After decades of neglect, Blythburgh church, a grand fifteenth-century building in a small Suffolk village, was ‘mouldering into ruin’. In 1881 the church was closed as unsafe. Although the church was re-opened in 1884, proposals for restoration precipitated a twenty-five year long rancorous conflict between local vicars and restoration committees, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Would the restoration of the church lead to the loss of medieval work and the means to understand its history through a study of its fabric, and transform the character of the church? Was the alternative just ‘propping up a ruin’?
Extensive documentation survives covering both sides of the dispute, enabling the reconstruction of an important restoration v conservation dispute that had a national dimension. The influence of strong-willed (and devious) individuals is revealed and the existence of tension between vicars and patrons. The ways in which the SPAB functioned as a pressure-group are demonstrated, with their lobbying techniques and use of the media.
Was there a winner? Did William Morris save the church as some have suggested? Do the various uses of the church today help us, with hindsight, to judge the outcome of the dispute?
This talk will present the story based on documents edited for the Suffolk Records Society, published in 2017.
This lecture is given by Dr Alan Mackley an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of History of the University of East Anglia. Dr Mackley has written numerous books and articles published including Creating Paradise. Building the English Country House, 1660-1880 (co-authored with Richard Wilson, 2000); two volumes of eighteenth-century letters edited for the Norfolk Record Society, and The Restoration of Blythburgh Church 1881-1906. The dispute between the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Blythburgh Church Restoration Committee (Boydell/Suffolk Records Society, 60, 2017).
He is a University tutor and contributor to BBC TV, Radio 4, 5, local radio BBC Norfolk and Suffolk, ITV (Secret Rivers) and Channel 4 TV (Time Team and Restoration Man) programmes. As well as a. Producer/Presenter of local history programmes for community radio stations. Has lived in Suffolk, first as a WW2 evacuee, and now continuously for over 40 years.
The thumbnail image is by Nick Rowland (FlickR - CC BY-ND 2.0)