Buntingford - St Richard of Chichester

Station Road, Buntingford, Hertfordshire SG9

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A Gothic Revival flint and stone church built in 1914-15 from designs by Arthur Young, and financed in part by the colourful Catholic writer and polemicist Mgr R. H. Benson, of nearby Hare Street House. Benson died in 1914, and the church became his memorial. The tower was added later. The church, presbytery and Benson Hall are of historical interest, and occupy a prominent position within the local conservation area.

In 1906 Mgr Robert Hugh Benson acquired Hare Street House in Hare Street, near Buntingford. Mgr Benson (1871-1914, figure 1) was the son of E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883-96, and was an Anglican monk before his conversion to Roman Catholicism, a cause célèbre in 1903. A man of cultivation and exotic tastes, like his brothers Frederick (author of the Mapp and Lucia novels) and Arthur, Benson was a writer, specialising in ghost stories and novels with a Catholic millennial flavour. As well as adorning the house at Hare Street and building a chapel in the old brewhouse, he put in train, and financed, the building of a new Catholic church in Buntingford. This was built in Perpendicular Gothic style from designs by Arthur Young, who three years previously had designed the new church at Old Hall Green (qv). The builders were Jacklin & Co. of Royston, and the foundation stone was laid on 16 May 1914. Benson died in October 1914, apparently from exhaustion, shortly before his forty-third birthday. He was buried in the orchard at Hare Street, over which spot a memorial chapel dedicated to St Hugh was opened in 1917, designed by Fr Benedict Williamson (according to the Fr Anthony Symondson article cited above) and serving as a chapel of ease to Buntingford. Hare Street House was bequeathed by Benson to the Archdiocese of Westminster as a country retreat for the archbishop.

The Buntingford church, dedicated to St Richard of Chichester, became the Benson Memorial Church. It was opened on 21 January 1915, at which time it consisted of the nave, sanctuary, sacristy and presbytery. The Lady Chapel was added in 1916, financed by an anonymous American lady donor, the porch in 1934 and the tower in 1939 (this, and probably the porch, were designed by Allan D. Reid, Young’s partner – see drawings at figure 2). In the tower Fr Messenger, the parish priest, is said to have incorporated fragments acquired from St John Lateran, the Collosseum, the Roman Catacombs, Athens, the Holy Land and St Albans Abbey. The church was consecrated by the Right Rev. Edward Myers, Bishop of Lamus, on 5 June 1940.

 

The list entry (below) describes the architecture of the building, but says little about the furnishings. The following information can be added:

  • The limestone dressings are of St Aldhelm Box Ground stone (from Somerset).
  • The tower of 1939 is forty five feet high, with a copper spire of thirty five feet
  • The waggon roofs of the interior are entirely of oak.
  • The floor of the sanctuary is finished with marble mosaics, while the Gothic altar and reredos are of Bath stone with yellow Siena marble. Placed upon top of the reredos is a small polished brass statue of Christ with arms outstretched. The mensa has been brought forward in post-Vatican II reordering.
  • The Lady Chapel has a Bath stone Gothic altar and reredos, and is furnished with curios presumably collected by Mgr Benson – including a painted wooden reliquary and a framed oil painting of St Casimir, patron saint of Lithuania.
  • Stained glass in the east window depicts Christ in Majesty flanked by St George and St Richard of Chichester, by Hardman Studios, 1949.
  • Stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel depict the Annunciation (in memory of Edward, Herbert and Norbert Game), the Nativity (to Michael Aherne), both unsigned but evidently by the same hand, and the Presentation in the Temple (to the parents of Canon Joseph Collings, 1946 and probably by Hardman Studios).
  • Fixed to the north wall of the nave is a stone statue of a bishop saint (St Richard?), in memory of Arthur Morgan (d.1930).
  • The nave seating consists of modern benches (an early photograph in the diocesan archives shows individual chairs).    

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: Arthur Young; Allan D. Reid

Original Date: 1914

Conservation Area: Yes

Modifications: 1939

Listed Grade: Grade II