The Victorian church?! Have you not noticed it? No. Well, it's easy to see only the medieval church; a fine, traditional building, steeped with the prayer of many centuries. But within this building is something special. First, however, it must be said that we are lucky that this medieval church remains, for like most such churches it was in a woeful state of neglect and disrepair by the 19th century, and not in the least like the well cared-for church we have today. But for a lucky circumstance it could have suffered the fate of so many others like it and been totally demolished, and rebuilt in the pseudo gothic style that had become the "correct" church architecture of the Victorians. But how, and why, did ours survive, and where is this Victorian church?

The Rector of the time was James Lethbridge Templer, and his cousin was Edward S. Prior. It is this combination that gave us our "Victorian Church" within the medieval building we know so well. Because the church is so well maintained we still have today the legacy almost intact as it was given to us in 1897. It is one of the best examples of the period, and quite well known. The visual impact is chiefly in the western end of the church, but the fact that the remainder of the fabric looks much as it would have in olden times is also due to this man Edward Prior, for he was an architect and his policy of restoration was one of repair and preserve wherever possible - no demolition unless unavoidable. So this Victorian work of preservation also turns out to be a fine example of the "Arts and Crafts" period, which is what makes it so important.

But what, you may ask, was the Arts and Crafts Movement?

It was not just painting and hand weaving as the name might suggest, but something far deeper than that, which had its roots in the Industrial Revolution a hundred years earlier. Maybe if we can understand a little of the prevalent thinking of the architects and craftsmen at the time of the Arts and Crafts period it will be more easily appreciated. They believed that the division of labour which had resulted from the Industrial Revolution had devalued the work of the craftsman so that he had become no more than a cog in the wheel of production, and that design had lost individuality. Their aim, therefore, was to re-establish harmony between architect, designer and craftsman, and to bring handcraftsmanship to the production of well-designed, affordable, everyday objects.
They shared the ideal of individual design, drawing inspiration from the past, but not slavishly copying historical models. "Buildings were crafted of local materials and designed to fit into landscape and reflect the vernacular tradition". Furniture should be functional and aesthetically pleasing. It would be hand crafted, simple and 'honest' and often left unpainted, or just polished, to show the method of construction and the beauty of the wood. William Morris, who is still well remembered for his socialist ideals, was a manufacturer of not only furniture, but of textiles and wallpaper too, and was among the first to recognise that commercial co-operation would be necessary to guarantee accessibility to his products and so new links were forged between craft and industry. Of course it did not always work according to their ideals and to some manufacturers and retailers Art and Crafts became just another marketable style. To some of these theorists however, it was more than an endeavour to reunite design and craft, but a way of life.

W R. Lethaby, another major figure in the movement wrote "... the message will be of nature and man, of order and beauty, but all will be sweetness, simplicity, freedom, confidence and light". Some of these exponents even abandoned London and moved into the countryside to seek this 'sweetness and beauty'. Others, such as Eric Gill, wanted to establish a close, classless community, living and working together. Their ideals were high. From all this was born what we have come to know as the Arts and Crafts Movement. The movement was predominantly British, and remained middle class.

The following passage from -The Arts and Crafts Movement' by Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan, defines the thinking of the time particularly well.

"The Arts and Crafts Movement was founded by theorists, architects and designers in Victorian Britain. They sought to provide an alternative code to the harshness of late nineteenth century industrialism, to foster spiritual harmony through the work process and to change that very process and its products. Its leaders encouraged individualism, the creation of hand-made goods in place of machine uniformity, and reappraisal of design materials. The multi-talented figures of the movement were professionally active as architects, as designers, as craft workers, and often as all three. They were to produce a generation of architect-designers who would reform design, accept technical and aesthetic challenges and be aware of their national heritage. In Britain the designers of Arts and Crafts buildings and objects did not adopt any neatly identifiable style; indeed, the very word 'style' as applied to historicist revivalism, was anathema to them".

Into this period was born the architect Edward Schroder Prior.

He was born in 1852, in London, into a wealthy and strictly evangelical household. His father, John Venn Prior, had in 1838 at Bradpole church, married Hebe Templer, the daughter of James Templer, a Bridport solicitor. James Templer at that time owned three houses in Bridport, Mountfield, The Grove, and Downe Hall

When Edward Prior was only 3 years old his father, aged only 43, was killed by a fall from his horse in London, and Mrs Prior was left with eleven children. Unable to afford boarding school fees she moved to Harrow where the boys could attend Harrow School as day pupils. Edward excelled academically at both Harrow and Cambridge, where he studied at Caius College. He also became a fine sportsman and developed a keen interest in geology and natural history. On leaving university he became a pupil of the architect Norman Shaw and subsequently became, himself, architect to Cambridge University, Harrow School, and Winchester College. He built churches and houses in many parts of England. He was also a founder member of the Arts Workers' Guild, secretary of the Arts and Crafts (London) Exhibition, and a frequent lecturer. In 1912 he was elected Slade Professor of Fine-Art at Cambridge. So it can be seen that he had a fine mind and was very talented.

His History of Gothic Art in England became a standard work, and his other publications include The Cathedral Builders in England, The Medieval Figure Sculpture of England, and 8 chapters on English Medieval Art.

Where church architecture was concerned, he was not hidebound by his evangelical roots, and lack of tolerance for dissipation, and when called upon he followed the dictates of current high church fashion And built churches for High Church Romanists, e.g. St. Osmonds's, Parkstone, as well as for evangelical patrons.

The Priors had long had associations with the Templers of Bridport, who were prominent and numerous, and, as we have seen, were his mother's relations. When Prior set up his architectural practice in 1880 Bridport Harbour had become economically a spent force, and with the extension of the railway from Bridport it even lost its name in 1884;becoming West Bay. Now that the railway was there the next idea was to build villas and lodging houses and hotels for visitors. The West Bay (Building) Company was formed and Prior submitted extensive designs and plans/but there was always difficulty over the acquisition of land, which was owned by Pitt Rivers and the Earl of Ilchester. Although the major plan for the development of West Bay never materialised, Prior did eventually achieve three buildings there, Pier Terrace, The Moorings, and Querida, all of which stand today. In 1885 he married Isabella Maunsell, the daughter of the Vicar of Symondsbury, and at this time he was involved with building the new church at Bothenhampton. By the time his cousin. Lethbridge Templer, had succeeded his father in 1886 as Rector of Burton Bradstock urgent repair was required to the church there. He and his cousin had always been good friends, so what more natural than that they should work together on the restoration? And this is how it came about that we inherit such a fine Victorian work.

All the seating benches, which replaced the box pews, are hand made of oak by Mr. Haywood in Burton Bradstock. Perhaps they are not ideal for modem times, but probably they are more pleasing and versatile than the pitch pine pews, which often appeared. The dado panelling made from the old box pew material is similar to that which might have been used in a domestic situation at that time. The design is hand painted by Mrs 'Templer and ladies of the parish, and the words along the top run as follows: In the year of our Lord 1897, being the 60th year of the reign of Queen Victoria, and the thirteen hundredth year since Columba died, and since Augustine came to Canterbury, was the church repaired and the south aisle rebuilt. Sadly, the part in italics is now lost to us. But, the real importance is that most of the panelling remains, whilst in a domestic house it would have disappeared long ago with changing fashions of interior decor. The designs of the window glass are typical Arts and Crafts style, and much of the glass itself is Prior's Early English, a type of glass he developed himself to emulate that of the middle ages. It is thick and uneven, with tiny air bubbles trapped within it. It is a pity that the best pieces here are in the windows on the north side of the chancel where no sun shines, for the glass is especially attractive with the sunlight shining through it. This type of glass was also used in the south aisle, and in 1923 in the stained glass window by Christopher Whall The remainder of the glazing was done in Crown Glass.

Other typical Prior embellishments are the woodwork over the tower south door. In a place where it is scarcely noticed and could have been left quite unadorned, it is in fact an attractive and typical piece of Arts and Crafts design. Also, in restoring the stonework, one headstop represents the architect himself. A subtle way to ensure that we shall not forget this man who gave us The Victorian Church in Burton Bradstock

E. Jane Stubbs
Burton Bradstock

A text version is available in the Church

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