23 August 2023

The Bridge of Sighs
and the length of
canals link Venice and
Victorian Birmingham

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Birmingham … older than the bridges in Oxford and Barcelona, younger than the bridges in Cambridge and Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I have been told that there are more canals per kilometre or per mile in Birmingham than in Venice.

You might think that the comparisons end there when it comes to Venice and Birmingham. But I also found out last week that Birmingham has its own ‘Bridge of Sighs’ and that there are more works than I expected by the mosaic and glass artist Salviati of Venice and Murano.

Indeed, I wondered, could ‘Big Brum’ been inspired the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square, Venice? After all, the city’s other clock tower, the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, or ‘Old Joe’ at the University of Birmingham in Edgbaston, is modelled on the Torre del Mangia in Siena.

Big Brum is the local name for the clock tower on the Council House. It was built in 1885 as part of the first extension to the original Council House of 1879 and stands above the Museum Art Gallery.

The clock tower, the Museum and Art Gallery and the Council House form a single block and were designed by the architect Yeoville Thomason. When it opened, the clock-tower and the lofty entrance portico were considered the ‘most conspicuous features.’

The clock on ‘Old Brum’ was donated by Follett Osler, a local pioneer in measuring meteorological and chronological data, while the clock mechanism was supplied by Gillett & Co of Croydon.

Perhaps my mental searches for links with Venice were too fanciful. The nickname of ‘Big Brum’ is, after all, an allusion to ‘Big Ben’ and the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster, both ring out the Westminster Chimes.

But there is certainly Venetian inspiration in the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ the bridge that links the original Art Gallery facing Chamberlain Square and the Art Gallery Extension, built in 1911-1919 and containing the Feeney Art Galleries.

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice was given its name by the poet Lord Byron in the 1812 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The original Bridge of Sighs in Venice is an enclosed bridge built of white limestone, with two pairs of small, rectangular windows with stone bars. It is 11 metres wide and crosses the Rio di Palazzo, linking the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. It was built in 1600-1602, was designed by Antoni Contino, whose uncle Antonio da Ponte designed the equally famed Rialto Bridge.

Legend says convicted prisoners snatched their last sight of Venice from the Bridge of Sighs, sighing at the scene through the windows before being taken to cells, or sighing stifled claims to innocence. It was never known as the Bridge of Sighs to Venetians – or to anyone else – until the poet Lord Byron named it so in 1812 in his epic poem Childe Harold.

Since Byron’s poem was published, the Bridge of Sighs in Venice has inspired or given its name to similar bridges in Cambridge, Dublin, Birmingham, Oxford and Barcelona.

The oldest of these five is the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge. This covered bridge in Saint John’s College was built in 1831. It was designed by Henry Hutchinson and crosses the River Cam, linking the college’s Third Court and New Court.

Although it is named after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and both are covered, the two have little in common architecturally. Queen Victoria is said to have loved the bridge more than any other place in Cambridge, and the bridge is now a major tourist attraction.

The charming covered bridge linking Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the former Synod Hall was built in 1875 during the George Edmund Street’s restoration of the cathedral. At an early stage in his career, Street was influenced by Ruskin and The Stones of Venice.

This bridge has been compared with the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and the bridges in Cambridge and Oxford. Roger Stalley says it is Street’s ‘final touch of genius’ in the restoration of the cathedral.

These bridges in Venice, Cambridge, Dublin and Birmingham long pre-date Hertford Bridge in Oxford, which is also known popularly as the Bridge of Sighs. This bridge, linking two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane, is a distinctive landmark in Oxford. It is often called the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ although Hertford Bridge was never intended to be a replica of the bridge in Venice and has a closer resemblance to the Rialto Bridge.

The Hertford Bridge was built after the site on the north side was acquired by Hertford College in 1898 and was designed by Sir Thomas Jackson. The proposals for the bridge were strongly opposed, particularly by neighbouring New College, but despite those objections it was completed in 1913-1914.

It features in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and today it is one of the most photographed and visited sights in Oxford, partly because it is so close to the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre and the Radcliffe Camera.

The neo-gothic Pont dels Sospirs in Barcelona is modelled on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. It connects the eastern wall of the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of provincial government, and the western wall of Casa del Canonges, or the House of Canons of Barcelona Cathedral.

In the past, there were many similar bridges along Carrer del Bisbe but they have been destroyed. These bridges were built so that Barcelona’s civic and ecclesiastic elite could travel between official buildings without interacting with the citizens and so they could avoid any physical contact with the people below.

After other similar bridges had been destroyed in Barcelona, Pont dels Sospirs was rebuilt in the 20th century. The Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter was transformed from a sombre neighbourhood to a tourist attraction through during a major massive restoration project in advance of the 1929 International Exhibition, and the Pont dels Sospirs was built by Joan Rubió in 1928.

Below the bridge today, buskers and street musicians who add to the mystery and charm of this corner. The bridge is now a ‘must-see’ place in Barcelona, and many tourists go home believing it is part of the city’s architectural heritage from the Middle Ages.

So the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ in Birmingham may be younger than its counterparts in Cambridge and Dublin, but it predates the equivalent bridges in both Oxford and Barcelona.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the clock tower ‘Big Brum’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Council House on Victoria Square is one of the fine splendid works of architecture in Birmingham. The side facing Chamberlain Square is the entrance and façade of the Museum and Art Gallery. The site of the Council House and the Museum and Art Gallery was bought in 1853, and included a building where the last tenants were the Suffield family, ancestors of JRR Tolkien.

The building was designed by the Birmingham architect Yeoville Thomason, who also designed the extension for the art gallery and museum.

The main façade faces Victoria Square and the tympanum contains a mosaic by Antonio Salviati of Venice, who revived the mosaic and glass industry in Murano, and in postings last month I have described some of his other works in Tamworth and Birmingham.

However, the Victoria Square façade of the Council Houseis covered in cladding and fenced off at the moment, and I was unable to get close enough last week to photograph the tympanum and mosaic or the pediment the depicts Britannia receiving the manufacturers of Birmingham.

Instead, I had to content myself with exploring the urban myth that Birmingham has more canals than Venice. In fact, Birmingham does not have more canals than Venice, but it certainly has more miles of canals, and has 56 km (35 miles) of waterways, compared to 42 km (26 miles) in Venice – and it also has more trees than Paris.

Does Birmingham have more canals than Venice? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (87) 23 August 2023

The name of the former Friary Girls’ School, Lichfield, built over 100 years ago in 1921, recalled the former Franciscan Friary on the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began on Sunday with the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XI, 20 August 2023).

Before this day begins (23 August 2023), I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth. Throughout this week and last week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Lichfield;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Friary was founded around 1229, when the first Franciscans or Greyfriars arrived in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The former Franciscan Friary, Lichfield:

My photographs this morning (23 August 2023) are from the former Franciscan Friary in Lichfield. A short distance from Lichfield Cathedral, the Franciscan Friary once stood in a large estate on the west side of Lichfield.

The friary was founded around 1229, when a group of Franciscans or Greyfriars arrived in Lichfield. Henry III gave them oak trees from local forests for building and grants of money, and they were given houses and land by Alexander de Stavenby, Bishop of Lichfield (1228-1238). In 1241, the Sheriff of Lichfield was authorised ‘to clothe the Friars of Lichfield.’ In 1286, Edward I provided eight oak trees from Cannock Chase for further building.

When a large fire in Lichfield destroyed the Friary in 1291, the people responded generously and the friary was rebuilt.

The friars had generous benefactors in Lichfield. Henry Champanar granted them a free water supply from his springs at Aldershawe. The Crucifix Conduit was built at the gates of the Friary at the corner of Bore Street and Bird Street in 1301, and remained there until the 20th century. When John Comberford died in 1414, he left 10 shillings for masses to the Franciscan mendicant friary in Lichfield.

The friars lived a simple life of poverty, chastity and obedience and spent most of their time preaching and caring for the poor and sick of Lichfield. But with the wealth accrued from generous benefactors, the simple timber structures were replaced by large sandstone buildings on a site covering 12 acres. The large church had a nave measuring 110 ft x 60 ft, and a chancel 95 ft x 28 ft; the cloister was 80 ft square. The buildings also included a dormitory lodge, a refectory and domestic dwellings.

At the Dissolution of the monastic houses, 301 years after the Franciscans had arrived in Lichfield, the Friary was dissolved in 1538. The majority of the buildings, including the church, cloisters, refectory and domestic buildings were demolished, and most of the site was cleared. The only buildings to survive were the dormitory on the west range and a house known as ‘Bishop’s Lodging’ in the south-west corner.

The estate and remaining buildings were sold for £68 in 1544 to Gregory Stonyng, the Master of Saint Mary’s Guild, which provided the effective civic government of Lichfield. He remodelled the buildings for his own domestic use.

The 11 acres of the Friary estate that remained were bought in 1921 by Sir Richard Ashmole Cooper, MP for Walsall. Cooper gave the Friary to the city to develop housing and to lay out new roads and suburbs.

When the new Friary Girls’ School was built in 1921, the Bishop’s Lodging was incorporated into the south-west of the building. A new road named ‘The Friary’ was built across the former site in 1928. In building the road, a clock tower was relocated, and much of the west range of the remaining friary buildings was demolished.

The site of the former friary church was threatened with development in 1933. But an archaeological dig showed the extent and layout of the ruins, and the site eventually became a Scheduled Ancient Monument, preventing any further development.

A classical style portico from Sir Richard Cooper’s home at Shenstone Court was set up in 1937 to frame the entrance to the excavated ruins. The site is now a public garden and the slabs showing the layout of the walls of the cloister can be seen on the ground as well as parts of the north wall of the nave.

Across the street, the Bishop’s Lodging was the only part of the original Friary that survived.

The Friary School moved to the north side of Lichfield in 1975, close to the Hedgehog Vintage Inn where I am staying, and the building became Lichfield Library.

The Library moved again in recent years to Saint Mary’s Church, and the Friary School building and the Bishop’s Lodging were converted into modern apartments, although not without controversy. But the memory of the Friary is still present in Lichfield today in names that include The Friary, Friary School, Friary Tennis Club, Friary Gardens and Monks Walk.

Part of the surviving walls of the former Franciscan Friary in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 20: 1–16 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

A gate leading into the former friary gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Modern-Day Slavery Reflection – The Clewer Initiative.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

For more resources: www.theclewerinitiative.org

The USPG Prayer Diary today (23 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Today we remember all who have suffered and continue to feel the pain borne from slavery. May we repent and learn from the past and build a future free from slavery and oppression.

The Collect:

O God, you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of all mercy,
we your faithful people have celebrated that one true sacrifice
which takes away our sins and brings pardon and peace:
by our communion
keep us firm on the foundation of the gospel
and preserve us from all sin;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The ‘Bishop’s Lodging’ was one of the few friary buildings to survive the Dissolution (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The memory of the Friary is still present in street names in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)