08 February 2023
Saint James: a Victorian
church in Northampton that
recalls a mediaeval abbey
One of the churches I visited during my walking tour of Northampton last week is the Parish Church of Saint James on Saint James’s Road, about 1.5 km west-north-west of the town centre. The Saint James area is known locally as ‘Jimmy’s End’, and the Parish of Saint James has a diverse population, from many ethnic backgrounds and traditions.
Saint James’s Church may be the finest late 19th century polychrome churches in England. It shows all the qualities of a muscular Christian church built for the town’s increasing artisan population in the last quarter of 19th century.
The area is named after Saint James’s Abbey or Northampton Abbey, which was founded by William Peverel in 1104-1105. This Augustinian monastery was located in the Abbot’s Way area, off the south side of Weedon Road in the town.
Excavations were carried out on the site to determine the location and remains of any parts of the abbey. The abbey and a cemetery were located. The main buildings were preserved beneath the new housing development. The cemetery was excavated during winter 2000-2001. The bones were analysed to determine the health and burial practices in the late mediaeval population of Northampton.
In all, 294 burials were uncovered in well-ordered rows, with many wooden coffins, graves lined with old ceramic roof-tiles, stone-lined graves and a single stone coffin suggesting the occupants of relatively high status.
The later use of the cemetery was less orderly. Burials were in simple, shallow graves with just a shroud. On the south side was a stone-built building with two mortuary chapels. One had a stone-lined tomb, and a fragment of life-sized sculptured leg, with chain mail and a stirrup strap from a broken effigy. This effigy may have been broken at the dissolution of the abbey in 1538. A highly decorated grave slab and the remains of two skeletons had been unearthed in 1970.
The Saint James area west of the town centre grew up in the parts of the parishes of Dallington and Duston beside Northampton. The area developed from the mid to late 19th century with the expansion of the shoe manufacturing and engineering industries. There were three shoe factories, a tannery, saw mills and a cycle works, and the railway arrived from London in 1881.
Victoria Park was opened in 1898 on land donated by Earl Spencer of Althorp. Further land was acquired from the Earl in 1910 and 1911.
The Parish Church of Saint James on Saint James’s Road was built in 1868-1871 to designs by the Victorian architect Robert Wheeler (1830-1902) of Tonbridge, Kent.
Wheeler is not so well-known today, but he was industrious, designing many churches, chapels and schools. Most of his work is in Kent and along the south coast, and he has at least one church in Essex. His work tends to be modestly sized, and favoured brick, sometimes with polychrome brick interiors.
Work on building Wheeler’s church began in 1868. The design adopts the Early English style of church architecture, and this is greatly enhanced by the architect’s brilliant orchestration of building materials.
Externally, the church is predominantly red brick with stone dressings rising almost shockingly from Saint James’s Road, now a busy thoroughfare leading into Northampton from the west.
Internally, the church is even richer, and the brick is exposed and enriched with black bricks. Here, Wheeler uses red and black bricks to create strong geometric patterns on the walls. His stunted columns are in polished pink granite.
The near contemporary pulpit takes up the chromatic theme, with beige and green marbles on a limestone and brick base.
The church was completed in 1924, when the tower designed by GH Stevenson was built.
Saint James is home to the Northampton Saints Rugby Football Club at Franklin’s Gardens stadium on the south-west side of lower Weedon Road. The club was established in 1880 under the original title of Northampton Saint James by the Revd Samuel Wathen Wigg, a curate of Saint Jamess’ Church.
The Sixfields Stadium used by Northampton Town Football Club, known as ‘The Cobblers’, is at the top end of Weedon Road in the area known as Sixfields. The club plays in League Division Two.
The factory of Church’s, the footwear manufacturer, is on Saint James’s Road, between Sharman Road and Spencer Street. It was founded in 1873 by Thomas Church, and the company is now owned by Prada.
Saint James today is best known for the National Lift Tower on Weedon Road, formerly the Express Lift Tower and nicknamed the ‘Northampton Lighthouse’. The building is a lift-testing tower built by the Express Lift Company that closed in 1990. The former Express Lift factory, including the lift-testing tower, stood on part of the abbey precinct that was redeveloped for housing in 1999-2000.
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