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7. St Augustine’s Church:
its Architecture and Monuments

On first acquaintance, St Augustine’s church appears to have relatively few claims to architectural distinction. Certainly, the Victorian gazetteers had little to say about it: ‘An unpresuming edifice with a square tower’ is a typical comment. This, coupled with its somewhat isolated position in a not particularly picturesque or fashionable corner of the city, has tended to make it one of the least well known of Norwich’s medieval buildings. Yet there is much of interest here. Its curious red brick tower – unique among the city’s thirty-one surviving pre-Reformation churches – alone makes it worth a visit; while its setting at the heart of Norwich’s once-flourishing textile trade, close to an area known as the Gildencroft – the city’s ancient public sporting ground – makes it an important focus of local history.

One of the best views of the church is from the south-east. Leaving the bustle of Anglia Square, a concrete 1970s shopping precinct, walk along Botolph Street, once lined with shops and houses but now bordered on both sides by an ugly expanse of car park. From here, the church is outlined against the sky, its chancel, nave and tower receding in perspective, clustered about with mature trees in a fairly large churchyard a yard or so higher than the road level outside. To the south of the churchyard is a narrow lane with what is said to be the longest row of Tudor cottages in England. These were restored by Norwich City Council in 1956, although, sadly, three were demolished at the Pitt Street end in order to widen the road. At its western end is a terrace of sheltered housing for the elderly built in the 1950s and a small recreation ground – all that remains of the Gildencroft. At the end of this lane is Chatham Street, the Quaker burial ground, the Friends’ Meeting House and a cluster of former late 19th-century almshouses, Cooke’s Hospital, now known as Malzy Court.

In plan, the church is almost square: the north and south aisles running the length of the nave and chancel. The only protrusions being a south porch, west tower, and a rood turret on the north. The exterior walls, with the exception of the tower and rood turret, are composed of knapped flint and mortar intermixed with a little brick, and with stone quoins at some of the angles. While the bulk of the church probably dates from the early 15th century, there have been so many periods of dilapidation and restoration that it is now quite difficult to establish what is original and what replacement. The windows are a case in point. Extensive work on the windows was undertaken in the late 19th century, so much of their fabric is probably not medieval. Most are Perpendicular in style, although a few have Decorated tracery: almost certainly Victorian replacements in the then fashionable Gothic style.

The Nave

The nave has, as has been noted, Saxon proportions, being, without its aisles, short, narrow and tall. In the late 14th or early 15th centuries, broad aisles were added to the north and south, extending the whole length of the church. A four-light clerestory was presumably added at this period, the windows being Perpendicular in style with Y-tracery mullions. Inside it is clear that the north and south aisles’ two-bay arcades were built at different dates, as they are oddly asymmetrical. Note, for example, how the capitals of the south arcade differ in style and are a good foot (about 30 cm) lower than those of the north, where the arching is also more regular. The early 16th-century roof is one of the finest of this period in Norwich. Its timbers, stained almost black and decorated with red star-shaped bosses, are arched braced with painted heraldic figures on the corbels. The font is 15th-century with an octagonal basin supported on a polypodal stem. The finely carved head of a young man on the font cover looks Carolean in style. It seems to have no obvious religious meaning, unless it refers to the baptism of young souls, and was perhaps originally part of a secular piece of furniture.

The Chancel

The chancel is only a few feet shorter and narrower than the nave. A priest door provides access to the chancel’s south chapel, which according to the will of a local worsted weaver, John Dows (died 1499), was known as the Lady Chapel. Note the large, square piscina on the right as you enter. James Sillett’s drawing of 1828 clearly shows a chimney on the roof above here, indicating that a stove had been installed in what was perhaps then the vestry. The sanctuary is raised on a step and enclosed behind a plain Victorian communion rail. It has been suggested that part of the original Jacobean rail was recycled for use in the ringing gallery of the west tower. When John Kirkpatrick, the Norwich antiquarian, visited the church in the early 18th century, he peered into a vault beneath the altar in which four coffins belonging to the Decele family (a ‘Stranger’ family) were placed, one above another. The north chapel, once known as the St John Chapel, is now the vestry. A lovely Arts and Crafts-style copper plaque here commemorates the restoration and enlargement of the vestry in 1915. The organ, originally built for St Peter Hungate church in Norwich, was installed in 1906. The choir stalls and pulpit date from Phipson’s restorations of the 1880s. The chancel roof is steeply pitched and scissor-beam in construction and also dates from this period. In contrast, the north and south aisles’ lean-to timber roofs are probably 15th-century. The north aisle roof is particularly fine, with fretwork tracery in the spandrels and carved cresting along the rafters. A blocked door, now only visible on the inside of the vestry area, once provided access to the north churchyard here (the parsonage house once stood to the north of the churchyard). Outside, the broad, three-light eastern gable with its scattering of wall monuments is quite unlike any other in Norwich.

The West Tower

St Augustine’s tower is certainly its most distinguishing feature, being the only completely brick tower attached to a medieval church in Norwich, earning its parishioners the nickname ‘Red Steeplers’. It is made of a reddish-orange brick laid in three slightly diminishing stages separated by string-courses, with clasped brick buttresses on a flint base with stone pilasters, possibly the remains of the earlier, fallen tower. The first stage has a single, large, mullionless window on its west face. The second stage has decorative stone sound holes on the north, west and east faces, all possibly salvaged from the earlier tower, as were perhaps the gargoyle rain spouts round the top of the third stage, which has large, louvered windows on each face. A battlemented parapet and weather vane complete the tower.

The present tower replaced one that fell in 1677. The reason it collapsed is not known, though it had probably been in a poor state of repair for decades. The year of its collapse is known from just one contemporary source: a chronicle compiled by a certain Mr Nobbs, schoolmaster and clerk of St Gregory’s church, Norwich, who also recorded that in 1682 the tower had begun to be rebuilt. Evidently, the work took five years to complete. Kirkpatrick’s sketch of about 1713 clearly shows the date 1687 on the east face of the brick parapet. This disappeared from view for over 200 years until the 18th-century cement rendering was removed during conservation work in the 1990s. The faint, damaged figures of the date are today best viewed with a pair of binoculars. The present tower was originally surmounted by a small turret.

In the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666, a move away from the use of stone towards mainly brick construction began to gain momentum. Brick was becoming fashionable and was also cheaper than building in stone. The increased demand for brick led to a freeing up of the trade to non-guild artisans who could move more easily beyond the major urban centres to find contracts. The year of St Augustine’s tower’s completion was a watershed in the Norwich construction industry, the year when the percentage of bricklayers and tilers, known as ‘red masons’, compared to other building tradesmen began to rise steeply, and to be more frequently distinguished in contracts and official records from stone masons. Before about 1750, there were few permanent brickyards in Norfolk, and it seems likely that for such jobs as St Augustine’s tower bricks were supplied from temporary brickyards run by itinerant brickmakers. In such situations, the bricks were often fired locally in clamps rather than in kilns; the ‘green’ (unfired) bricks piled up in great heaps and baked by burning wood, peat or coal beneath them. The newly fashionable red colouring of the brick came from using clay with high iron oxide content. The fashionable redness was sometimes improved by adding refuse from the leather making and brewing industries, which were much in evidence locally during this period. The uneven temperatures obtained during this type of firing led to a variety of red–orange tones, as it can be seen in the tower’s pleasingly weathered and mottled terracotta appearance.

A clock seems has been attached to the eastern face of the tower at the time of its completion – a dial with the date 1687, the same date as on the parapet, can be seen in Kirkpatrick’s sketch. The original clock finally become derelict in 1877 and a new, electric-powered clock was installed in 1927. During conservation work in the 1990s the blue and gold clock face was restored; however, the clock is now just a dummy face as there is no clockwork behind it. The tower originally housed three bells (removed in 1996 and rehung in All Saints church, Carleton Rode, in south Norfolk). Two were the work of the Norwich bell-making family, Brend, while the other was made by Edward Tooke. All were cast before the earlier tower collapsed, so were presumably salvaged from the ruins. Note the bells stencilled on the curious stone tablet commemorating the sextons John Goose, father and son, placed high up inside the tower above the ringing floor. A board, once placed inside the tower and dated 1816, records the ‘knockes for the dead’ – the number of tolls of the bell due according to the rank of the deceased.

The South Porch

A south porch was presumably added sometime after the addition of the south aisle in the late 14th century or early 15th century. It has been reconstructed on a number of occasions. Kirkpatrick’s sketch dating from the early 18th century may show the original medieval structure, with angled, stepped buttresses and a wide entrance arch in the Perpendicular style. This porch was also taller than the present porch – the apex of its pitched roof abutting the south aisle wall just below the line of its lean-to roof. The extra height is probably accounted for by the existence of a parvis or small room above the porch, perhaps used as a schoolroom or parish library. A double window above the entrance in Kirkpatrick’s sketch seems to indicate the presence of a parvis, while a small squinched section, which can still be seen across the southwest angle of the interior walls of the south aisle may have been part of a now lost porch stair. The porch was rebuilt in 1726, when the parvis and the angled buttresses were lost. James Sillett’s drawing, done in about 1828, shows the porch much as it is today, although with a small niche above the entrance arch. The porch was again rebuilt in the 1890s, when the niche disappeared and a simple Norman-style arch over the entrance was replaced with a moulded arch in the Victorian Gothic style. In memory of a long-serving churchwarden, wooden gates were added across the entrance to the porch in 1947, possibly to discourage vagrants, a perennial problem – church records reveal that three centuries earlier a parishioner was fined for allowing his wife to sleep in the porch. The interior contains one memorial on its east side: an austere but nonetheless elegant slate tablet to the infant son of Edmund and Elizabeth Reeve, dated 1738. Further Reeve monuments are to be found within the church.

The Rood Turret

A rood turret is positioned on the exterior of the north side of the church at the junction of the nave and chancel aisles. The turret is three-sided and mainly constructed in brick, like the tower, though of lesser quality. There are two small lancet windows near the top: one facing north-west, the other north-east. Originally, the turret was only accessible from within the church, but that entrance was closed up, possibly in the restoration work undertaken by Phipson in the 1880s. A winding stair within the turret originally allowed access to a rood gallery, now lost. White’s Directory of Norfolk of 1864 noted that the rood screen’s ‘upper portion being open to the church forms a pew, or very small gallery’ from which one could look down upon the congregation in the nave. This lofty pew was presumably reserved for the local gentry or visiting Church dignitaries. A further example of the curious arrangement of the church before the Victorian Ecclesiologists took it in hand. No external evidence of this remains and the turret is now only accessible from an outside door, which provides access to the church’s now defunct Victorian heating system.

Tombs and Monuments

In June 1894, the churchyard was made into a public garden, when most of the tombstones were moved to its northern and western margins. Sadly, most of these are now either broken or illegible. Amid fears that the space would be ‘blasted by children’s boisterous playing’ (a perennial concern, it seems), the mayor at the opening ceremony spoke wistfully of:

The sacred calm that breaths around
Bids every fierce tumultuous passion cease,
In still, small accents whispering from the ground,
The grateful earnest of eternal peace.

For much of the 20th century the churchyard was noted for its display of flowers and shrubs, maintained by Norwich Corporation’s gardeners, but in recent years the cost of this could not be sustained and only a few shrubs remain. Only a few of the larger family tombs remain in situ, mainly on the south side of the churchyard, although one large Victorian pyramidal tomb above the vault of the Hinde family, prominent local textile manufacturers, has survived in the north-east (the entrance to Hinde’s Yard is just across St Augustines Street from the family tomb). There are a number of mural monuments on the porch and on the south and east exterior walls of the church. Most have succumbed to the weather and are now either blank or too faint to read. However, there is one good 18th-century monument on the east wall that is still legible: to the memory of eight Jolly children – seven of whom died in infancy and one at the age of 69.

The church contains a large number of tombs and monuments, dating from the 17th to the 20th century. Although John Kirkpatrick noted a number of memorial brasses when he visited the church in the early 18th century – the earliest, to John Dows, a local worsted weaver who died in 1499 – none now remain. A number of the wall monuments and ledger slabs on the floor bear witness to the impact of Stranger families on the parish. Their names – Castell, Decele, De Hague, Delatate, Deneaw and Tavernier – are those of the well-to-do descendants of 16th- and 17th-century religious refugees and economic migrants from the Low Countries, many of whom were skilled weavers. Elisha de Hague (1718?–1792), a lawyer, was Town Clerk and Speaker of the Common Council of Norwich for twenty years. His family’s tomb is located on the south side of the church near the priest’s door in the chancel. The parish’s involvement in manufacturing industries in the 19th century is represented by two notable wall monuments. One is in the nave, on the north side of the tower arch. This records the charitable bequest of Edward Manning to provide twelve poor children with apprenticeships in the manufacturing trades: ‘Desirous of imparting such useful instruction to the poor when young as may enable them respectably to maintain themselves in their riper years’. The other is in the south aisle and is in memory of a local silk shawl manufacturer, Thomas Clabburn (1788?–1858). His monument, the work of local sculptor John Stanley, has a remarkable inscription telling how it was erected by ‘upwards of six hundred of the weavers of Norwich and assistants in his establishment as a mark of esteem for his many virtues as an employer and a kind good man’. Note the loom shuttles in a cartouche above his memorial, the coat of arms of the Weaver’s Guild. The Clabburn family tomb is in the south-west portion of the churchyard, not far from the porch.

Undoubtedly, the most celebrated person commemorated in the church is the architect Matthew Brettingham (1699–1769). His white marble monument is located on the east wall of the north aisle in what is now the vestry. The second son of Lancelot Brettingham, a mason of the parish of St Giles, Norwich, he trained first under his father as an apprentice bricklayer and later under the noted architect William Kent; eventually becoming a master builder with commissions all over England, but especially in Norfolk. One of his earliest commissions was a house, now lost, built outside St Augustine’s Gate in 1725. This was possibly built for his own use, for he rented part of the Lathes farm near the church for use as a garden and orchard. He reputedly once set mantraps here after he was robbed of the stakes supporting his espaliers.  He seems to have been a troublesome tenant in other ways – he was frequently sued for unpaid rent. His son Matthew, who carried on the family business, said that despite achieving renown in his profession he made little money out of it because he was too honest. His most notable work in his native county was done at Blickling, Langley and Gunton, and, most famously, at Holkham Hall, the country seat of Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, which was first laid out in the 1720s in the then newly fashionable Palladian style. Its construction was finally brought to completion under Brettingham’s supervision in 1761, and was judged a magnificent success. Strangely, given his reputed honesty, although work on Holkham Hall had begun based on the designs of his former master, William Kent, Brettingham’s published Plans, Elevations, and Sections of Holkham, which appeared after Kent’s death, made no acknowledgement of Kent’s contribution.

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