A pioneering building.
The 1916 Church of St John and St Mary, Goldthorpe is constructed entirely of concrete and whilst this may not be unusual today it was pioneering for its date of construction. The building has a unique role in the history of architecture as it is an example of how designers and builders at the turn of the century were taking reinforced concrete, a relatively unknown material, out of the hands of expensive specialists and reinventing the technology for everyday use.
Lord Halifax, the donor.
The building of the church was funded by the 2nd Viscount Halifax, owner of the nearby Hickleton Hall and most surrounding land. A new church was required because the four collieries of the Goldthorpe parish meant the once small local population was rapidly increasing. The architect for the 1914 design was the obscure Alfred Nutt, Surveyor to the Fabric of St George’s, Windsor Castle and it is thought that Viscount Halifax met him whilst at Court. Viscount Halifax was also a prominent Anglo-Catholic layman and his taste in church adornment may be reflected in the Italianate detailing, classical altar canopy (baldachino) and simple roman basilica church plan with campanile.
Reinforced concrete: a new technology.
There has been much discussion on the reasons why concrete was chosen for construction but with few real records of the time the ideas are somewhat speculative. To add further to the unique design of this church the new concrete technology was taken as the primary material for all aspects of the construction both structural and decorational. As one looks around the church it is clear that all the sculptures and the classical altar cover are also cast in concrete.
The 200mm (8”) thick walls are made of concrete poured into a continuous wooden shuttering 600mm (2ft) high. The builders moved around the whole building pouring the concrete for one level and when they returned to the start point the shuttering was moved up and they started again. This is why the outside walls appear to be in regular bands of sand and pebbles as the two components of the concrete separated out as they were compacted.
At this time concrete construction was mostly in the hands of specialist contractors who jealously guarded the knowledge of reinforcement techniques engineers take for granted today. The building was designed without the input of these costly industry specialists and the architects and engineers had to learn as they went along. Many technical mistakes where made in their interpretation of the use of metal reinforcement and the seeds were sown for the decay which has had to be repaired.
The problems begin.
After its dedication in 1916 the church served the growing parish with its four mines well. In time the mines were joined by a new coking plant and the sulphuric acid gasses this produced added to the high pollution already in the local air. Modern concrete does have natural protection against pollution but the poor technical properties of the 1916 materials rapidly allowed acidic water to Leach through the porous concrete. The metal at the walls’ core began to rust and pressures from their expansion began to build up within the walls and external columns.
By the 1940s it was clear that something was going wrong with the church, as lumps of concrete began to fall off the tower and in particular the external projecting columns. The parish managed to carry out some work to repair the tower in the 1950s but other than this the gradual shattering of the concrete to walls and windows continued to recent times. On top of this one major problem the church also suffered from a leaking roof, no proper drainage, the leaded glazing was falling out and mining settlement had cracked the walls.
The church and community at Goldthorpe never gave up trying to make repairs but the enormity of the task was beyond the financial means of a community suffering the declining fortunes of the mining industry. The church spent years on the hard work of fundraising and despite the disadvantages of the community managed to gather enough money to seed the interest of larger funding partners. The greatest of these new benefactors was the Heritage Lottery Fund who confirmed their major support to the project in January 1999.
The restoration project.
The original construction of the building represented some pioneering aspects of construction and in the same spirit the work to carry out conservation broke new ground in technical expertise. With York architect Andrew Wiles overseeing the discussion an approach to repair was developed with Giles Proctor and Kevin Davies of English Heritage, Kevin Persell of Eastwood and Partners, engineers (Sheffield) and Andrew Came of Concrete Repairs Ltd, specialist contractors (Sheffield).
Despite the fact that there were sections of the surface concrete splitting off from the building the whole structure was not considered to be fundamentally unsound. It was also noted that now that the pollution from the mines has passed the most aggressive agent of further decay was taken out of the formula. It was also widely agreed that there were some especially interesting and attractive patterns caused by the sorting of sand and gravel within each ‘pour’ of the original concrete. You could see from the patterns in the walls where they started and stopped work each day: it is like having a record of the original builders daily progress frozen in stone. Even the warm orange yellow colour left over from the old acid pollution now looked quite pleasing.
All of these observations hinted to the fact that however repairs to the building were approached we could not do anything that painted over or coated these sand and gravel patterns. In due course this became quite a hurdle as the great array of technical expertise developed from the repair of decaying 1960s tower blocks relied on the expectation of a paint finish. Because of this all modern concrete repair materials and techniques available ‘off the shelf’ were a flat grey colour with no scope for colour or texture variation. To create a repair mix that matched the building exactly the contractor had to return to the basic approach of 1916 by choosing the right sand, the right gravel and just the right amount of the modern liquid additives to increase performance without ruining the perfect original mix.
This long process of selection by trial and error has allowed us to carry out major repairs by re-casting with the change being visible only on the closest of inspections. We have for instance completely cut away every one of the fractured external wall columns and replaced them with a strong new column.
Every part of the church has been repaired.
The fact that these concrete repairs have become ‘invisible’ is considered a success, although it is Lamented that in years to come it might be forgotten what a titanic struggle they were to achieve! It would also be easy to forget that the WHOLE building has received some form of repair of which most will never be seen.
For instance: The cupola on top of the tower has a new copper dome and the wind-eroded timber of the clock stage has been sheathed in protective lead sheet. The 1m (3’) high decorative scrolls to each corner of the clock stage have also been replaced. All of the tile roofs have been repaired and original tiles re-fixed over a waterproof underfelt. This roofing work included
re-soldering of split joints on each of the copper ventilator domes and the replacement of all gable crosses. The plastic rainwater pipes and hoppers have been replaced with cast iron items that match the photographs of the 1916 originals exactly.
All of the glass in the north and south aisles of the church Nave are original panes that have been taken out, cleaned and set in new lead frames. All of the other glass is new and much of it has been made from sheets of glass fused in a kiln to create the rippled effect of the 1916 originals. Before this glass could be refitted a great deal of work had to done on the mullions dividing each window as, being of concrete, the majority of them had shattered in the same way as the walls.
Each one of the large Stations of the Cross had to be removed to prevent damage by the vibration from the extensive works which where carried out on the walls. Small holes had to be made in the gilded areas to release the old fixings buried within and this required careful repair by sculpture conservators to again make the repairs ‘invisible’.
Repair of the tower.
The epic struggle which arose when we came to repair and stabilise the tower is also likely to be unappreciated in the future. As the tower had previously been repaired in the 1950s and a hard new concrete skin applied it was expected that the work we would have to undertake would be moderate. Being some hundreds of feet up in the air the process of examining what the true condition of the tower was could not be determined until the scaffold was in place. Once we started we found that every time a piece of the cracked 1 950s skin was removed the condition of the 1916 concrete below was viewed with some horror. It was becoming clear that rather than carrying out repairs before the hard skin was applied in the 50s the problems were just saved up for the next generation to solve! The greatest risk of all was that the tower lantern itself was simply too crumbly to repair safely. Over one tense 24 hour period in October 2001 we had to consider whether we might have had to demolish the upper part and start again from scratch.
The final resolution was that a clever design from the engineer and careful work by the contractor meant that a metal frame made in short lengths was craned up to the tower and carefully assembled within the belfry. When complete this made a strong skeleton to take the weight of the timber clock tower and to which the crumbly walls could be fixed back. With this in place work could start on the slow process of tower repairs without the fear of structural collapse or personal injury. It is very difficult to convey what an impact this had on the timetable and costs for the works which we started. Even with the contractor working at full pace the whole process took six months
longer than originally programmed.
Improvements to the interior.
While we have talked about the extensive works that will remain unseen, works providing great improvements to the facilities for the congregation and interested visitor are on clear view. A new meeting room with sink and tea making facilities has been created in a previously unused space below the tower. The narthex area at the west end has been improved by the installation of a new open screen so that the church interior can be left open to public view whilst remaining secure. The landscaping to the west end of the church has also be revised to provide gentle steps and a separate wheelchair access. A new set of railings to replace a rotten wooden fence raises the dignity of the forecourt, improves security and keeps the local dogs off the grass!
Further funds were raised the to complete the restoration of the decayed stone inscriptions over every door of the church’s principal doorways and the installation of a new stained glass window to the tower meeting room. This work mark’s the closure of the four pits that formed the basis for the strong Goldthorpe community.
A huge undertaking.
In conclusion it would be fair to say that in 2001 and 2002 few Cathedrals would have undertaken works on the scale carried out to this modest church. With admirable vision The Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage have given their support, understanding that even a concrete church has a rightful place in the progress of architectural history. To overtook one link in the chain would break the sequence that links both great and small.
The final and most important acknowledgement should go to Father Delves, Derek Hoyland, Malcolm Addis, Joe Overend, Keith Hampshire and all of the many members of the PCC and congregation without whose patience and understanding a finished work of this standard could never have been achieved.