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An historical reflection on the building of St. Erkenwald’s Church

by Robin Nicholls

Originally published in the September 1979 issue of Essex Countryside. Reproduced by permission.

St. Erkenwald’s Church was built during the period 1905-1934 to a design by Sir Walter Tapper, one of this country’s foremost twentieth century ecclesiastical architects. Tapper’s churches were always skilfully designed and St. Erkenwald’s is no exception. A noble church, it was built with cathedral-like proportions to serve Southend’s expanding population and summer visitors. St. Erkenwald’s is of special interest because it is the only example of Tapper’s ecclesiastical work in Essex and because it is a fine example of early twentieth century church architecture.

During the first three decades of this century, St. Erkenwald’s enjoyed a prestigious position in Southend and struck the imagination of the whole town. There was much enthusiasm for the building of such a large and imposing church at a time when many influential people advocated the town as the diocesan centre for the new bishopric of Essex.

One article published at the time stated: “Southend with a population approaching 50,000 is the largest town in Essex. It is rapidly growing, has an unrivalled foreshore on the great Thames estuary, is famous as a health resort, has a cosmopolitan population, is in direct communication with London and other Essex towns by means of three lines of railway and in summer has river and sea communication. Moreover by completing the church of St. Erkenwald and the erection of its lofty tower a cathedral could be found in some way worthy of the name.”

Today, St. Erkenwald’s has fallen into disuse – a redundant church, empty and forgotten, hardly noticed by the many residents and visitors that pass by each day, towards Southend’s bustling High Street and seafront.

The story of St. Erkenwald’s Church begins in 1899. With the rapid expansion of the town, there was a need to build new churches to meet the spiritual needs of the residents. Occasionally, benefactors would offer land to the diocese of St. Albans for the formation of new churches in the developing districts. On February 26, 1899, William Gregson, solicitor, of 8 Royal Terrace, Southend, wrote to the Lord Bishop of St. Albans to offer “a piece of freehold land which I believe would some day form a suitable site for a new church in the eastern part of this rapidly increasing town”. The plot was situated in the parish of St. John the Baptist at the junction of York Road and Southchurch Avenue.

Following the Bishop’s approval, an executive committee was formed in the parish to manage the building of the new church. The chairman was Mr. I. E. G. Allot, MD; the treasurer, Mr. W. Gregson; the secretary, Mr. C. H. J. Talmage. In December, 1901, the committee resolved to advertise a competition for the “design of a church, parish hall and clergy house” and appoint Mr. G. F. Bodley, RA, as assessor. The association of Bodley with the project was important for he was a distinguished architect with much experience of church design during the Victorian Gothic Revival period. This revival of the architecture of the Middle Ages, considered the most appropriate for Christian worship, had been advocated by a group of intellectuals and idealists known as the Cambridge Camden Society and encouraged by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. Bodley always designed in the Gothic style and was eminently suitable to assess the entries in the competition.

In June, 1902, the competition was widely advertised and over one hundred replies were received of which thirty-six designs were selected for assessment by Bodley. He commented that many “were very poor and unsufficiently conceived or worked out”. Of the best, Bodley selected three for specific consideration and finally decided in favour of the entry submitted under the pseudonym “semper fidelis” by Walter Tapper, ARIBA.

Walter John Tapper (1861-1935) was born in Bovey Tracey, Devon, the son of a mason. With the loss of both parents before he was twenty-one years, Tapper moved to London and found work in the architectural practice of Bodley & Garner. He remained with the partnership for eighteen years before setting up in independent practice in 1900. He enjoyed a long and successful career and was twice elected President of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1927/28 and 1928/29, events which speak highly for his standing in the profession. For his restoration of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey, he was awarded KCVO. He was a Royal Academician and Fellow of the Society of Arts.

Tappers design for St. Erkenwald’s was clear and bold. Two principal elements were used --- the church, placed to the west of the site, was a massive building combining modern simplicity with the traditional strength of Gothic architecture. The clergyhouse and parish hall formed the second element, a collegiate quadrangle to the east. A well thought out design which regrettably has never been completed, a victim of rising costs, loss of impetus in the work and dwindling of the once large congregation.

During 1902, the Rev. John Woodley Lindsay DD arrived in the parish of St. John’s as curate-assistant. Lindsay was to become an influential member of the committee in the work of building the new church. He dedicated himself to the task of raising funds and fired others to labour for the fulfilment of the great ideal. It is said in the parish that it was Lindsay who wanted a large and imposing church and he sought his inspiration from the cathedral at Cremona, Italy. There is an old print of Cremona cathedral in the church but no direct evidence to prove that Lindsay influenced Tapper’s design. However, in June 1903, the drawings of the church were modified to permit seating for 800 people instead of the 500 as originally planned.

Fund raising was a constant problem in a district populated by low-paid working families, clerks and few professionals The estimated cost of St. Erkenwald’s was £15,000. The money was raised over many years by means of donations, sales of work, bazaars and social occasions. Lindsay donated some £5,000 to the building fund from his private income. Restricted funds placed severe constraints on ecclesiastical architects. Tapper wrote in his notes describing St. Erkenwald’s “It will be seen that simplicity as regards design has been studied, dependence for effect being placed more upon general proportion than upon much architectural detail. Externally, the church will be austere relieved by certain features such as the tower, the western turrets and the fleche”.

The cutting of the first sod took place on January 12, 1905, by Mrs. Monck-Mason, the wife of the incumbent of St. John’s. The building of the church was undertaken in phases. The first phase, the chancel and two bays of the nave built by a local firm F. & E. Davey, was opened in a Service of Dedication by the Bishop of Barking on September 28, 1905.

The second phase, built by J. Jarvis & Son of London, completing the nave and baptistry, was finished in 1910. In a letter to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners dated October 26, the consulting architects, Caröe and Passmore, confirmed the building was substantial and suitable to become a parish church. On November 12, 1910, St. Erkenwald’s Church was consecrated by the Lord Bishop of St. Albans. The following year saw its establishment as a separate parish and the induction of the Rev. Dr. Lindsay as vicar. The clergy house and vestries were built in 1915, with the north chapel following in 1925 and the church room in 1934.

Since then, no further building has taken place. Lindsay remained as vicar until his retirement to Ireland on November 1, 1924, where he died in 1942 aged ninety-two years. Throughout Lindsay’s incumbency, St. Erkenwald’s attracted large congregations and enjoyed a notable position in the life of the Church in Southend.

The fabric of St. Erkenwald’s is yellow stock brick. The building is very tall and stark. The majority of the stone detailing is found on the west facade in the form of a large rose window flanked on either side by corner turrets. The turrets are mounted on square brick towers set slightly forward of the gabled west wall. At gable height is a figure of Christ with corbels on either side for further figures which were never installed. Three small lancet windows light the baptistry.

The south facade shows a continuation of the austerity in the nave walls. Three large single lancet windows set high admit light to the nave. On either side of the south door are vertical bands of prepared brickwork which mark the position of the unexecuted tower. The south door is framed by deeply cut “Early English” stone mouldings. Above the door is part of the ribbing for the rib-vaulted south porch which was to form the lower storey of the tower.

Perhaps the most spectacular view of the external elevations of St. Erkenwald’s is from the east, towards the very tall, tapered chancel which Tapper supports with six soaring buttresses. There is dramatic contrast between the plain nave walls which are supported by internal buttresses and the powerful upthrust of the external buttresses placed around the chancel. By this means, Tapper very effectively draws attention to the building as a house of God and emphasises the spiritual significance of the chancel.

The vicarage forms part of the unexecuted quadrangle to the east of the church. The cottage style house is simple and unpretentious. In this important part of the overall scheme, we see Tapper continuing the symbolism by contrasting, and yet uniting the church and the home. The church remains a strong awesome structure, a house of God set apart for divine worship; the vicarage is approachable and clearly relates to the earthly existence of the parishioners.

Internally St. Erkenwald’s is unexpectedly spacious, the austere external elevations belying the remarkable cathedral-like proportions within and the sculptural quality produced by the interplay of longitudinal and transverse arches. Tapper exploits the internal buttresses to produce the “Early English” medievalism for which he is known. Each of the four pairs of buttresses are pierced by a small arch to form processional passageways around the nave. Between each buttress is a longitudinal arch and arcade at clerestory level with the nave lancet window behind. This arrangement resembles a triforium passage which contributes to the spaciousness of St. Erkenwald’s. The use of windows at clerestory level accounts for the quietness within the building and the restful quality of daylight which does much to augment the ‘Early English” aura of the nave.

The nave is spanned by simple arches to support the lathe and plaster vaulted ceiling. Each bay of the nave has a simple decoration of angels with outstretched wings. The vaulting of the chancel is a continuation of that in the nave but with richer decoration. There is no chancel arch. Instead, Tapper included an iron screen as an important part of the church decoration. Although never completed, a print of the screen design by W. Bainbridge Reynolds is in the church. The baptistry and north chapel contain rather more elaborate “Early English” detailing in the use of quadripartite columns and ribbed vaults. Above the baptistry is the gallery which used to house the large organ which has already been removed to the church of St. Martin of Tours. Basildon.

St. Erkenwald’s has been criticised for lack of warmth and decoration. This is entirely due to the building being incomplete. Tapper knew the limitations of rationalised “Early English” design and intended the chancel windows to contain coloured glass, and thereby provide the necessary warmth and brightness to this important portion of the building. The infusion of coloured light together with reredos and iron screen would together focus attention on the chancel from within the building. It is clear that Tapper provided absolute emphasis on the spiritual importance of the chancel in both the external and internal detailing of his design.

Today, St. Erkenwald’s awaits a decision about its possible alternative use – perhaps as a theatre, a sports hall or warehouse. Let us hope that in its alternative role the artistry and styling of the cathedral designed for Southend can be retained. Churches by Tapper are rare, and St. Erkenwald’s is among the best of his designs. Even though incomplete, it is an exceptionally fine example of modern church design and is of considerable importance to the architectural heritage of Essex.

Sir Walter Tapper ~ Sir Walter J. Tapper ~ Gothic Revivalist Architect ~ St Erkenwald, Southend-on-Sea ~ Church of the Annunciation, Bryanston Street ~ Church of the Ascension, Malvern Link ~ Guildford Grammar School Chapel