19 September 2019
Restoration work and new
library breathe life back into
Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield
Earlier this morning [19 September 2019], I wrote about the Hedgehog Vintage Inn in Lichfield, which was once known as Lyncroft House and had been the home of many interesting people in Victorian Lichfield, including the composer Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) and the Revd Henry Gylby Lonsdale (1791-1851), who lived there when he became Vicar of Saint Mary’s in Lichfield in 1830 – at the time there was no vicarage for Saint Mary’s.
Saint Mary’s Church is a city centre church on the south side of the Market Square. A church is said to have been on this site since at least 1150. The present building dates from 1870 and is a Grade II* listed building. In recent months it has found new life as a library and arts centre, and so it was a pleasure to visit the church yesterday [18 September 2019].
Plaques on the outside north wall of the church recall various martyrs who were executed in Lichfield at the Reformation, including Thomas Heyward, John Goreway and Joyce Lewis, who were burnt at the stake in the Market Square during the reign of Queen Mary, and Edward Wightman, who died in the Market Square on 11 April 1612 and was the last person in England to be burned at the stake for heresy.
These executions may have inspired the founding Quaker, George Fox, when he stood barefoot in the Market Square in 1651 and denounced the city: ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield.’
Standing opposite the church, the Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum was the childhood home of Samuel Johnson, and the church register, dating from 1566, records his baptism 310 years ago on 17 September 1709.
The present Saint Mary’s is the fourth church built on this site in the Market Square. The first church on the site may have been built when Lichfield was laid out by Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Lichfield, ca 1150, although it is first mentioned in the 13th century.
A fire destroyed most of Lichfield, including its churches, in 1291, and Saint Mary’s was rebuilt in the 14th century. This mediaeval church consisted of an aisled chancel, an aisled nave, a west tower and a spire. The tower is believed to have been built in 1356.
Saint Mary’s acquired a special prominence in the city at this time as the guild church of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, founded in 1387 by the amalgamation of two existing guilds. The guild chaplains were expected to help with the daily services in the church and to be present at the Mass of Saint Mary and the anthem Salve Regina each day. The guild continued to run the affairs of the city until 1538.
From the 17th century, the north side of the church was the burial place of Anthony Dyott, who died in 1662, and later members of the Dyott family, who lived at Freeford Manor, south of Lichfield, and the chapel on the north side of the church became the Dyott Chapel.
The mediaeval tower and spire of the church had structural failings over the years, and the spire fell down in 1594 and 1626. Extensive repairs were carried out in the 17th century but when the spire fell yet again in 1716 it was decided to rebuild the church. This church was designed by the architect Francis Smith of Warwick in the neoclassical style and stood from 1721 to 1868.
The new church building was funded by public subscription, the Conduit Lands Trust and the Lichfield Corporation, and the church was completed in 1721. These years of construction were probably overseen by Samuel Johnson who would have experienced his early childhood in the house facing onto the church.
The church was built in brick while the mediaeval tower was retained, without its spire, and encased in stucco. The new church consisted of a chancel, an aisled nave with north, south and west galleries and a west tower.
Extensive repairs were carried out in 1806 and 1820 under the prominent Lichfield architect Joseph Potter the Elder, and the brick exterior was covered in stucco in 1820.
By the mid-19th century, there was a general feeling in Lichfield that a new church should be built in the Victorian Gothic style. A new church would also serve as a memorial to the former Vicar, the Revd Henry Lonsdale, brother of Bishop John Lonsdale, who died in 1851.
The tower was lowered in 1853 and remodelled in the Victorian Gothic style, complete with steeple under a design by George Edmund Street. Street also submitted a design for the main body of the church, but, due to the lack of funds, work on rebuilding the main church did not begin until 1868, when the body of the church was demolished.
The building in Derbyshire sandstone was completed in a Victorian Gothic style after two years work in 1870. The architect was James Fowler of Louth, Lincolnshire, who was born in Lichfield, but it is not known whether he used any of Street’s original designs. The completed church included a chancel, the Dyott chapel on the north side, an aisled nave of four bays, and the remodelled tower and spire.
Anthony Dyott, who died in 1662, and later members of his family were buried in Saint Mary’s Church. By the early 19th century, it was a tradition that these burials took place at night. The last burial of a family member at Saint Mary’s was that of Richard Dyott in 1891, after which the Dyotts were buried at Whittington.
However, there is no evidence that Saint Mary's ever had a churchyard, and while there were some burials inside the church, parishioners were buried in the churchyards of Saint Michael’s and Saint Chad’s, which explains why Samuel Johnson’s family are buried at Saint Michael’s.
The Lonsdale family, who met much of the cost of the new building. The Vicar of Saint Mary’s, the Revd Henry Lonsdale, came from a clerical family that had Anglican clergy in at least four successive generations.
While he was living at Lyncroft House, Henry Lonsdale proposed rebuilding Saint Mary’s in a Victorian Gothic style. The new church would serve as his memorial, and when he died at Lyncroft House on 31 January 1851 he was buried beneath the west tower of Saint Mary’s.
While Henry Lonsdale was the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, his brother, John Lonsdale (1788-1867), was Bishop of Lichfield (1843-1867). Bishop Lonsdale was the founder of Lichfield Theological College, a supporter of the abolitionist Wilberforce and a friend of the radical theologian FD Maurice. It was said at the time of his death that he was the best bishop the Diocese of Lichfield had ever had, the ‘perfect model of justice, kindness, humility and shrewd sense.’
The bishop’s son, Canon John Gylby Lonsdale (1818-1907), later became Vicar of Saint Mary’s (1866-1878), and oversaw the completion of the building programme. He was the father of Sophia Lonsdale, one of Lichfield’s great Victorian social reformers. In the 1880s, she declared that Lichfield’s slums were worse than anything she had seen in London. She was an active in demands for poor law reforms and her outspoken criticism eventually led to a slum clearance programme in Lichfield from the 1890s on.
Charles Bateman incorporated some colour decorations to the interior of the church in the early 20th century.
The city centre population in Lichfield declined from the 1930s as people moved out to the suburbs and shops and businesses moved into the city centre. This led to a decline in the congregation at Saint Mary’s and a large city centre church with a capacity for 900 people was no longer viable.
When a vacancy occurred in 1965, a priest-in-charge was appointed instead of a vicar because the future of the church had become uncertain. In 1979, the benefice was united with Saint Michael’s. The dean and chapter were the patrons, and the rector of Saint Michael’s, who was already priest-in-charge of Saint Mary’s, was appointed the first rector of the new benefice, with Saint Michael’s as the parish church and Saint Mary’s as a chapel-of-ease.
Meanwhile, a committee was formed in the 1970s to save the building from being abandoned and demolished. The proposal was to transform the space into a multi-functional building that would serve the wider community. Work started on transforming the church in 1978, with plans designed by Hinton Brown Langstone of Warwick, and a new centre opened on 30 May 1981.
The remodelled church had five sections: a social centre for senior citizens; a café; a tourist information office and gift shop; the Lichfield Museum and heritage exhibition; and the Dyott Chapel at the north end, which continued to be used as the parish church of Saint Mary.
Over the past two years, Saint Mary’s has undergone an amazing transformation, with the City Library on the ground floor, while the first floor includes exhibition and performance space, as well as an access point for digitised archive collections.
The new library includes Wi-Fi, touchscreen tables, computer tablets and 3D printing facilities. On the first floor is a flexible open space, integrating a 140-seat area for performance, art exhibitions and workshops. The first-floor facilities include a multi-use, cultural space with photographic archive and gallery area plus access to digital local records. The new History Access Point gives people interested in local and family history access to archives.
The refurbishment has retained the High Altar and reredos and has incorporated many of the church’s original features, including 19th century columns, stained-glass windows, choir stalls, pews, the organ and monuments, including one to Bishop Lonsdale, another to Canon Richard Harrison (1638-1675), a former Vicar of Saint Mary’s who was also Chancellor of Lichfield, Prebendary of Alrewas, and Rector of Blithfield, and the Dyott family memorials in the Dyott Chapel.
One end of the first floor has a stunning balcony overlooking the level below. A flexible performance and exhibition space fills the central space.
This new Saint Mary’s was the winner of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Conservations Award this year (2019).
Richard Winterton, the family firm of auctioneers that has been part of life in Lichfield for seven generations, has launched weekly valuations from 9.30 to 12.30 on Mondays, giving free valuations, advice and help.
The former parishes of Saint Mary’s and Saint Michael on Greenhill have been joined to form a single parish with Saint John’s Church, Wall, and together they form a united benefice.