Survey of London Monograph 2, Saint Mary, Stratford Bow. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1900.
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AN INTRODUCTORY CHAPTER BY C. R. ASHBEE.
It is good to think that the second of the Monographs issued by the Committee for the Survey of the Memorials of Greater London, is the record not only of an important building described, but of an important building saved from destruction. Three times during the present century has the Church of S. Mary Stratford atte Bowe been reported upon by experts as in imminent danger of falling, and its immediate removal advised. Fortunately the good people of Bow have been either too sensible, too poor, or too simple-minded to follow the advice of the experts and thus their old church has been, with one or two additions and alterations that are described in the following pages, left to them much in the condition in which it has stood during the last four centuries.
That this has been so is due primarily to the fact that the Committee decided to adopt the report of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (The S.P.A.B.) in preference to other more elaborate schemes of restoration. Whatever may be the future verdict on the fitness of the restoration one thing is certain, namely, that the adoption of the S.P.A.B. report saved the church; and by saving the church may be taken to mean quite literally, the body of the whole fabric with the exception of the tower. The key to the position was the rebuilding of the north wall and the chancel; and the alternative scheme was coupled and not unwisely with an enlargement for the needs of the parish, and this enlargement it was only possible to get on the north and the east. All the expert opinion, however, was agreed that if the north wall were removed the whole fabric would be endangered, and Sir Arthur Blomfield was quite right in insisting that under the circumstances the best plan was to pull the whole church down, with the exception of the tower, and build a new one.
With the question whether it would have been better to have had a larger church I am not here concerned, that is a parish question; but from the point of view of saving to greater London one of its most interesting and beautiful landmarks, there is no doubt that the adoption of Sir Arthur Blomfield's proposal would have been most unfortunate. The Committee chose and, as I believe the result shows, chose wisely. As this choice entailed a different method of carrying out the work than that commonly in use in church restoration, I may perhaps be permitted to say a word on the matter. A point of principle is involved in this, which is not unimportant, & which may be indicated, for the guidance of committees who desire to retain the historic features of the buildings under their care and are anxious of not incurring the charge of reckless restoration.
A committee is necessarily rather a timid organism, and when its architect comes to it and says: "Your church is in a very bad condition, but I cannot tell you what it will cost to put it right till I begin pulling it about. It may be £1000, it may be £5000; let me have £500 to begin with and I'll report further," this timidity is not strengthened. Yet this, to all intents and purposes, is what happened in the case of Bow Church, & there is no doubt that in nine cases out of ten where there has to be any extensive repairing, or if the objectionable word must be used—"restoration," it is in this form that the problem first presents itself. Unless an architect starts with the hypothesis that he is going to pull down a wall & rebuild it, with say 10 per cent. of the old stone, pull down a roof and re-roof it with 2 per cent. of the old timber, unless he deliberately draws up his specification for the builder's contract on the basis of new work, he cannot honestly give his committee a definite idea what genuine "restoration" work will cost, nor can the contractor he employs honestly fulfil the contract entered into.
I use the word "honestly" advisedly, because I hold that most restoration work is dishonest. Not that the walls when built are not well built nor the timber well chosen, but that the complete work purports to be what it is not. It is not the old building with the story of the centuries in it, it is a new building with a few of the old materials retained. It is difficult to blame any one in particular, committee, architect, contractor, or workman; they do not meet on a basis of mutual trust. It is a social and economic rather than a structural or æsthetic principle that is involved. In short, the modern building contract system is inapplicable to the work of genuine restoration.
As an illustration of what is implied, the external walling may be instanced. The illustration, No. 12, facing p. 20 will give some idea of what the wall surface, rotten & corroded by the foul gases of Stratford and Bromley was like: to take down & rebuild this would have been impossible, but to carefully and reverently go over it stone by stone, and joint by joint, was not, & this we did. Where the joints were defective they were made good, where the gaps were large they were filled with flint or tile, where the old stone was sound at heart but decayed on the surface, it was cut away and stopped with cement, just as a careful dentist, who is not concerned with pulling out his patients' teeth, cuts away decay & then does his stopping; only when absolutely necessary was new stone inserted.
It will be observed that work of this kind is better done on the scaffolding than in the office, indeed it is not an architect's work at all but a mason's as most good restoration always must be, and it cannnot be contracted for.
At Bow Church therefore, to meet the financial risks involved in working without a contract, the work was broken up into sections, the care of it intrusted to Messrs. Hills & Son under the supervision of a committee of architects (fn. 1) appointed by the S.P.A.B., by whom the Society's report was drawn up. No individual contractor was employed, but different firms or masters were engaged, e.g., Mr. H. C. Mitchell of Tamworth, to do the masons' work, the Guild of Handicraft, of Essex House, Bow, E., to do the carpentry and smiths' work. The payments were for the most part time payments on schedule basis, though in some instances special contracts were entered into. Payments were made monthly on the certificates of the local architects endorsed by the hon. sec. of the Committee, and the members of the S.P.A.B. Committee visited the work in turn.
For the fuller details as to the condition of the work and the manner in which it has been carried out, I cannot but refer to the chapters of Mr. Osborn Hills, who has shown in them the same conscientious care in getting together what there is known of the history of the church as he showed during the repair of the building.