- Littlemore Church
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It is no easy task to consider which might be counted among the most important or influential buildings of the Victorian age. There are, of course, many contenders. For instance, who could look past such landmark monuments as the Crystal Palace (1851), by Joseph Paxton, centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851; the Oxford Natural History Museum (1855–60), by Thomas Deane and Benjamin Woodward, with its magnificent Gothic-inspired, iron-framed interior court; or the spectacular St. Pancras train station and hotel, by William Barlow and G.G. Scott, lovingly restored in recent years as the new London terminus of Eurostar? Why stop at architecture per se? The Victorian era is perhaps best remembered for its great feats of engineering, particularly in the domain of bridge design. Even in our day of supposed technological supremacy, people continue to marvel at structures such as the Forth Railway Bridge near Edinburgh, the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, or Tower Bridge in London.
In considering ecclesiastical architecture, the task is no less daunting. Much church building, both in Britain and in the wider British world, took place during Queen Victoria’s reign. As the historian K. Theodore Hoppen has observed, never was Britain more religious than in the Victorian age (427). Victoria’s reign also marked the period during which the theory and practice of church design evolved into what is now referred to as the “high” [End Page 18] Victorian phase of the Gothic Revival, which involved celebrated architects and critics such as G.G. Scott, William Butterfield, G.E. Street, William Burges, and John Ruskin. With many people living in towns and cities that contain one or more Victorian churches, it is no coincidence that when they think of the Gothic Revival, they tend to think of the Victorian age. Impressive examples of Victorian churches spring to mind, such as All Saints, Margaret Street, London (1849–54), by Butterfield; St. James the Less, Westminster (1859–61), by Street; St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, Ireland (1865–78), by Burgess; and Christchurch Cathedral, New Zealand (1862–1904), by Scott.
Nevertheless, there are some buildings that, if not particularly well known, had a quiet influence on the world of Victorian church design in ways that went far beyond their intended purpose or ambition. One such is the small, unpretending church of St. Mary the Virgin (now St. Mary and St. Nicholas) at Littlemore, near Oxford. Completed in 1836, just prior to Victoria’s ascension to the throne, it soon captured the changing mood of religious sentiment and worship in the Church of England through the early decades of her reign. Initially nothing more than a single-celled stone structure measuring twenty-five by sixty feet, St. Mary’s incorporated many of the formal and liturgical features that were espoused so energetically by the influential Cambridge Camden (later Ecclesiological) Society, while embodying the spirit of the Oxford Movement and Anglican renewal more generally. Although its architect (Henry Underwood) was little known, St. Mary’s had additional claims to fame in that it was the initiative of one of Victorian Britain’s most-celebrated, if controversial, divines, John Henry Newman (1801–90), and for a time was under the curacy of the noted Oxford historian John Rouse Bloxam (1807–91).1
In many respects, St. Mary’s was the model small church of its day. Although it had faults, claimed the Ecclesiologist, it was nonetheless “the first unqualified step to better things that England had long witnessed …, not so much a sermon-house, as a temple of the most high” (Ecclesiologist 33). The church was clearly the work of “priestly architects,” it added, those who were not only “religious” but also committed to the principles of the emerging “science” of ecclesiology. As Peter Howell has since noted, the church was considered exemplary because it combined economy with strength; that is, it was unpretentious, set upon deep foundations, and built using...