The nave aisles have lean-to roofs and the effect of the ‘west’ end from Billet Street is reminiscent of A.W. N. Pugin’s Church of St. Marie, Derby. The open timber roofs are supported by wall shafts to nave and chancel and carved angels play musical instruments on the corbels of the nave roof. However, there is evidence of cheese-paring throughout the building.
The three stage tower, which looks down Billet Street, was perhaps influenced by the mediaeval tower at North Petherton or, if not, similar Somerset towers. It has set back buttresses and the ‘west’ front of it includes a large ‘west’ doorway with decorated spandrels and above it a five light window. Then follows the twin two light window having quatrefoils used as an open lattice at the bell stage and as openings creating a more solid pattern below. Finally, the battlements parapet is pierced with open arcading. The composition is completed by the profusion of pinnacles at the crown which comprises of clusters of five, grouped at each corner. Single intermediate pinnacles on shafts emerge from the bell stage at the centre of each side and flying pinnacles terminate the buttresses at each corner.
Above the Organ Gallery is the ringing chamber where eight ropes soar heavenwards toward the eight tubular bells which are held in a tall wooden frame above. Four large brick quoins are inserted beneath the parapet to carry the spire which was never built.
During the mid 1990’s £30,000 was raised to carry out urgent work on the tower. Here exposure to the elements had meant that remedial measures were required, especially to the pinnacles at the crown. The pinnacles consisted of large pieces of stone set on top of each other and secured with iron dowels at their centres. Due to rusting, the dowels expanded and caused cracks in the stone. This process called ‘jacking’ had the potential of producing spiralling deterioration by letting in more water, causing increased rusting and yet more cracking – with the resultant danger of split and loose areas of high level stonework. The philosophy of repair retained as much of the historic fabric as possible. Pinnacles were dismantled and stainless steel dowels were installed. Decayed stonework was conserved by using up to twenty coats of limewater and significantly missing areas were re-carved and smaller areas repaired using mortar repairs. The long crack in the west window was stitched using stainless steel pins.
St. George’s 120 feet high tower, of 1875/76, compliments the other towers and spires in the town. When looking at these churches we might believe that the magnificent 163 foot high tower of St. Mary Magdalene in Hammet Street would be the oldest in the town or, perhaps, St. James’s, just down the road, might be older. In fact, neither are, as St. Mary’s was re-built in 1862 and St. James’s a few years later, between 1870 and 1875. St. John’s, Park Street, in 1863, and St. Andrew’s Rowbarton, in 1879, are also some years younger than the elderly tower of Holy Trinity Church, which is, actually, the oldest tower in Taunton, having been constructed in 1842. Together these towers and spires offer Taunton a dignified skyline.
TOUR OF ST. GEORGE’S CHURCH
On entering St. George’s from Billet Street the first point of interest has to be the fine memorial cross on the right hand side of the tower porch, erected in memory of those who fell in the Great War of 1914-1918.
Turning right, we pass an aumbry or cupboard set in the wall which would have been designed to house the baptismal oils. A plaque situated on the wall, close to the ‘south’ door, records the death of Canon John Mitchell who was responsible for building St. George’s and was its Missionary Rector from 1853 until 1899. When he died many townspeople lined the streets along the route of his cortege.
On the outer walls of the interior are the twelve marble consecration crosses which were positioned in 1912 to mark the places where the walls were anointed with Chrism. Also hung around the outer walls are the very fine Stations of the Cross, carved in Sycamore wood by Tom Preator, a local artist, and erected in memory of Monsignor Richard Iles, Parish Priest from 1928 until 1967. Unusually there are fifteen stations, the fifteenth represenings the Mystery of Christ’s Resurrection.
The right hand chapel as one moves towards the High Altar is the Lady Chapel. The window above the reredos is dedicated to the memory of Alicia Bolton, who died in 1861, and it depicts Our Blessed Lady flanked by Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Francis of Assisi. The reredos includes a carved statue of Our Lady and Child and scenes depicting the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem and the Visitation of Mary to her cousin, Elizabeth. The women on either end are both holding jars of ointment and this would indicate that they are Joanna and Mary of Magdala. The altar, itself, is carved with the Madonna and Child surrounded by angels. To the right of the Lady Chapel is an arrangement of doors, the first two matching ones led to the former confessional, the third, larger one, to the Sacristy.
On the approach to the Sanctuary Arch is the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Canon Mitchell was educated at old Oscott College, now Maryvale Institute, where, in 1814, public devotion to the Sacred Heart was established in England, by Bishop Milner. To the left of the Sanctuary is the pulpit with its five statues namely, St Mary Magdalene, patroness of the mediaeval parish church, St George, patron of this church; Christ, the Good Shepherd; Pope St. Gregory the Great and St Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, holding her symbol the lamb on a book. The pulpit is reached by stairs through an archway and it is reminiscent of the pulpits by A.W.N. Pugin at Oscott College and at Alton in Staffordshire.
The great ‘east’ window, with its colourful stained glass, echoes the window in the south transept of the mediaeval church at Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire. This church was situated near to Bucknall’s childhood home and it clearly inspired St George’s sister church at Abergavenny and the beautiful, but unfinished, domestic chapel at Woodchester Park. The early fourteenth century transept in Minchinhampton has an enormous decorated window on the south side which has, incorporated within its tracery, a very large wheel-like rose and, on the east and west walls, there is a series of two light decorated windows divided by slender stone buttresses.
The stained glass ‘east’ window, here at Taunton, is in memory of Michael Reynolds LLD, who died on Christmas Day 1858, aged eighty-four years. It includes six figures, namely, from left to right, St. Dunstan, St. Joseph of Arimathea, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. George, St. Walburga and St. Boniface.
Directly beneath this window are the four evangelists, Matthew and Mark to the left and Luke and John to the right. The large and elaborate stone reredos includes six statues of angels flanked by St. Peter with his keys and St. Paul with his sword. To the left of the reredos is the aumbry which contains holy oils and relics. On the right hand side of the reredos is the piscina, a stone basin for carrying away the water used for rinsing the chalice and paten. Next to the piscina is an ‘Easter Sepulchre’. These tomb-like structures were common in mediaeval English churches and there is a fine nineteenth century example at A.W.N. Pugin’s Church of St. Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire. At the conclusion of the Good Friday Liturgy the cross of veneration or, in some cases the Blessed Sacrament, was laid to rest there until Easter Day when it would be taken from there in a triumphal procession as a sign of Christ’s resurrection. Here, at St. George’s, this feature may have been designed as an elaborate credence. The altar was originally attached to the reredos but it was stripped of its carved panels and moved forward during the re-ordering of the Sanctuary in about 1970.
The other side chapel, to the left of the Sanctuary, is dedicated to St. Joseph. The window above the altar depicts a scene from the holy home at Nazareth. The reredos, beneath, incorporates carved figures of St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist and two bishops, holding books. The altar, itself, shows a carved scene of the death of St. Joseph. This theme is taken up in a side window nearby, which is a memorial to Thomas and Ann White. The lower light of this window shows the angel speaking to Joseph and there is also the espousal of Joseph and Mary. The statue in this chapel is that of St. Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan saint who is revered as the Patron Saint of Portugal and, in popular piety, he is the finder of lost articles.
The next stained glass window was erected in 1928, in memory of Canon James O’Shaughnessy, who was Parish Priest from 1911 until 1927. This window illustrates the priest’s patrons, the Apostles, Philip and James. St. Philip is shown with his stones together with the symbol of the serpent being drawn away from the cross. The other stained glass window in the ‘north’ aisle is the War Memorial Window which was given in memory of the fourteen parishioners who gave their lives during the Second World War. This window includes St. John Fisher, Cardinal Bishop of Rochester, and St. Thomas More, Chancellor of England, both of whom suffered persecution and death during the reign of King Henry VIII. The Thomas More stained glass light includes his per monkeys and the John Fisher one the cardinal’s robes which he was never permitted to receive from Rome. In the north-west corner was situated the baptismal font which was sadly removed during the re-ordering of 1970. At the ‘west’ end is a fine gallery designed to house the choir and organ. Above is the large window with its modern stained glass presentation of Christ the Universal King.
THE ORGANS OF ST. GEORGE’S
In 1899 Canon Daniel Iles, uncle of Monsignor Richard Iles, became the Missionary Rector and, during his time, the gallery was extended and a new organ was provided. It was the gift of Mr. Montague Cooper, the organist. This organ, which was a fine three manual thirty rank instrument, built by Foster and Andrews of Hull, was purchased from Malvern College and duly installed at St. George’s. Because of water damage this magnificent instrument was scrapped and removed form the church during the 1970’s.
The next organ was originally in the chapel of St. Joseph’s Convent. It was built by T.C. Lewis and was two manual with twelve ranks of pipes. This instrument was removed from St. George’s Church during the 1980’s and it was subsequently rebuilt in the Parish Church of Newton Ferrers, near Plymouth. It has, apparently, a fine tonal quality.
The present organ is electronic and speaks out through four boxes which are suspended up in the roof area of the nave. It was built by the firm of Allen and its console is situated near to St. Joseph’s Chapel.
THE GROUNDS OF THE CHURCH
To the right of the Billet Street entrance to St. George’s Church is an arched gateway leading into the grounds of the Rectory. The plaque above gives the date of 1882. The garden wall, which runs beside it, is part of the old town wall.
St. George’s Rectory is attached the church, and is of a late medieval or Tudor style. It is a two-storey, building of white brick with ashlar dressings. There is a two-storey porch with diagonal buttresses and a large entrance arch. The roof is steep, with patterned slate tiles.
Within the garden of the Rectory is a richly carved gravestone in memory of William Joseph Hendren, the first Bishop of Clifton, who later became the Bishop of Nottingham. He died in 1866 and, being a Franciscan Friar, he was buried in the cemetery of the Franciscan Convent at Taunton. His remains were reinterred at St. George’s on 4th October 1997.
CANON MITCHELL’S PORTRAIT
In the Rectory at Taunton there a fine silver tea pot and jug. The former was given to Canon Mitchell, ‘as a token of esteem by his late congregation of Chipping Norton – 2nd February 1853.’ There is also a fine portrait of him in oils, hanging in the stairs, presented to mark the diamond jubilee of his priesthood, ‘which today remains a treasured possession of St George’s Rectory’ Canon Mitchell died on 22nd September 1899 in the 89th year of his age and the 63rd of his priesthood and he was buried at Taunton.
A local newspaper reported on his Diamond Jubilee gift of 1897:
‘On this occasion his congregation decided that a memorial in the form of a portrait in oils of himself should be presented to him in commemoration of the auspicious event. A committee was appointed to solicit subscriptions to realize the object, and the appeal met with a hearty response not only from members of the Roman Catholic Church, but also from many Protestants who admired the Canon’s hard-working and self-denying life. The subscribers numbered nearly 2oo, and included many old pupils of the venerable priest, Mr. W. H. Trood, the well-known Taunton artist, was commissioned to execute the portrait, and he accomplished the work in a most successful manner.’
St. George’s Rectory is also the home of a portrait in oils of Monsignor Richard Iles.
The author would like to thank those who helped to produce this short article which was written for the souvenir programme of the Flower Festival held in 1997. These include Bryan Teague, Alan Smith and Patrick Storer.