St George

The original church demolished and a new one built

When it was built in 1819 St George's Church was situated in countryside beyond the urban limit of Birmingham.  Known as St George's in the Fields, it was the first Commissioners’ church in Birmingham. 


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Above: Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge map of Birmingham 1839.

Image courtesy of the Mapseeker website - http://www.mapseeker.co.uk/ - use permitted for non-commercial purposes.

St George's Church appears on the 1890 Ordnance Survey map available at British History Online - http://www.british-history.ac.uk/mapsheet.aspx?compid=55193&sheetid=10094&ox=808&oy=2169&zm=1&czm=1&x=192&y=212 .


St George in the Fields

Initially known as St George in the Fields because of its location on the rural edge of the town, St George’s was built in 1819, the first Commissioners’ church in Birmingham and one of the first to be built in the country. (See below and Glossary) The architect was Thomas Rickman.


Costing £12 735, this was quite an expensive Commissioners’ church (the maximum grant was £20 000), as many of the early ones were. However, particularly in view of the fact that it was built of stone, this was considered a cheap price for such a building. As with most Commissioners’ churches,


St George’s was built in Decorated Gothic style, ie. recognisably a Church of England church and had a nave, chancel, side aisles and a pinnacled tower. This was not such an innovative building as Rickman's iron-framed Liverpool churches. Although built in stone, it nonetheless it had pre-cast iron window frames, not just as an economy measure, though Rickman certainly intended to use the same design elsewhere, but as a progressive use of modern materials. 


The church could accommodate a congregation of 1959 with 1400 of the seats being free. It became a parish church in 1830 when a parish was assigned out of that of St Martin's. As the district becameincreasingly built up, the church was enlarged in 1884.


As the Gothic Revival progressed, Rickman's churches were held in less esteem, being thought to be outwardly but in reality being a Gothic shell around a Georgian interior. However, Rickman's initial detailed study of English Gothic was crucial to the Revival in the way that it was subsequently implemented by the Church Building Commissioners. 


By the 1960s much of Hockley had degenerated into a slum area, and the soot-laden, badly maintained, ill-attended church was regarded in the same way. When the whole area was demolished for rebuilding, Rickman's first Commissioners' church suffered the same fate in 1961. Elsewhere in the country Rickman's ground-breaking Gothic Revival churches have Grade I Listed status; in Birmingham there is little to be seen of this locally-based renowned architect's work.


The church was very well regarded when it was built. In Beilby, Knot & Beilby's 1830 'An Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Birmingham'  it was described thus: 


Situate in an airy and pleasant spot on the northern side of the town, is a new parish Church in the gothic style, from the designs of Mr. Thomas Rickman, Architect. It stands in a cemetery of considerable size, neatly walled round, with handsome entrance gates and piers of cast iron ; and the principal walks are planted on each side with trees.


The site of the church and cemetery was partly given by the joint munificence of Miss Colmore and the Marquis of Hertford, and partly purchased of the Governors of King Edward's Free Grammar School in Birmingham, out of a fund raised for the purpose by private subscription, the purchase being made under the authority of the Acts of Parliament above-mentioned.


The entire expence of the building, including the boundary wall and gates, amounting to £12,735 2s. 10d. and being upwards of £1100 less than the estimated amount was defrayed out of the Parliamentary Grant of one Million, by the Commissioners appointed under the Act for the building of additional Churches.


The affairs of this parish are intended to be administered by a Select Vestry appointed in perpetuity from the pew-holders and principal inhabitants of the parish, with power afterwards to fill up all vacancies in their own body to elect one of the wardens, and assess the church levies. The parish will have a separate ecclesiastical rate, being only bound to contribute to the repairs of St. Martin's church for twenty years ; and the church will be effectual for marriages and all other religious rites.


The Church consists of a western tower surmounted by an open battlement and pinnacles; north and south porches, a nave, aisles, and chancel, and vestry eastward ; the nave is divided from the aisles by richly moulded stone piers and arches, upon which rises a lofty clerestory, finished with a battlement and pinnacles. At the east end is a large window of rich flowing tracery, filled with stained glass, and underneath a highly decorated altar-piece. The galleries are supported by light iron shafts, with arches of open tracery, and the front being at some distance behind the piers, leaves the piers and arches insulated, and thus greatly enhances the beauty of the interior effect. Below the gallery, at the south-west angle, is a stone font of appropriate design.


At the western gallery, in a recess formed by the arch of the tower, stands an excellent organ, built by Elliott, the exterior designed by the architect of the church in the style of the edifice, which style is that of the gothic architecture of the reign of Edward the Third. The total number of sittings provided is 1959, of which upwards of 1400 are free and appropriated to the poor.


To download a copy of this out-of-copyright book, go to The Internet Archivehttp://www.archive.org/details/historicaldescri00birmuoft.


Thomas Rickman

Birmingham Illustrated: Cornish's Stranger's Guide through Birmingham 8th ed.Published 1851 - Image out of copyright
Birmingham Illustrated: Cornish's Stranger's Guide through Birmingham 8th ed.Published 1851 - Image out of copyright

Thomas Rickman 1776-1841 was a major early figure in the Gothic Revival. Originally from Maidenhead, marital and business problems caused him to fall into depression and he began to take long walks into the countryside and it was here that he first discovered his interest in church architecture. All his spare time was spent sketching and making careful measured drawings of old churches; in 1811 alone he is said to have studied three thousand ecclesiastical buildings. This was at time when Gothic architecture was held in little regard, classical design being held as the ideal during the Age of Enlightenment. 


Rickman moved to Liverpool in 1808 and while there made a detailed study of Chester Cathedral amongst other ancient churches. It was as a result of his self-taught studies that he published his ‘An Attempt to discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation ; preceded by a sketch of the Grecian and Roman orders, with notices of nearly five hundred English buildings’ in 1817 was the first systematic treatise on Gothic architecture and a milestone in the Gothic Revival. In it Rickman classified the styles of medieval church architecture, initially by their window tracery, into the sequence still used today, labelling the evolving Gothic styles as Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular.


Although self-taught, by 1813 Rickman had designed two churches in Liverpool, both innovatively built around a cast-iron frame. In 1818 he considered himself more than capable of offering a design in open competition to the Church Building Commission with which he was successful. Around this time he moved to Birmingham and soon set up in partnership with Henry Hutchinson with whom he worked until the latter’s death in 1831.


Although St George's no longer stands, Rickman's churchyard gates and his tomb still stand in St George's Park and are Grade II Listed. Thomas Rickman was laid to rest here in the grounds of what his friends believed to be his best work. His monument is a pointed canopied arch designed by his architectural partner R C Hussey in 1845. 

Commissioners' Churches

After the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Parliament passed the Church Building Act of 1818 setting up the Church Building Commission with a grant of £1 million. In 1824 a further £500 000 was made available. The Commission was given the power to divide and subdivide parishes to create new ones, and to provide endowments. Sometimes the Commissioners paid the full cost of a new church; in many cases they gave a grant and the balance had to be raised locally. The churches are known as Commissioners’ churches or Waterloo churches.


By the end of the 18th century the Church of England was facing a number of problems and challenges. During the course of the Industrial Revolution the population had grown and had become redistributed in urban centres. However, the organisation of the Church of England changed, leading to a mismatch between the location of the population and the church provision. Birmingham became one of the most populous towns in England. At a time when the national population increased by 14%, the population of Birmingham increased by 900%. St Martin’s could cater for 1500 people in 1550 and possibly for 5000 in 1650 but by 1750 the town had nearly 24 000 inhabitants, and in 1801 almost 74 000.


In addition, there was a concern that, following the French Revolution of 1789, there might be a similar uprising in Britain. Many people saw the role of the Church, with that of the State, as enforcing social control.


A major difficulty in building new churches and creating new parishes in urban areas was in providing an income for the new vicar. Most livings in the Church of England at that time were funded from agricultural tithes collected from farms in the parish, a system that had its roots in Middle Ages. In expanding towns and cities, new churches were generally built as proprietary chapels in association with residential developments, and the incumbent’s income derived from pew rents. Neither method of finance proved capable of funding the provision of churches or clergy for poorer urban populations.


The Commission set its maximum sum for a grant at £20 000, but this would have built only 50 churches. However, although economy was clearly necessary, it was considered essential that the new churches should be recognisable as those of the Church of England; they had to be soundly built and have a tower and even a spire if possible. The designs for the churches were to be decided by competition. First appointed was Thomas Rickman to prepare plans in the diocese of Chester.


By 1821 85 churches had been funded, but only £88 000 of the original £1 million remained. Applications for 25 more had to be postponed. A second Church Building Act was passed in 1824 providing a further grant of £500 000. This was distributed more widely and, in consequence grants were much less generous. The first grant was shared between less than 100 churches, the second, which was half the amount, was shared between over 500 churches.


The Church Building Commission functioned as such until 1856, when it was absorbed into the Ecclesiastical Commission.


Adapted from Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commissioners%27_church


Commissioners’ Churches in Birmingham

1822 St George, Hockley - parish of St Martin's, Birmingham

architect Thomas Rickman, demolished 1960

1823 Holy Trinity, Bordesley - parish of Aston

architect Francis Goodwin, closed c1970, now disused

1824 St Barnabas, Erdington - parish of Aston

architect Thomas Rickman

1827 St Peter, Dale End - parish of St Martin's, Birmingham

architects Rickman & Hutchinson, demolished 1899

1829 St Thomas, Holloway Head - parish of St Martin's, Birmingham

architects Rickman & Hutchinson, closed 1940, part still standing

1833 All Saints, Hockley  - parish of St Martin's, Birmingham

 architects Rickman & Hutchinson, demolished 1966

1847 St Jude, Hill Street - parish of St Martin's, Birmingham

architect Charles Orford, demolished 1971

1850 St Saviour, Saltley - parish of Aston

architect R C Hussey

1853 St Paul, Balsall Heath - parish of Yardley

architect J L Pedley, demolished c1980

1854 St John the Evangelist, Ladywood - parish of St Martin's, Birmingham

architect S S Teulon

1855 St Matthias, Aston - parish of Aston

architect J L Pedley, demolished 1948


St George's rebuilt




The church was rebuilt some distance away from the original building. Surrounded by public open space, the combined church and community centre opened in 1972 with its focus on Newtown as much as Hockley. 


The Church website

The church website can be found at - http://www.stgeorgesnewtown.org.

See also A Church near You - http://www.achurchnearyou.com/stgeorgenewtown/.


William Dargue 22.02.2012