THE WHITE CHURCH

Article by Christopher Wakeling
Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain

The town of St Annes provides a fascinating case study for those interested in British church architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pevsner lists ten churches, though others might have been included. Two Anglican churches by Paley and Austin, and two Catholic churches by Pugin & Pugin attract Pevsner's faint praise. Attentive readers might detect a little enthusiasm in his description of the Anglican church of St Paul, by the rogue architect Medland Taylor. One sentence is sufficient to deal with four nonconformist places of worship which are noted as being 'all churchy Gothic'. But the church to which Pevsner devotes by far the longest entry, is the last in his list: Fairhaven Congregational Church. It stands out both literally and metaphorically. Rather like the Michelin Building in London it has entered the popular imagination as though it were outside the usually serious business of architecture. It has a nickname.

The idea of a Congregational church in Fairhaven was first mooted in 1899, and in 1904 the church hall was opened, acting as the place of worship until the scheme was completed with the building of the church proper in 1911-12. Briggs, Wolstenholme and Thornely had been selected as the architects through a limited competition. The Byzantine element of the design, locally distinctive but with a clear pedigree (of many precedents, Westminster Cathedral was the most evident) was given a special prominence by selecting white faience (matt surfaced Ceramo) as the facing material rather than the buff or terracotta colours familiar to Waterhouse's contemporaries. No less interesting than the white faience is the building's hybrid structure, featuring a concrete shell roof with permanent shuttering of metal laths, and steel beams on each side of the dome. The church has a compact plan of a kind that emphasised the congregational aspects of worship and had been widely adopted by progressive church architects across Europe and North America. The architects' willingness to explore new structural solutions was presumably prompted in part by a desire to provide such an uninterrupted space for worship. In recent years corrosion of the steel beams has led to significant problems, which are not easily resolved, but a repair programme has been begun.

Those who know the building only from outside are often surprised by the quality of the interior, not only the woodwork but also the extensive range of stained glass, which was already established by 1904. The glass, designed by Charles Elliott and made by Abbot & Co, depicts Old and New Testament scenes and such Protestant saints as Wycliffe, Luther, Tyndall, Bunyan and Wesley. Quite as much as the arresting exterior, the church's rich interior must contribute to its present reputation as an attractive place of worship and a popular wedding venue.

Beside the refinements of, say, Bodley's late churches, the work of Briggs, Wolstenholme and Thornely must have seemed coarse to Pevsner. But Fairhaven Congregational Church is a vivid illustration of the fact that the Nonconformist world retained a certain vigour at a time when the architecture of the established church was too often 'nothing special'.

Christopher Wakeling