A Short History of St. Augustine’s

Part One – The Reason and the People

St. Augustine’s Church was opened in 1869 in the middle of an Anglican building boom. Between 1851 and 1873 the number of Anglican churches in Wisbech and the surrounding villages went up from 11 to 16, Anglican clergy from 10 to 22 and Anglican Church Schools from 5 to 21. The reason for this was that even agricultural Wisbech was affected by the Industrial Revolution and the population of Wisbech doubled. Numbers isn’t at the heart of why St. Augustine’s was built though. The Rev. Canon W. B. Hopkins, the Rev. John Howson and the Rev Canon John Scott, successive Vicars of Wisbech, became concerned about Eastfield (mostly Waterlees Village today) where large numbers of the urban poor lived. They began to push for something to be done for the spiritual and pastoral needs of these people. By 1867 the Rev. John Scott was appointed chairman of the newly formed St. Augustine’s Building Committee whose remit was to build a new church to meet the needs of the people.  It was to be named St. Augustine after a man who was noted for a youth spent rejecting Christianity, despite the efforts of his Mother, Monica. Eventually though he realised his need and ended up as, to quote Canon Howson in a letter he wrote at the time, ‘the greatest name in Church History next after the Apostles’.

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners owned a piece of land on Lynn Road and agreed to give, for free, enough for a church and a vicarage. A new road was to be built to join with Lynn Road; it was to be named Monica after St. Augustine’s Mother. The rest of this land largely went to the Local Health Board to become a recreation ground – in 1870 this opened as Wisbech Park. So, as you can see, people were genuinely concerned with the physical and spiritual health of the increasing population and did something about it.

Although the land came for free, the church building itself had to be paid for and the £3,321-7- 11 it eventually cost was all raised by local subscription. The subscription list is interesting. There were the good and the great of the area as you might expect, the Dean and Chapter of Ely £200, Richard Young (four times Mayor of Wisbech and M.P.) £150 and so on but also we have the Misses Adams who managed 10 shillings between them and then another lady who went round collecting small amounts to the sum of 12 shillings and 10 pence, T. Baker gave 5 shillings, Mrs Gamble 2 shillings and 6 pence. The Misses Leach, Jackson and Stevens with some other ladies held a sale of needlework. Belief that St. Augustine’s Church was needed was not just at the top of the social scale, those who could give did.

Having been granted the land on 1st February 1867 the committee got on with the job and by 8th February William Bassett Smith of London accepted the post of Architect. Messrs Law and Son of Lutterworth were hired as constructors under the direction of Mr. James King with all carving by Mr. J. Wallace from designs by the architect. The actual builders may well have been labourers from the estates the church was to serve. Certainly, when research was done for the 100th anniversary, several members of the congregation could look back to fathers and grandfathers who had been a part of that workforce.

Things progressed and on 19th May 1868 Dr. Howson, now Dean of Chester Cathedral, returned to lay the Foundation Stone. In his address he said ‘The work which we inaugurate today is no mere impulse … (it is on)… a site within easy reach of three or four sections of the population for which it is desirable to provide the ministrations of the Church. I trust that through God’s blessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ will always be combined with diligent and persevering pastoral work’. So, not simply built on impulse but with a reason, to meet the perceived pastoral needs of the people and to follow the Gospel with worship and prayer – it is often forgotten by unbelievers in modern times that even those who no longer perceive their need for the Church are continually supported by the prayer of the Church.

On 11th May 1869 Dr. Harold Browne, the Bishop of Ely, consecrated the completed building. His sermon took the text ‘What mean you by this service?’ (Exodus 12:26). He asked why the church he had just consecrated had been built and answered in terms of the reason we have already described, prayer, worship and outreach to all, especially to those who do not realise they need it.

St. Augustines was still a part of the Parish of St. Peters and was looked after by Rev. Alfred Perry, one of the curates. Within a year though the Parish of St. Augustines was carved out of surrounding parishes and Rev Perry was inducted as the first vicar.

Ironically the opening of the Church and the Park followed by a cottage hospital made the area more appealing to other classes. More houses were built round the Church and Park and the nature of the parish changed. The baptismal register shows that while labourers initially predominated gradually we have timber merchants, clerks, mariners, watermen, rope makers, harness makers and the like. It was not a wealthy congregation though and the vicar’s income was so poor that a Testimonial Fund had to be launched for the care of his widow when Rev. Perry died in 1876.

His successor, Rev. Elijah Littlewood was a noted preacher who drew such large congregations that in 1879 the first of a succession of curates could be appointed. Rev. Littlewood was followed by Rev. Arthur Izard who is described as a plain looking man with a very pretty wife and five children. He was noted for ‘dry and plodding sermons’ during which his wife, having dealt with her brood, was notorious for falling asleep!

The Wisbech Union – the Workhouse – was the other side of the road from St. Augustine`s and the children were brought over for services. Some years later a member of the congregation remembered the boys sat one side and the girls the other ‘We felt sorry for them in their drab dress’.

A later Vicar, Rev. Charles Crossley along with his curate Rev. Crossfield, took boys from the Church Lads Brigade, the Sunday School and the Choir to form the St. Augustine’s Football Club. Known as the Saints, it competed successfully at local and county level into the early 1900s. There was also a club for young girls with ‘constructive entertainment…to break the terrible monotony of the lives of the young girls of the time’. A Mrs Woolaway was employed as a salaried missionary to live in Ruby Street and do relief work amongst the poor.

In the early 1900s under Rev. Triffitt the St. Augustine’s Football Club still thrived, at this time being entirely made up of members of the Bible Class. The Sunday school also grew to the point that a Sunday School Trip to Hunstanton took several hundred children but unfortunately there was a heavy rain downpour. The next day Rev. Triffitt was abused in the street by angry mothers over getting their children wet! Miss Chamberlain ran the Girls Friendly Society and although their boyfriends were invited to socials Rev. Triffitt also attended to ensure the girls did not become ‘too friendly’. In 1923 after much fund raising a new Parish Hall was opened next to the church.

Rev. A. J. Crosse was 68 and crippled with arthritis and the effects of a war wound when he became Vicar of St. Augustine`s in the late 1920s. This did not stop him though in his vigorous pastoral work. He was known for his all night vigils with families where there was illness and his habit of, despite his infirmities, falling to his knees to pray with people. His time was also marked by the founding of several new groups – Men’s Society, different guilds for communicants, nurses and missionary workers and a St. Augustine’s Girl Guide Company.

In 1953 the St. Michael’s Missionary Church was opened to meet the needs of the rapidly growing Mount Pleasant Estate. This a wooden hut built in Bath Road on land leased from the council. It was very successful, especially with the young. Services, social events, youth group meetings took place there. St. Augustine`s used St. Michaels wherever possible but there was talk of the land being needed for further development in the housing estate and finally in 1970 St. Michaels burnt down.

To bring us up to date. A list in the church records tells us that in 1982 St. Augustine’s supported a Sunday School, a Mother’s Union Branch, Adamites Society for men, Youth Fellowship, Girls Friendly Society, a Scout and Cub Group and children’s clubs on an outlying estate.

In 1997 under Rev. Robert Bull after extensive rebuilding of the Parish Hall a new Parish Centre was opened with a hall, kitchen, lounge, parish office and foyer with direct access into the nave of the church.

So, St. Augustine’s Church was founded because of a perceived need in the community and throughout its history it has striven to meet that need. We live now in a more secular society where the community does not necessarily feel it needs a church. Despite this though St. Augustine’s is keeping to its original vision. In 2015 for example the following have took place, most of them on a weekly basis – PCT (Primary Care Trust) meeting for those with mental health concerns, the Knit and Natter group, the Sewing Club where sewing lessons are given and work is produced to be sold for charitable purposes, a Day Centre for the elderly, the Mother’s Union, Ballet lessons, Yoga, Fitness club, bingo. Then there are the baptisms, weddings and funerals where even non-believers can still turn to the Church. Of course there is also worship, Eucharists and morning prayers and beneath all continual prayer for the community, both public and private. As our present Vicar, Neil Gardner, recently said in a sermon ‘the community may not always recognise it needs us but it does’. Quietly, without fuss, St. Augustine`s still continues to meet its original purpose.

Part Two – The Building

St. Augustine’s Church was consecrated on 11th May 1869. What did it look like? The first thing that has to be understood is that it was paid for by public subscription and at the time much was made of how well the architect, William Bassett Smith of London, achieved what we may call ‘beauty on a budget’. The actual words in the proposal for the church were ‘a structure of ecclesiastical design (though of the plainest possible character) sufficient for the purpose’. In fact when it was opened there were still unpaid bills which further fund raising did not clear until March 1870 and it lacked an organ, a new fund being launched to buy one.

It was built in the then fashionable Victorian take on Medieval Gothic architecture with high sloping roofs, tall narrow windows and buttresses built for affect rather than any structural need. Inside there was extra light from clerestory windows plus the respectable – comforting? – feel of familiar pointed gothic arches with a magnificent chancel arch and successive steps to the choir then up again to the altar. You might call it a sacred theatre enhancing the nature of the Christian ritual that would take place in it.

Although it set out to copy a medieval building it was made of more economic local yellow brick and slate rather than stone and lead. Victorian taste also added decorative bands of red brick in the walls and patterns of coloured slates in the roof.

As originally built the nave was supported on columns of York stone alternatively carved in circular and hexagonal forms with decorated capitals and arches with brick mouldings. At each end of the nave are brickwork half columns. The font mounted on Mansfield stone columns was in the north west by the north door which was intended as the main door – the west door we now use was for ‘high days and holidays’. The walls were left unpainted so that the decorated brickwork was on show. In the north eastern corner of the Nave Rev. J. W. Bellamy donated a small stone pulpit with stone steps, red Italian marble columns and alabaster coping. From the very front to the very back the nave was packed with as many pews as could be fitted in with an aisle running north south from the north door and two aisles running west east from that rear aisle to the front. All the seats were free. Although legally where pews existed they belonged to the diocesan bishop it had been a common practise for centuries for the better off to ensure they did not have to mix with ‘the rest’ by renting pews or by erecting their own private pews, the poor being thus pushed to the back. This was not to happen at St. Augustine’s.

The chancel arch was of moulded brick in coloured bands. On the left was mounted an effigy of St. Augustine and on the right of his Mother St. Monica, the arch itself appearing to be supported by figured marble double columns mounted on York stone corbels. The nave was separated from the chancel by steps – at the time of the original consecration there was no screen. On the roof above the chancel arch was a bell turret with a single bell to call the faithful to prayer and to announce the consecration of the host during the Eucharist.

The chancel was split into the choir and sanctuary by a simple wooden rail. In the choir were seats for the clergy and the choir plus a hired harmonium but no organ. There was also the only door into the vestry. The sanctuary was raised up on a further steps with the words ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ on the edge of the platform. On the South wall were a recessed stone shelf and two seats mimicking medieval piscina and sedilia. In the east wall behind the altar a large window with stone tracery in the decorated style. All the windows were of plain glass. The final touches were provided by Mrs Gay and a group of ladies who worked kneeling stools, mats and the like with ornamental worsted work.

That was the starting point, but it soon changed. First came an organ built by Messrs. Foster and Andrews of Hull, installed in the choir and dedicated on 18th October 1870. In 1878 a magnificent stone reredos was built behind the altar. It was very ornate with panels of Florentine mosaic showing angels carrying symbols of the Passion of Our Lord. In the next few years an oak screen carved in the medieval fashion was built in the chancel arch and the wooden altar rails were replaced by brass ones. The congregation began to donate things and impose their taste on the original simple vision of the architect – the generosity of the Parish Church Warden J. W. Shepherd is mentioned in this respect. A new door from the vestry into the south aisle was built in the early 1890s, doubtless to allow more impressive processions through the nave at the beginning and end of services, before that the clergy and so forth would have simply slipped out the door in the chancel. The vestry was also extended by adding a second room, possibly one for the choir to robe and the other for the clergy.

Over succeeding decades stained glass windows replaced the plain glass, some in memory of individuals, others to mark events. In the east window the Ascension of Our Lord with Mary and the eleven disciples was erected in 1883 in memory of David Charles Nichol (surgeon) who died 18th January 1881. In the Lady Chapel a double window showing the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary was erected shortly after in memory of Rev. Perry, the first Vicar. Some of the windows have been moved to new positions in the church following new building so it is probably better for anyone interested in them to use the  third section of this leaflet which details them in their present positions. Mention should be made though of the Great West Window which was dedicated in 1922 in memory of all the St. Augustine’s men who fell in World War I. It shows four soldiers of Christ representing Faith, Valour, Fortitude and Hope. It was manufactured by Morris and Co of Merton Abbey – although he had been dead for several decades by then this was the company founded by William Morris, the famous designer.

As the decades passed further changes were made. In the South Aisle a side chapel was established but it did not survive as it cut off the processional door from the Vestry. In the North aisle a Lady Chapel was established. This has survived as a place for small groups and private prayer. On January 3rd 1923 a new Parish Hall was built next to the Church. During the time of Rev White (1935 – 1947) electric lights were installed and the walls and chancel screen were whitewashed thus much of the decorated brickwork, particularly in the chancel arch, were hidden. Later the screen was sawn in half to become rails and in 1964 it was taken away altogether to remove barriers between the congregation and what was going on at the altar thus accommodating changing attitudes concerning the liturgy. 

After the Second World War – possibly 1947 – the original reredos was partially dismantled and covered by the painted wooden one we see today as a memorial to those in the Parish who died in the Second World War. The central panel had a geodetic design copied from the cover of the then vicar’s missal (Rev. Irwin). It was not popular with the congregation and was only intended as a temporary measure, there were plans to commission an artist to paint the Resurrection. The painting has never materialised but as soon as Rev. Irwin left the present plain panel appeared. In 1961 the font was moved to its present position to the south of the west door and some pews were removed to make more room for baptisms.

The biggest changes came in the 1990s. The congregation raised £380,000 to refurbish the church, join the Parish Hall to the church and turn it into a Parish Centre to meet the needs of the local community. At the front of the nave a ramp was put in so that the disabled could access the communion rail. Then at the back on the north side the door was closed off and a new vestry was built for the choir. Beside it a number of pews were removed to create a raised platform suitably equipped as an area for young children during services. The Parish Hall was extended and rebuilt. It now has a fully equipped kitchen with toilets, including those for the disabled and facilities for changing babies. A lounge with the capability to be subdivided was built in the gap between the nave and the old Parish Hall providing facilities for social events, meetings and study groups. In that area a new Parish Office was also built with a foyer linking all the facilities to the church. New doors were then punched through the nave wall in the south west wall and the stained glass that this displaced was moved to windows in the north of the nave. The result is an integrated church complex fit to meet the needs of the community and the congregation in the Twenty First Century.


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