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5. Victorian Restoration and
Ecclesiastical Controversy

By the 1870s, the interior of St Augustine’s church no longer conformed to the liturgical taste of day. It had, in the words of a later commentator, become ‘one of the most curious-arranged places of worship to be met with in a day’s march’. One of the most pressing issues that required attention was the internal orientation. In 1874, the vestry had been moved, possibly from the south chancel, and temporarily housed under the tower in the west end of the church. Unfortunately, this only compounded the muddle. A three-decker pulpit and reading desk had been set up at the western end of the nave in the 18th century, so that the majority of the congregation had to sit or stand with their backs to the altar at the eastern end of the chancel for much of divine service. The sanctuary itself had become, ‘quite buried up among a wilderness of horse-box pews’, so that even those craning their necks around would have had difficulty seeing the altar, even if there had been enough light, the sole illumination in winter and in on summer evenings being provided by one or two candles in a brass candelabra hanging in the nave. It was said that the surroundings were so conducive to somnolence that a former aged rector (probably the Revd Matthew John Rackham) ate sweets during his own sermons in order to keep himself awake. In the words of the newly appointed rector, the Revd Elder, in his appeal for the Church Restoration Fund in 1878, ‘The effect [was] depressing both to the Minister and to the worshippers – uninviting and unappealing in the extreme’. The church, in short, had become a perfect example of what adherents of the Ecclesiology movement referred to, somewhat derisively, as an ‘auditory church’, that is, one in which sermons had become more important than sacraments.

Outside matters were, if anything, even more unsatisfactory.
Drab-coloured, flaking cement rendering covered the church’s exterior walls, while the south wall of the churchyard – facing
St Augustine’s Street and housing the parish pump – had partly fallen into the public highway, so that the churchyard was, in the words of one town councillor, ‘exposed to the inroads of boys
and donkeys’.

As a consequence, the churchyard had become notorious, recalling the situation almost 200 years earlier when the city’s marshals had been ordered to apprehend ‘boys and young fellows’ playing in the Gildencroft and St Augustine’s churchyard ‘on the Lord’s day in service and sermon time’. Matters reached a head in November 1874 when churchwardens William Delph and William Thomas Gilbert were summonsed to appear before Norwich Consistory Court, charged with the arcane offence of ‘throwing a portion of the churchyard into the public road’. The case and its subsequent ramifications became a national scandal worthy of the pen of Anthony Trollope. The Archdeacon’s counsel argued that the churchwardens’ alleged act not only constituted desecration but was also theft, as it deprived the Church of a portion of its land. The defendants argued that they were simply carrying out the orders of the city’s highways authority who needed to widen St Augustines Street at a point were the churchyard wall had fallen into the road and become a danger to traffic. While it was true that the churchwardens had not formally applied for permission, their counsel argued that such matters were outside the scope of faculty, in any case, and had to be sanctioned by an Act of Parliament, a costly and lengthy procedure. Rather than order that the wall be restored, the court ordered that the churchyard’s ancient boundary be indicated with marker stones, which was plainly impracticable as it was now partly beneath the newly tarmacadamed public highway. A year later, when it was clear the court’s order was not going to be implemented, the churchwardens were declared ‘contumacious’ and warrants for their arrest were issued. Oddly, only William Thomas Gilbert was actually imprisoned. It later transpired that while William Delph was a staunch Churchman, Gilbert was regarded as a Radical and a Dissenter, which almost certainly weighed against him with the Anglican authorities. The case was debated at a meeting of the Norwich Town Council on 21 December 1875, the Liberals eventually winning a motion condemning the imprisonment of Gilbert and calling for his immediate release after most of the Tories had walked out of the chamber, refusing to vote on a matter that criticised the established Church. William Gilbert was finally released from Norwich prison on Christmas Eve 1875.

Matters did not significantly improve until the appointment of the Revd William Alexander Elder – a rector with the energy and zeal to carry through the necessary reforms; he had been a missionary preacher in Africa. A memorial to him is inscribed above the priest’s door in the south chapel aisle and his photograph hangs in the vestry. After a successful appeal for funds work was begun in 1879 by the Diocesan Surveyor of Ecclesiastical Dilapidations, Richard Malikwaine Phipson. Phipson (died 1885) was a keen student of Gothic Revival – his library contained numerous volumes by such advocates of the Gothic as Paley and Pugin – though not slavish follower of its precepts. Other examples of his work can be seen at Frettenham, Horstead and the chancel of St Giles in Norwich. In conformity with the tenets of Ecclesiology the ‘horsebox’ box pews and three-decker pulpit were swept away. It is a pity that no photograph or drawing exists of them before they were removed. A large area of the floor was covered in encaustic tiles and pitch pine pews were installed on wooden pallets in the nave and chancel. A new pulpit was built under the chancel arch, with choir stalls placed behind it in the body of the chancel. The vestry was moved again, to the north chancel aisle and a new ringing floor was constructed under the west tower arch. The tracery and mouldings of almost all the windows were renewed, new stained glass depicting Christ teaching was placed in the east window (the gift of R. Foulsham Ladell) and a new, three-bay, oak-panelled reredos (the gift of F. M. Hotblack) was placed behind the altar. The sanctuary itself was enclosed behind a plain wooden communion rail. Above the chancel a new, scissor-beam roof was built. Outside, the cement rendering was removed from the walls, the buttresses and the south porch were rebuilt and new drains dug. Work was finally completed in 1892, after Phipson’s death.

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Above: Earliest known photograph of
St Augustine's church, Norwich, probably taken shortly after the churchyard boundary controversy

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