St. Werburgh (d. 699) was an Anglo-Saxon princess and patron saint of Chester. According to Arrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol (1884):
The original church is said to have been founded in 1190, but being very old and much decayed was rebuilt in 1760, with a curtailment of the chancel end. During the first two hundred years of its existence the church was without a tower, this important feature being added in 1385; and though it has undergone repairs and been removed to its present location, it is substantially the same as when erected.1
The church was situated at the corner of Corn Street and Small Street in the centre of Bristol. The population of the parish had been dwindling for many years and in the 1871 Census stood at 18 people. The area was one of Bristol’s main thoroughfares and for a number of years there had been discussions about the desirability of removing the church to enable improvements in traffic flow to be made.
Rev. Canon John Hall, Rector of St. Werburgh’s since 1832, died on 3 August 1871. Almost immediately the Streets Improvement Committee of Bristol Council recommended that the costs and options for removing the church and churchyard be investigated. An Act of Parliament would be needed for the removal of the church.
Opinions, both inside Bristol Council and outside amongst the general population of the city, were divided as to whether the church and tower should be removed, the church should be removed and the tower retained, or both church and tower should be left in situ. The Council wanted to demolish the church, sell the site that it occupied, and use the funds to build a new church in another district. Improvements in traffic flow could then be implemented in the city centre.
A private bill, The St. Werburgh’s Church, Bristol, Bill, was laid before the House of Commons in January 1876. It proposed the removal of the church and tower, uniting the parishes of St. Werburgh’s and All Saints, and building a replacement church in the new parish. However, as the Bill progressed through Parliament, opinion on whether the old tower should be retained gained momentum. One idea considered was the retention of the tower and the building of a passageway through its base. This would enable an increase in the number of pedestrians who could easily access the area. Other schemes for improving traffic flow whilst retaining the tower were also presented.
At a meeting at the Council House on 3 March 1876, attended by the Lord Mayor and the local MP, a resolution was passed for the removal of the church but the retention of the tower. Delighted at this decision, Hardwicke published a sonnet, ‘St. Werburgh’s Tower’, on 7 March in the Western Daily Press. It ends:
Tradition, townsman’s love, a scholar’s bones,
Plead for the peace of thine ancestral stones;
And from far future, hark! a people’s view
Bless thy preservers, consecrate their choice.
A petition signed by over 1200 inhabitants of Bristol, plus submissions by the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, were also presented to Parliament for the retention of the tower.
The St. Werburgh Church (Bristol) Act, dated 24 July 1876, received its Royal Assent on 5 August. The Act was:
to provide for the uniting the parish of Saint Werburgh, in the city of Bristol, to the adjoining parish of All Saints, and for the removing the parish church of Saint Werburgh, and the re-erecting the same in a new parish to be formed in the said city; and for other purposes.2
Section 8 of the Act specifically allowed for the retention of the tower if the church authorities and City Council so decided:
Provided that the rector and churchwardens may agree with the corporation for the retention of the tower of the old church upon its present site (if the corporation shall consider retention desirable), upon such terms as shall be approved of by the bishop and the archdeacon.3
From the date of Royal Assent the old parish of St. Werburgh ceased to exist for both ecclesiastical and civil purposes. This was not, however, the end of the debate. A special meeting of Bristol Council was held on 5 December to consider Section 8 of the Act. By a majority of seven the meeting decided not to retain the tower on its present site. This was referenced by Hardwicke in a Note to the sonnet, ‘St. Werburgh’s Tower’, when his Book of Bristol Sonnets was published in March 1877:
By a special clause inserted in the Act for this removal, the Corporation were allowed to retain the Tower at their will. This, by a majority of seven votes, on Dec. 6, 1876, they refused to do, on the grounds that they could not vote public monies towards retaining public monuments, and that the Tower was an obstruction to traffic.4
This decision galvanised supporters of the tower’s retention into action. At a meeting on 13 December the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society passed a resolution that the Society should work with the Council and the churchwardens to see if the costs of retaining and maintaining the tower could be met by public subscription. A ‘St. Werburgh’s Tower Retention Fund’ was set up, organised around four committees - Citizens Committee, Junior Citizens Committee, Ladies Committee and Archaeological Committee. Hardwicke was nominated Honorary Secretary of the Citizens and Ladies Committees. Prominent committee members included the Duchess of Beaufort, the Headmaster of Clifton College, Dr. Percival, and the local MP, Mr. W. K. Wait.
Hardwicke was particularly active in ensuring that views in the newspapers opposing the retention of the tower were countered. In addition, he made certain that arguments supporting its retention were detailed, well publicised and could stand scrutiny. Replying to a correspondent who had written to the Western Daily Press objecting to the tower being retained, Hardwicke replied to the same newspaper:
As to the argument that “the public safety is endangered,” [Rev. Rawnsley] says this is contradicted by the public certificate of a competent Bristol architect, after a most careful survey. As to the “obstruction to traffic” argument, [Rev. Rawnsley] endeavours to show that the block does not occur opposite the tower; that since the tramway extension cab traffic has diminished; that if the tower be retained and pierced for a footway the passengers will gain 8ft. room in the narrowest part, and 4ft. 9in. (the present pavement) will be added to the roadway; that sooner or later a new main street will be run in a straight line between Bristol Bridge and the Drawbridge; and that a slow traffic in a street is of greater monetary value to the shop-holders, with regard to customers, than a street with the possibilities of rapid transit.5
A later letter to the same newspaper:
Gentlemen,—I touched on two objections made last week by the opponents of St. Werburgh’s tower a third must now be answered. It is objected that St. Werburgh’s tower is not architecturally of such merit as to warrant its preservation. And a whisper is abroad, probably worth little credit, that the Bristol citizens have misconstrued the interest taken in their royal old monuments by the external world into an unwarrantable meddlesomeness. “We are not going to be dictated to by a pack of antiquarians!” But surely, just as a man ignorant of law consults a lawyer, or a man who knows nothing of engineering will take an engineer’s advice, so Bristol citizens who know little of architecture or antiquities will, as a matter of common sense, go for information and advice to an architect or antiquarian, and it will be a matter of congratulation to all your readers that on the question of architectural merit St. Werburgh’s tower has no less a champion than Sir Gilbert Scott, whose opinion is given as plainly as it was voluntarily.6
The success of the public campaign can be judged by the decision of Bristol Council, at its meeting on 13 February 1877, to reverse the decision made in December of the previous year not to retain the tower.
The future of the tower on its current site, however, was still not certain. Legal issues were raised concerning the Council’s ongoing responsibility for maintenance once the church was removed. The London & South Western Bank entered the fray by offering to buy the site at a higher price than Bristol Council were prepared to pay. As no contract existed between the Council and church authorities, the latter were duty bound to obtain the best price.
In the end, financial considerations prevailed. The Bank purchased the site. Plans for the new church were developed which included the re-erection of the church and tower using as much of the old buildings as practicable. The plans showed that ‘The tower will be reproduced exactly, the only addition being at the top’.7
Hardwicke clearly put substantial time and effort into the campaign to retain the tower on its original site. The commentary in his biography, however, on his influence on the final outcome is probably overdone:
He was not successful in preserving the Tower in situ, but, largely owing to his efforts and enthusiasm, the Town Council and townspeople were brought to realize that the Tower was a precious possession, not lightly to be done away with; and when eventually it was demolished in Corn Street it was re-erected stone by stone.8
The work to dismantle the church and tower began on 22 August 1877. The new reconstructed church held its first service on 30 September 1879 and continued to be used until late in the twentieth century. The last service at St. Werburgh’s Church was held on Remembrance Sunday 1988. The building was sold and the interior is now an indoor climbing centre. The exterior has been retained and is a Grade II listed building.
1. Arrowsmith’s Dictionary of Bristol. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith: 1884.
2. [39 & 40 Vict.] Saint Werburgh’s Church (Bristol) Act, 1876. [Ch. clxxviii], p. 1.
3. ibid. p. 5.
4. Rawnsley, H.D. A Book of Bristol Sonnets. London: Hamilton, Adams, & Co., 1877, p. 25.
5. Western Daily Press. 1877, 10 January, p. 3.
6. Western Daily Press. 1877, 15 January, p. 3.
7. Western Daily Press. 1877, 14 July, p. 5.
8. Rawnsley, Eleanor F. Canon Rawnsley: An Account of His Life. Glasgow: MacLehose, Jackson & Co., 1923.