Last year the Houses of Parliament agreed upon a £3.5 Billion refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster and Elizabeth Tower which houses the bell known as Big Ben. The price of refurbishment reflects the commitment of the country to this iconic building, a building whose interior was designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52). Pugin was an English architect, designer, artist and critic who is principally remembered for his pioneering role in the Gothic Revival style of architecture. Besides the Palace of Westminster, Pugin designed many churches in England and some in Ireland and Australia. Upon his death two of his sons, Edward Welby and Peter Paul Pugin, continued his architectural firm as Pugin & Pugin. It was the latter of these, Peter Paul Pugin (1851-1904), who was the architect of St Joseph’s church in Skerton alongside other outstanding churches in our Diocese: Our Lady Star of the Sea in Workington (1876), Our Lady Star of the Sea in St Annes (1890), St Mary’s in Morecambe (1895), Sacred Heart in Thornton (1899), and he developed and enlarged English Martyrs in Preston and Sacred Heart in Blackpool.
With the support of a substantial Heritage Lottery Grant, work is currently underway to restore St Joseph’s Church. The church is 118 years old and the Lancashire damp and driving rains have with time damaged the interior of the church. At this time when the church is being restored it is fortuitous that a sheath of letters has come to light. At a recent garden party in the church grounds, the parish priest was approached by a lady who works in Lancashire County Council Archives in Preston who said that the archives had recently acquired the original correspondence of Peter Paul Pugin relating to the building of the church (RCLV/ACC12549).
The correspondence relates to the period of 1897-1901 and is addressed to the first Rector of the mission at St Joseph’s, Fr Philip O’Bryen. The letters reveal Peter Paul Pugin’s frustration at the length of time that Margaret Coulston’s house (now the presbytery) was taking. The cost of the house, we are told, was £2000 (£250K in today’s money), a cost that could be held down ‘especially if the local builders are hungry for work’. Nevertheless, Peter Paul became impatient, lamenting the ‘slow progress being made with the building’ and writing to Harrisons of Lancaster that ‘if the building is not completed in time the penalty will be enforced’. Peter Paul took delight in designing the stairwell which was made by Hardman Powell & Co, a Midland company with family connections to the Pugin family.
The correspondence reveals Peter Paul’s excitement as he began to think about a design for a church alongside the house. Margaret Coulston had set aside a sum of money for a substantial church, costing about £6000 (£758K in today’s terms). For this amount, Peter Paul felt that ‘something could be done for that but’, he added, ‘I must keep it simple’ and his ambitious designs for the upper part of the tower had to be restrained to fit within the said budget. ‘I must keep all the detail as simple as I can consistent with the perpendicular style’, he wrote.
Peter Paul was to spend the next couple of years dealing with contractors, negotiating with Margaret Coulston and the parish priest, Fr O’Bryen, and Bishop Whiteside of Liverpool, who he kept on meeting at different events up and down the country. Time after time he would submit new plans and it is fascinating to see how many of the details of the interior of the church were still be negotiated as the church was being completed. It was a task that absorbed Peter Paul and the letters reveal a man who was committed to develop a vision of the church alongside the house, set back from the road amidst ample grounds. ‘I think the whole thing will look very well and will make a beautiful group of buildings’, he wrote.
But it wasn’t long till the project ran into problems. Given the cap on the amount that could be spent Peter Paul became anxious over the price for the stone, recommending the use of Grinshill from Shrewsbury over Yorkshire stone which was too expensive. In the event, a local company, Hatch & Son, were able to provide Lancaster Freestone, a millstone grit, that was quarried locally and at a more competitive price.
On numerous occasions Peter Paul sought to stretch Margaret Coulston’s generosity, but always in the name of creating a more beautiful church. For example, for a little more, he insisted, the arches in the main nave of the church could be made of stone rather than brick and plaster. By and large Margaret Coulston, with Fr O’Bryen’s gentle persuasion, acceded. The total cost of the project which was overseen by Walkers of Preston ended up costing £8431 (£1.06M in today’s money).
Once the building was underway, Peter Paul Pugin busied himself with the interior design of the church. He would send through plans to Fr O’Bryen for the high altar, insisting that ‘it will look much better in reality than it does on paper’, relishing his use of mosaic to create ‘emblems of the Blessed Sacrament’ and attractive ‘inscriptions’. Initially the idea was a niche at either end of the High Altar presenting ‘Our Lady Mother of God and St Joseph’. In between there would be paintings of St Joseph’s life or choirs of angels, adding a brightness of colour. At the centre there would be a ‘canopy with adoring angels on each side’ which would be ‘very effective’ and ‘break up the centre line well’. He concluded, ‘I am sure the altar will look very well and will be quite in keeping with the church’. In the end, the altar was redesigned to its present design and built by Boulton’s Ecclesiastical & Architectural Works of Cheltenham in Caen stone and polished marble shafts at a cost of £604 (£76K in today’s terms).
Peter Paul worked with his long-time associates, Hardman of Birmingham, to create stained glass windows, particularly for the chancel, and to execute the mosaic work.
At this point, the Bishop put his oar in and complained that the design of the tower was still too plain, and Peter Paul was to spend the next few months arriving at an alternative design ‘which I think will be most effective and will add very much to the appearance of the church’ and which he hoped Miss Coulston would accept.
Finally, Pugin was gratified to discover and to make use of a local firm, Gillows, to build the pulpit at £135 (£17K in today’s terms), communion rails at £50 (£6K in today’s terms) and oak screens between the side chapels and chancel. ‘Gillows is a good firm’, he wrote, ‘and I have no doubt will do first class work so I feel they would be safely entrusted with the work’.
Peter Paul took particular pleasure in the Sacred Heart chapel which became a labour of love for him. ‘It has not been an easy thing to manage but I am satisfied with it now’ and he concluded that ‘the altar will be quite unique of its kind’ with the round stained glass window cupped by the altar and its reredos beneath. Peter Paul then set to work on a flourish of other projects: the design for the font and baptistery, the redesign of the frames for the Stations of the Cross, and the design of hanging rood above the chancel. By the same token he rebuked Walkers for suggesting that there should be radiators in the chancel, something that he strongly objected to.
All, of course, was not roses. We learn from the letters that Peter Paul became exhausted from all his exertions, travelling up and down to Scotland, and looking after so many projects. A number of times he complained of feeling ‘very seedy’, and he found the hot weather in London ‘very trying and difficult to work in’. From time to time he was forced to take a holiday, writing that ‘I am thankful to say I feel all the better both in mind and body’ and ‘I now feel ready for any amount of work again’. But he could become prickly when his own bills were not paid. He complained on one occasion of how he disliked ‘having to write about money matters and I am very sorry this should arise’. He had reminded Fr O’Bryen that he was due his architect’s commission but this as yet had not been paid. ‘I am asking no favours but simply what is due to me as a matter of business. Kindly attend to this matter without delay. I shall be much obliged’. The message could not be clearer.
The Pugin Letters reveal the industry of Peter Paul Pugin, a man on a mission. Almost every week Peter Paul wrote to the Rector of St Joseph’s updating him on the progress of the project, asking his opinion on architectural and interior design features, and reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of different contractors. Peter Paul relied heavily upon his family and business associates to fulfil the task, the good will of patrons such as the Bishop of Liverpool, and the untiring cooperation of clergy and benefactors, and his unstinting efforts have bequeathed a church of breathtaking beauty which, with the help of our Heritage Lottery Grant, will continue to inspire many generations to come.