1 February 2013

St. George's in the Fields: The First Commissioner's Church

Easterly view of St. George's in 1830.
As Birmingham grew bigger and the houses began filling the green fields surrounding the town, churches needed to be built further afield to accommodate these new populations, but churches weren't cheap. The building of the St. George's was aided by a Parliamentary grant of about one million pounds in total given in 1818 to several growing towns, and was responsible for the erection of approximately 85 new churches across England by 1821. In Birmingham, St. George's was the first of these churches, generally known as Commissioner's churches; it had been planned in 1818 and building work begun in 1819. Thomas Rickman had been chosen as the architect, this being his first commission, and he hired the young Henry Hutchinson with whom he worked till Henry's death in 1831. The church was completed in 1822.

St. George’s design was part of Gothic Revival of which Rickman was highly influential, he wrote on the subject and coined a number of terms that are still used today. The church was made of stone; the square western embattled tower was surmounted with decorative pinnacles which continued along the clerestory (overstory) and the easterly chancel, where there was a large stained glass window. It was described by Rickman as ‘late Middle pointed’; the ‘pointed’ describes the shape of Gothic arches which were used to give strength to the structures, meaning that churches could be built on a much grander scale. The 'late Middle' describes the period; Rickman's design was of the period of Edward III.

When first built the church was described as being in an 'airy and pleasant spot' and in its early years was called St. George's-in-the-Fields due to it being in a newly built-up area north of the town that was still surrounded by fields and rented gardens as can be seen in the 1825 map (section below). The gardens around the church were known as guinea gardens, due to the fact that they could be rented for 21 shillings a year (a guinea).* In 1815 one of these gardens had come up for sale and it was advertised as 'abounding with numerous choice, young Fruit Trees of superior sorts, Flowering Shrubs and Vegetables, a capital Wood Summer House, and a Pump of Soft Water; the whole judiciously displayed, situate and being the third Garden on the Left Hand side of the first Walk on the Right of Summer Lane, behind the Hospital'.* These gardens were most likely used as allotments and retreats for those working in the centre of Birmingham. But St. George's did not remain 'in the fields' for long, houses slowly filled the gardens and fields, and by the late Victorian period there was little left to remind the locals of why the church carried that name.


Section of 1825 map showing St. George's church and the area around.


































The church in 1887, with Tower Street to the left and
Great Russell Street to the right. The 'fields' are now filled
with houses, as can be seen.

NOTES
Genealogical information for St. George's.
* References on request
Find out about the architect; Thomas Rickman.

Images courtesy of Birmingham Library and Archive Services.

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