22 June 2010

Sad story of the English parsonage

A new book has been written by Anthony Jennings called The Old Rectory: the Story of the English Parsonage, and published by Continuum in 2009.

The publisher’s description first. “This is a comprehensive survey of the social, historical and architectural importance of the English parsonage and its future. Traditional English rectories and vicarages, sold out of service by the Church of England, have become uniquely desirable to property buyers and are now cherished by their new private owners. They combine many coveted qualities: their fine architecture, an air of civilisation, charm and character, traditional values and quality of essential Englishness which they evoke; their large gardens and often splendidly rural locations.

The Old Rectory, Oswaldkirk, North Yorkshire

Despite their historical, social and architectural importance, there is no comprehensive book about them currently in print. This book examines the place of rectories and vicarages in the history of the Church and of England, and traces their evolution through the centuries. It looks at their many and varied styles of architecture, profiling some individual houses and highlighting some of the most architecturally outstanding and interesting ones. It is handsomely illustrated with quality photographs. Although rectories and vicarages have had their ups and downs throughout history, the period from the early C20th to the present day has posed perhaps the greatest challenge: why, if they are so desirable, has the Church of England been selling off its finest houses? The Old Rectory examines the contribution to our culture made by the clerical families who occupied these houses, and looks at some of the famous people and eccentrics who have been associated with them”.

The author has a vested interest in the topic. Written by the director of Save Our Parsonages, this book looks at the many issues concerned with selling-off, rural retreat and the future of the countryside community. There is nothing wrong with having a passion for one’s topic – I just want readers to know up front.

Old Rectory, Bygrave Herts

Reviewers were impressed with Jenning’s careful documentation and despairing of the situation in the C21st. Lucinda Lambton, for example, wrote: ‘The great 20th-century sell-off’, as it is described by Jennings, will be to the church’s eternal detriment, and short of restoring them all to their holy roles, we could have no better memorial to their importance than this book; a delightful yet doom-ridden progress through England’s cultural and spiritual, social and architectural history. Densely comprehensive, it is also exhilarating, moving and poetic, thoroughly enjoyable and important, yet always deeply depressing that such policy should have been allowed to come to pass — and in the name of the church.

Timothy Brittain-Catlin, author of The English Parsonage in the Early Nineteenth Century, reviewed the book in Country Life magazine, 27th Jan 2010. “re English parsonages. Their downscaling and downgrading was partly the result of a very local phenomenon: the rise of the evangelical wing of the Church of England, with its aggressively antagonistic stance towards old buildings. I know of an evangelical bible called Re-pitching the Tent which calls for the destruction of fine old churches, let along parsonages. So there is yet another sense in which the story of the parsonage is the story of England: it’s the age-old tale of Roundheads versus Cavaliers, of Puritans versus the pleasure-seekers.”

Old Rectory Haselbech, Northamptonshire

The rise of the evangelical wing of the Church of England, and its impact on the maintenance and ownership of old buildings, was total new to me. If people would like to pursue to topic, I recommend they read The English Parsonage in the Early Nineteenth Century (and not The Old Rectory: the Story of the English Parsonage),

Some parsonages were Queen Anne or early Georgian. Hailsham Grange vicarage was built in c1705 in the Queen Anne architectural style. The materials used were typical of this part of East Sussex: a mixture of red and grey bricks laid in the Flemish bond manner giving a chequered effect, in contrast to the rubbed brick dressings. Situated in the market town of Hailsham, the vicarage was located within close walking distance of the much older parish church, St Mary’s East Sussex. Today the vicarage is a lovely B & B, but for true joy, visitors must see the formal gardens – patterned box parterres and stilt hedges.

Examine Haselbech which is a small pretty Northamptonshire village with a C13th church at its heart. The Old Rectory Haselbech was built in 1728, mainly with local ironstone and brick, and we know the building was substantially altered and extended in Victorian times. The 1-acre garden overlooks unspoilt farmland and was redesigned by the present owners in 1998, very much in sympathy with the house and surroundings.

Hailsham Grange, East Sussex

Some were early or mid Victorian. Victorian / Edwardian Paintings alerted us to a Cornish vicarage near Tintagel which comes with a deconsecrated 1930s chapel and a dovecote. Then I recently found the totally relevant history of The Old Rectory in Thurgarton. In The House Historian, you can find when this old rectory was built (1848), who lived in there for the first 70 years, what the relationship between the rectory and the village was, and what happened to the building when it became surplus to requirements.

The Old Rectory in Whitwell in the very south of the Isle of Wight dated to 1868: it was built in Gothic style with arched windows, and was influenced by the work of Ruskin and Pugin. Naturally it was located close enough to the church so that the resident family would have easy access to work, and so that locals would have easy access to the minister. What might differentiate the splendid Whitwell parsonage from other similar buildings was that it was paid for from the private funds of the local Rector back in the 1860s. I assume the very large gardens were as gorgeous in the 19th century as they are in the 21st century.

Old Rectory, Whitwell, Isle of Wight

Another later Victorian vicarage, built in the Gothic style, was more colourful and attractive than Whitwell: The Old Rectory in Bygrave Herts. Built in c1870, the white brick exterior had chequered red and black brick dressings. On each of the two storeys, packed with bedrooms, there were groups of lancets with black, white and red brick gauged arches. An outbuilding, probably a dairy, had twin lancets and plank doors - everything a large clerical family could have needed.


the foto fanatic said...

Interesting. The old parsonages in your post are certainly attractive and evocative (to me, anyway) of English gentlemen's residences.

But I have been asking myself the opposite question with regard to church assets here in Australia. Why keep them? All that money could certainly be used to advantage elsewhere.

The history of the property can live on, even with new owners. Why not release the funds for the benefit of their congregations?

Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece.

Hermes said...

I generally agree with the above comment. Times have changed and my local vicar considers himself a part of the community, not its leader and doesn't want to spend diocise money maintaining a beautiful but costly building. The old vicarage is well maintained by people who can afford it and the new parsonage is still a big house but much more suitable to the 21st C.

columnist said...

I am rather glad that parsonages and vicarages have become available to the public, as they are some of the most desirable buildings architecturally, many of them with stunning Georgian symmetry. If I was in the market for a house in England, I would certainly be looking at one.

Hannah Stoneham said...

What a fantastic post - thanks for sharing I really enjoyed reading it.

I love the look of old rectories and I suppose that part of me is sad that Vicars now live generally in modern smaller homes with less characters - but only part.

These buildings cost a huge amount to maintain and in an era of falling church attendance and a chronic housing shortage I think that it is ahistorical to think that any course other than the one which was taken was available. Looked at in historical context, I suspect that the influence of the evangelical wing of the CofE was less than has been suggested - it was economic and social pressures that made the difference.

Pleasure to read your blog as always!


Hels said...

I am loving this discussion and thank you all for the comments. Lucinda Lambton's review (see my post) of the book was more condemning of the sell-off of gorgeous rectories than Jennings was.

She said: "by building new rectories so bereft of all presence and purpose, the Church of England has reduced the status of the clergy. Worst of all, none of this need have happened had common sense been followed rather than doctrinal egalitarian prejudice. The old and the beautiful are the allies, not the enemies, of religion.

Most of us remember the rectory or the parsonage in the town or the village where we grew up. Its presence always had an impact, even if only subliminal. It was part of life. That was not just because of what it symbolised, but what it was. It taught us that the church was an integral part of life, taught us about architecture and history."

So selling off the church resources to families who can afford to buy the beautiful homes may not be the primary consideration.

Hermes said...

Lucinda is a lovely person but her guides to beauty are somewhat eccentric! But this leads to a bigger question, did the Church (particularly the Catholics) cultivate beauty as a reflection of the divine - as they said - or for greed and conspicuous consumption ?

ChrisJ said...

The old buildings are lovely regardless, but I agree with the general trend here that the money may well be better spent elsewhere.

In my hometown, and elsewhere I suspect, many of the old and very beautiful churches are being de-commissioned (right word?) and sold because the upkeep is simply too costly for the congregations to bear.

Several have pooled their resources and are sharing one building, rather than pay the $250,000 - 500,000 bill for new roof, insurance, and heat, etc.

Hermes raises an interesting question, especially in light of the financial woes of these congregations.

Most of the older people I know would choose the beauty of their place of worship over making a profit.

It all probably depends on several complex factors, with the original intent taking a back seat.

LondonGirl said...

Fascinating post. I agree, many of the most beautiful houses are either vicarages or ex-vicarages.

The combining of rural parishes, with one vicar for 2 or 3 parishes, is another thing which has made many buildings surplus to the Church's requirements.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Just got to this post late, having been away. The Church of England has a huge economic challenge to maintain its churches, let alone the vicarages – and there are also problems for the occupants, too. Many of these places cost a fortune to heat, and most vicars don't have high incomes. So I think economics lie behind the sell-off, as Hannah says.

There's also the question about whether the church could have made money by keeping the houses and letting them – just as they let lots of farms and other property - but maybe they've decided that they don;t want to get further into that business when their main activity is saving souls not making money.

anthony jennings said...

I've only just seen this correspondence - sorry. First, it's no good advising people to read Tim Brittain-Catlin's book to find out about the evangelical wing of the C of E, excellent though his book is - it only covers the early 19th century.

There's a certain amount of wishful thinking in these comments - at least as regards the Church in England which is all I can deal with.

Someone said why not release the funds from saleof parsonages for the benefit of congregations. Because they never go to the congregations - all the money is whisked off to the diocesan head office never to be seen again in the parish.

'My vicar considers himself part of the community and not its leader'. But it's not really about the vicar, he or she's irrelevant in these desperate times for the Church, it's about keeping the profile of the Church high in the community. Anthony Jennings

Hels said...


thanks for your comprehensive response.

I came to this topic because of all the real estate ads I found in Country Life magazine that called their properties Old Rectory. Hundreds of them in just one year!

These were good quality homes, often in very pleasant garden settings, that might have required some modernisation to make them lighter and larger.

I read what you said about all the money being whisked off to the diocesan head office never to be seen again in the parish. Worse still, it still breaks my heart that a lovely public asset has gone to private hands.

Hels said...

Given that I don't believe in privatisation of public assets, I blushingly agree with columnist. "Parsonages and vicarages ... are some of the most desirable buildings architecturally, many of them with stunning Georgian symmetry. If I was in the market for a house in England, I would certainly be looking at one". So would I!

anthony jennings said...

I fear Columnist is also sadly misguided - glad they've been sold because they're some of the most desirable buildings? - of course they are, but they were built for the Church, not for secular use, often given by generous patrons on the understanding they'd be inalienable, a promise which the Church broke. Grateful private buyers in England have said they must have been mad to sell them off!

Someone else said they cost a huge amount to maintain. This is another myth peddled by the diocesan bureaucrats. The small inadequate post-war vicarages have cost more to repair than these fine houses because they're so badly built.

Anthony Jennings

Hels said...

We are in warm agreement, but for different reasons. I don't believe in privatisation of public resources at all. Ever.

But if a] the private buyers paid true market value for these wonderful properties and if b] the money stayed in the local parish to be spent on the congregation's needs, would you feel any less aggrieved by the sell-off?

I assume not. Because an inalienable gift, given for religious purposes, can never ever be given away, especially for secular purposes.

Hels said...


I wonder what proportion of Georgian and Victorian parishes still run a full range of church services (Sundays, holy days, weddings, funerals, baptisms, counselling, visiting the sick etc etc) these days?

And even more pointedly, I wonder what proportion of Georgian and Victorian parishes with resident vicars (and their families) now have resident vicars.

Important questions. With more to be said on the topic, no doubt.

Hels said...

Have a look at the vicarage at Kurow in New Zealand, which was vacated in 1970 and has since been turned into bijoux accommodation. Clearly the issue arose throughout the Anglican world.

Willowbrook Park blog http://willowbrookpark.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/canterbury-tales-part-one.html

Sassy Countess said...

While I am sorry to say that I am just now finding your blog, I absolutely love what I see and will be coming back for your new posts.

Btw, I've borrowed a photo, but (of course) have a link here. :)


Hels said...

Sassy Countess

have a look at The Old Rectory of Thorpe St Andrew, in Norwich. You will enjoy the photos.
http://www.emminlondon.com/2016/06/the-old-rectory-norwich.html by Emm in London