14 October 2012

Asserting Difference: Division Inside Christ Church

Christ Church from the collection at Birmingham Art Gallery, c. 1850.

Absent building. Stood from c. 1805 till 1899. 
Explore inside and outside Christ Church by clicking here.

Christ Church, that sat where New Street and Ann Street met, was the first church in Birmingham to offer free pews for the poor. The population had been rising so rapidly in Birmingham that space in the churches was squeezed, and with the additional drawback of payment, the wealthier classes feared that the poorer amongst them would begin to not attend church which could trigger 'Indifference to the highest Duties, Violation of the Sabbath, and Depravity of Morals'.* In 1805 Isaac Hawins left £500 (later increased to £1000 by his executors) to the opening of a free church, and the project was initiated, though with struggles to find additional funding, the church was not consecrated till 6th July 1813, still unfinished. The church was divided into separate areas; the free seats on the ground floor and the paying pews in the galleries around (see painting above), each accessed by separate doors.

The galleries were accessed by a central door at the front of the church, inside of which was a ‘double flight of stone steps, of geometrical construction, with balustrades of elegant appearance, which [... were] formed of tubes of iron coated in brass'.* The galleries themselves were fronted in mahogany, attractively decorated and supported by elegant Doric columns;* it was these seats that helped to pay for the running of the church. The free seats were reached from one of two side doors that were also placed at the front of the church, the doors could have been more separate, but still maintained a division so that the wealthier church goers did not need to mix with the poorer among the congregation even as they filed into the church. These free pews were also of mahogany but of a much simpler design. At the front of the church was the finely carved altarpiece, which was surrounded by brass railings above which was 'painted a cross appearing in the clouds, by Barber' (just visible in the painting).* Those writing about the church particularly noted the organ by Thomas Elliot, who made the organ for the Chapel Royal in St. James' Palace, among others.

This layout of Christ Church is an example of class separation and asserting difference by physically and visually sectioning off parts of the built environment. The poor below, would have felt their inferior situation as the wealthier sat above them, possibly keeping an eye on their behaviour and their morals.

During the 1830s Christ Church was divided in another way, probably by Rev. John George Breay, an enthusiastic Evangelical preacher who was at Christ Church from 1832 till his early death in 1839. At this time the church became separated between men on one side and women on the other and the practice gave rise to the following verse:
'Our churches and chapels we generally find
Are places where men to the women are joined;
But at Christ Church, it seems, they are more cruelhearted,
For men and their wives go there and get parted.'*
There seems to be no explanation of how long the practice took place; whether it was a short-lived experiment that ceased due to, perhaps, critisism from sources such as the verse, or whether it was continued. But at this time Evangelical preachers, among many others, were asserting difference between men and women. Breay himself believed that women needed skills that would help to 'qualify [them] for social duties' by this he means 'as wives, mothers, or friends',* basically in an supporting role. Throughout Breay's own life he was supported by his wife Phyllis, she established and ran a clothing club as well as a great deal more, and after her husbands early death continued to work tirelessly for charitable causes for another 30 years, as well as writing at least three books. Her gravestone at Christ Church recorded her as Breay's widow, helpmeet and the mother of his children, ignoring all of her own achievements.* 

The inside of Christ Church during demolition in 1899, with two details
of the interior decoration. The clouds from Joseph Barber's painting are
just visible, as is some carving and painted decoration.

* References on request

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