Thorpe End, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
A charming small church by the Lincolnshire builder and antiquary E. J. Willson which is associated with A.W.N. Pugin, whose influence can perhaps be seen in the high quality detailing of the exterior and in some of the fittings. The original character of the interior has been somewhat compromised by late twentieth-century alterations.
Melton Mowbray is mentioned as a market town in the Domesday Book of 1086, and a Tuesday market was established in 1324. The wool trade brought the town medieval wealth, but there was a decline in the seventeenth century. In the late eighteenth century the town became famous as a foxhunting centre, and many handsome Georgian houses and inns were built. Industrial development followed the completion of the Melton Mowbray Navigation Canal in 1795, and the production of Melton’s two most noted products, pork pies and Stilton cheese, was well established by the mid-nineteenth century. The railway arrived in 1846. It was in this context that the church of St John the Baptist was built.
Catholic worship in the area had been maintained during the penal years at Eastwell Hall, about six miles northeast of Melton, where the Eyre family kept a priest from 1630 to 1795. After the Second Catholic Relief Act in 1797 a public chapel and priest’s house were built in Stanleys Lane, Eastwell, using a legacy from Thomas Eyre. These buildings survive today, the chapel now forming part of the house.
Building work on the present church of St John the Baptist started in 1839 and the church was opened in 1842. Two men led the project. The first was a priest, the Rev. Thomas Tempest (1808-1861), who came from an old Yorkshire Catholic family whose seat was Broughton Hall, near Skipton. He was the fifth son of Stephen and Elizabeth Tempest and had been the builder of the church of St Mary at Grantham in 1831-3. The second prime mover was John Exton of Eastwell Hall, whose contribution was probably more financial than artistic. Both men are depicted in the east window in the church.
There is a longstanding tradition that the church was designed by A. W. N. Pugin. However, it is attributed by Colvin to E.J. Willson, the Lincolnshire architect and antiquary, while Pugin’s involvement seems to have been limited to some of the furnishings (notably the east window and possibly the rood screen, since removed).
Born in Lincoln, Edward James Willson (1787-1854) was a noted antiquary, architect and writer. After leaving school he joined his father’s building, cabinet-making and joinery business, and was working as a woodcarver in Lincoln Cathedral in 1805 when he met and befriended the antiquary John Britton. He went on to collaborate with Britton on the latter’s Architectural Antiquities (1807-10), Cathedral Antiquities (1814-35) and Picturesque Antiquities of English Cities (1830). He also collaborated with Augustus Pugin (father of A. W. N. Pugin) on his Specimens of Gothic Architecture (1821-3) and Examples of Gothic Architecture (1828-34). His architectural training most probably was under the Lincoln architect William Lumby, surveyor to Lincoln Cathedral (where Willson designed the organ case in 1826). As an architect, Willson worked on various church restorations and also became Lincolnshire County Surveyor in 1833. His first new Catholic church was St John’s, Nottingham (c1825-8, now demolished), built for his brother, the Revd. R. W. Willson, founder of the Nottingham mission and later Bishop of Hobart, Tasmania. This was followed by St Mary, Grantham (1832), a neoclassical design, St Mary at Louth (1833, gothic), and a gothic chapel at Hainton Hall, Lincs (1836) for the Heneage family. St John the Baptist at Melton Mowbray came last and is the most Puginian in character of all Willson’s churches – that is, in the gothic style of the time of Edward I (1272-1307), which Pugin settled upon as the time when ‘the architecture of the North maintained the high and palmy state of its perfection’. Pugin (a convert) and Willson (a cradle Catholic) had a longstanding friendship, and Willson was a key influence in Pugin’s decision to become a Catholic (in 1834, formally received in 1835). Pugin’s biographer Rosemary Hill writes that in 1833 ‘the only Catholic (Pugin) knew personally was Edward Willson, who was steeped in the same English antiquarian tradition and who had taught him to call the architecture of the Middle Ages “Catholic”. Pugin talked to Willson at great length and borrowed rare books from his library’. It may be no coincidence that Pugin’s first son (born in 1833) was christened Edward. Willson therefore can be said to have had a considerable influence on Pugin, and by extension on nineteenth century ecclesiastical architecture and design.
This influence was reciprocal; it was no doubt on account of Pugin’s influence that Willson’s later designs displayed a greater degree of ecclesiological rigour. Although his primary interests and enthusiasms were medieval, the church at Grantham had demonstrated that Willson, like many architects in the 1830s, had been happy to turn his hand to other architectural styles. Even his gothic churches were not, until Melton Mowbray, in the pure ‘middle pointed’ style that under Pugin’s influence (as well as that of the Cambridge Camden Society, an Anglican group established in 1839), became de rigueur in high Anglican and some Catholic circles.
Pugin had family and professional connections with the east midlands and built widely in the region. His mother, Catherine Welby, was from a Lincolnshire family, and he spent many childhood holidays in the county. Lincoln Cathedral was of course a formative architectural influence. As well as with Willson, Pugin had, or was to develop, personal or professional associations with both of the other dramatis personae in the building of the church of St John the Baptist. At the same time as the church in Melton Mowbray was under construction, Pugin was building a chapel for Fr Tempest’s widowed mother (Jesus Chapel at Ackworth Grange in Pontefract, now demolished) while in Nottingham, Pugin’s Mercy Convent (1845) was built at John Exton’s expense.
Pugin’s presence therefore looms large at Melton Mowbray, but is difficult to pin down his level of involvement precisely. There is no reference to the church in his correspondence with Willson, or anybody else. One explanation may lie in Pugin’s occasionally volatile relationships with clients, craftsmen and even friends, which frequently led to fallings out. Hill suggests that there was a certain cooling in Pugin’s relationship with Willson in the late 1830s, after Pugin was appointed architect for St Mary’s, Derby, a commission which Willson had also sought. Before his association with John Hardman, Pugin also had difficult relations with several stained glass artists, including Thomas Willement (1786-1871), who had previously worked successfully with Pugin and Lord Shrewsbury at Alton Towers. Willement recorded in his ledger book (in the National Art Library at Victoria & Albert Museum) for July 1841 the making of ‘an altar window for St John the Baptist chapel, Melton Mowbray, with figure of St John in centre under canopy and two kneeling figures in side openings with ornamental borders etc’, for the Revd Thomas Tempest, total cost £71.17s.3d., adding £1.2s.3d for ‘packing case, packing and booking’. The fact that Willement was expensive (said Pugin), and had packed the glass off to Melton, where it was installed back to front, suggests an all-round lack of cooperation and supervision.
The church was opened by Vicar Apostolic Dr Thomas Walsh in April 1842. In 1844 a presbytery and hall/school were built next to the church, facing Thorpe End.
In 1900 Franciscan nuns arrived in the parish, taking up residence in the presbytery. Several of their number are interred in the church’s small burial ground. F. Levett’s parish history (2016) records that in 1911-13, £125 was spent on repairs and improvements to the church, including a new heating system and the gift of a new Lady altar. There was a further internal restoration ten years later (reported in The Tablet, 30 June, 1923), and it may have been at this time that stencil decoration in the church was overpainted. In the 1950s the poppyheads of the bench ends were sawn off and the pews sanded and lightened, and iron railings at the front of the church removed. New Stations of the Cross were acquired by Fr Morris in the early 1950s. His successor Fr Newsham (1955-70) acquired a polychrome wooden statue of St John the Baptist from Oberammergau. In 1958 the organ was replaced (and had two successors before the introduction of the present organ in 2014).
The church escaped significant further change in the immediate post-Vatican II years, the parish’s energies being perhaps more focussed on the building of a new and larger church (St Peter’s), to serve as a chapel-of-ease. The only concession to the new liturgy seems to have been the relocation of the small Lady altar to the sanctuary to serve as a forward altar. The original rood screen remained in place. Soon after the building of St Peter’s, the council compulsorily acquired the land next to St John the Baptist on which the presbytery stood, for the purposes of a road scheme. This was never realised, but the presbytery was demolished and a replacement built at St Peter’s (but the old school/hall remained until 1995).
A major overhaul and renovation was undertaken by Fr Peter McDonagh in 1985. During the refurbishment several of the furnishings were placed in store, and some were subsequently seriously damaged in a fire and not reinstated – including the rood screen and figures. Also removed at this time was the font (it went to the museum over the road). The gallery at the west end was rebuilt, with a confessional and WC below. Sanctuary reordering included a new forward altar and reredos, and a boiler house and kitchen were provided off the sanctuary. A new heating system was installed, and in the nave the walls were lined with a layer of insulation, which had the curious effect of creating ‘frames’ for the original corbel heads supporting the roof. The most significant change to the interior of the church since 1985 has been the introduction of a new pipe organ in 2014. This is a mid-nineteenth century instrument said to be from a Methodist chapel in Wiltshire.
The building is orientated north-south, but in this report conventional liturgical orientation (i.e. with the altar at the east end) is assumed, unless stated otherwise.
St John’s is a small building, its plan consisting of a short unaisled nave and a lower, square-ended chancel. An original sacristy projects to the north of the sanctuary (with modern extension for a flower room), while a modern kitchen and boiler room give off the south side.
The building is faced in red brick with stone dressings (the brickwork laid in Flemish bond on the more prominent west and north elevations, and in garden wall bond on the south and east elevations). The west front is a striking and well-detailed composition. It faces directly onto the street and has a central pointed doorway with a three-light window with original boarded door with strapwork hinges. Above this is a three-light window with reticulated tracery flanked by empty niches with ogee heads and above that a traceried window in the shape of a spherical triangle incorporating quatrefoils. The gable is surmounted by a stone bellcote housing one bell, with a cross on top. The side elevations have three bays of two-light traceried windows separated by stepped buttresses. A moulded plinth and string course extend along the north elevation and around the west face of the sacristy, while the sacristy has a flat-topped three-light window with reticulated tracery. Again, this reflects the greater visibility of these elevations; such expensive detailing is omitted on the less prominent south and east elevations. The east wall of the chancel has a three-light east window, its tracery matching that at the west end. Polycarbonate sheeting has been placed over the window to protect the stained glass. The south elevation of the chancel is overlaid by more recent red brick additions, and the north elevation by the sacristy, with small modern addition.
The west door leads into a modern narthex area under the gallery, containing a store, WC and (giving onto the nave) confessional. A stair leads up to the organ/choir gallery. This ground floor entrance area contains no visible historic features. The walls of the nave have been lined at the sides with modern insulation, while the wall around the chancel arch retains its original plastered finish, lined out to resemble ashlar blocks. The current neutral paint colour may overlay rich painted stencil decoration. All the windows of the nave have clear glass with diamond leaded quarries. The floors are covered with cheap modern carpet. Above, the nave has an openwork timber roof with conspicuous cusping and with the principal trusses brought down onto wall posts resting on carved stone corbel heads depicting kings, queens, saints, a bishop and other figures, some of them possibly portraits.
The moulded stone chancel arch has attached shafts and a drip mould brought down onto carved head corbels. On either side of this are niches with drip moulds, that to the right for the Lady altar, that to the left with a statue of the Sacred Heart. The chancel roof is of two bays with hammerbeams and openwork trusses. These are supported by corbels carved with Eucharistic symbols (ears of wheat and bunches of grapes). There is further sculptural enrichment in the finely-detailed piscina in the south wall and carved heads of the label stops over the door to the sacristy (the label stops over the door to the kitchen and boiler room area are left as plain circles).
Original or historic furnishings which have been lost include the high altar, reredos, rood screen and pulpit (presumed destroyed) and the font (now with Leicestershire museums). Many of the historic pews survive, but their poppyhead ends were crudely cut down in the 1950s. Apart from the carved stone enrichment described above, the most notable surviving original furnishing is the east window. This is by Thomas Willement, almost certainly to designs by A.W.N. Pugin. It is of three lights, the centre one with St John the Baptist under a canopy, the side lights with kneeling figures of John Exton of Eastwell (left) and Fr Thomas Tempest (right). In the tracery quatrefoils above, a crucifixion and instruments of the Passion.
1840. Colvin suggests E J Willson architect whilst White’s Directory 1846 attributes church to Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Red brick with stone dressings. Tiled roof. Decorated style. Gable end to street with bellcote. Angle buttresses. Stone string course carried over centre door. Centre window flanked by blind, ogee arched niches. Inside rear gallery and delicate chancel screen. The Roman Catholic Church of St John forms a group with Nos 35 to 45 (odd) (the latter are buildings of local interest).
*Entry amended and expanded 2.1.2021, to include photographs and extracts from a report prepared by AHP for the Diocese of Nottingham in 2017*
Architect: E. J. Willson
Original Date: 1842
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II