09 April 2022
Saint George’s, Wolverton,
claims to be the world’s
first railway church
Wolverton is one of the four towns incorporated into Milton Keynes – along with Stony Stratford, Bletchley and Fenny Stratford – in 1967. But Wolverton developed long before the planning of Milton Keynes with the development of the railway.
Wolverton was established in 1838 as the site of the locomotive repair shop at the midpoint of the world’s first trunk railway, the London and Birmingham Railway, then being built. The London and Birmingham became part of the London and North Western Railway in 1846.
Earlier this week, I visited the Church of Saint George the Martyr in Wolverton, said to be the world’s first railway church, built by the railway company.
Saint George’s was built in 1843 as the District Church of Saint George the Martyr, Wolverton Station. The church was built to provide a place of worship for the inhabitants of the new company town and was paid for by the railway company, with the help of the Radcliffe Trust.
So, Saint George’s can claim to be the world’s first railway town church – beating Saint Mark’s, Swindon, into second place.
The new church was designed by the Irish-born architect Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880), who worked mainly in the Gothic style.
The Wyatt family, originating in Weeford near Lichfield, were a significant architectural dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Thomas Wyatt, who had a prolific and distinguished career as an architect, was born in Loughglin House, Co Roscommon. He was President of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1870-1873, and his works in Ireland include 1865 Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Abbeyleix (1865), and Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (1867).
He enlarged and altered Saint Mary’s, the Church of Ireland parish church in Gowran, Co Kilkenny. He reported on the completion of the restoration of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. He also worked on several country houses in Ireland, including Abbeyleix, Co Laois, for Lord de Vesci, Ramsfort, Co Wexford, for the Ram family, Lissadell, Co Sligo, for the Gore-Booth family, and Palmerstown House, Co Kildare for the de Burgh family.
Saint George’s Church in Wolverton was built in local Cosgrove limestone, with dressings of red sandstone from Hollington, Staffordshire. It originally consisted of a nave and small chancel, with lancet windows in the Early English style.
The landmark feature of the church is the tower at the north-east corner of the nave, housing one bell and a porch. This is the only church tower with a spire in Milton Keynes.
When the Revd FW Harnett was rector, plans were drawn up to enlarge the church to meet the demands of a growing congregation and a much larger town. His son, the Revd WL Harnett, put forward designs by J Oldrid Scott to increase the church capacity in 1895.
The work involved mainly the addition of north and south aisles to the nave in the form of a pair of transepts or double transepts as they were called in the plans, a large clergy vestry on the north side of the chancel, and an organ chamber on the south side. Blue Forest of Dean stone, soft blue-grey in colour, was used for the piers of the new nave arcades, and the work was completed by Easter 1896.
The final enlargement of the church was undertaken in 1902, when the east wall of the chancel was taken down to enlarge it by 12 ft, and the original three-light east window was replaced by a five-light window with new stained glass.
The original, more brightly coloured and better designed stained glass, of medallions of the Life of Christ in 13th century style, was mostly re-used in the side windows of the chancel. There are fine stained glass figures by Henry Holiday depicting Faith Hope and Charity, and Christ, in the double transept windows.
The congregation of Saint George’s has an open, dynamic and innovative outlook towards liturgy and worship, although rooted in the central Anglican tradition. The music ranges from old and modern hymns to worship songs played by the worship band, Church Street Band.
The two churches in Wolverton, Saint George’s and Holy Trinity Church, form one benefice with the Revd Gill Barrow-Jones as the Rector.
This parish on the northern edge of Milton Keynes includes Wolverton, a town made up primarily of Victorian houses, from large detached houses to terraced rows.
New building in the area has seen the development of Wolverton Park and a new railway station offers commuters easy links to London and Birmingham.