Southwell Minster II

By William Morris

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings has had under consideration your architect's observations in reply to the letter addressed you in April last.

The Society is glad to find that the building is in charge of an architect so careful and conservative as Mr. Christian, though it disagrees with the opinions expressed in his letter. Bearing in mind the objects of the Society, this letter is neither satisfactory nor reassuring. Believing that your architect concurs in its estimation of the responsibility which attaches to the custodians of a national record such as Southwell Minster, and of their obligation to preserve it from change, the Society brings the following further remarks to the notice of your Board.

As regards the fittings of the choir the Society still remains of opinion that, poor though they were, they fulfilled the requirements of the service of the church by providing seats for clergy, singers, and people. If stalls and benches of oak, and tile floors, be requisites of cathedral service, the Society must acknowledge these were lacking.

As to the removal of the galleries, the Society thinks it was unnecessary. It is true that the galleries which existed in the choir aisles hid some of the architecture, but in a church like Southwell, which was never intended to be seen from base to apex in the naked way modern restorers seem to think becoming, they concealed nothing that is not sufficiently expressed elsewhere. The galleries, screens, tombs, and such like obstructions, impart a fitted look to a big building - they help to give a homely and inhabited appearance to the edifice, and it is their removal and destruction that has made so many of our large churches so cheerless.

The loss of the side screens is a more serious one, and the Society again expresses its regret at their removal. Yourarchitect admits they were well modelled, he does not allege they were in bad repair, but says they were only removed after most careful consideration, and after Mr Street's opinion had been taken by the Bishop, and that they were put together in a most flimsy manner. The Society urges that this is no justification for their demolition. It understands Mr. Street also advised the removal of the fourteenth century screen, and it regrets that the same influence was not used to save the side screens that prevailed against Mr. Street's opinion in the other case.

As regards the roof of the nave, the Society does not dispute that the marks on the central tower, and the moulded arched openings below, of which it was aware when its letter was written, indicate the former existence of a high pitched roof, but the timbers of this were in all probability concealed internally by boarding. It does dispute the existence of an open roof, meaning thereby a roof the timbers of which were visible from the nave of the church.

No adequate reason is given in your architect's letter for the necessity for new roofs. He disagrees with the Society as to the value of the flat ceilings, which he considers dwarf the church; says that the roofs were made of the cheapest and rudest form consistent with strength, and that his view and that of most persons interested in the church is that the substitution of open roofs would be an enormous improvement to the interior. Here is no justification for the removal of the present roofs and flat ceilings, the latter of which, in the Society's view (the Society numbering many persons also interested in the church), have an excellent effect, are broad and simple in design, and, though in later style, agree with the architecture of the church. The Society hopes your Board will give further consideration to this matter, and not needlesslyremove the existing roofs for the sake of what is a very problematic improvement.

The Society's opinion that the restoration of the medieval roofs must be entirely conjectural is not disputed by your architect, who, by means of the indication of the level of the collar beams, the lines showing the old pitch on the central tower, and examples of ancient framing, proposes to substitute open roofs for the existing ones, thus destroying a ceiling 167 years old, which is probably unique, to add one more to the many imitations of ancient roofs which have of late years been so freely produced.

Your architect cannot understand why the Society should advocate the retention both of the flat ceilings and of the "lantern" at the western end, which he says it is no part of his design to remove. It does so because it wishes to save both the "lantern" and the flat ceilings. No doubt the roof was raised over the western bay for the reason your architect states. The builders took advantage of the peculiar conditions to do something striking and characteristic. A roof of higher pitch than the present one would cover over the "lantern" and enclose the great west window, thus doing away with the necessity that originated the "lantern" which without the flat ceiling would be both useless and meaningless.

May the Society suggest that if the present roof timbers and their covering be unsound, or if the pitch of the roof be insufficient for slates (though you architect in his reply does not say so) they might be repaired or renewed, or the exterior covered with lead, without the demolition of the flat ceilings. More urgent reasons than are given for the removal of the old roofs and ceilings are necessary to satisfy the Society that it is not possible to preserve them.

The Society thanks your Board for giving it the opportunity of explaining its views at greater length.

The Architect, 30 August 1878.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology