Gargoyles at Wilstead church

At 9.30 on the evening of Sunday 11 April, 1742 the west tower of Wilstead parish church near Bedford collapsed.  The Bishop of Lincoln, having considered the extent of the damage, gave permission for the sale of three of the bells to put the damage right, and a timber belfry was built over the west end of the nave, housing a single bell.

Wilstead Church from the NE (1937 painting from a glass slide in the Henman Collection, Bedford Central Libraries)

In the mid-19th century it was decided to build a new west tower of stone. The work was begun in May 1851, by the Hertford architect Thomas Smith, who built a new south porch at the same time. The new tower had a battlemented parapet with gargoyles at the angles, and was illustrated in the VCH article by a drawing signed JW 1911, and appeared in picture postcards in the 1920s.


Wilstead church from the south east. 1911 drawing

This drawing also shows a new chancel, and that also forms part of the story. In 1852 the south wall of the nave needed attention, and a decision was made to drain the entire churchyard. This turned out to be a mistake. By the late 1860s, repairs were urgently required, and in 1872  the medieval chancel arch was removed and the chancel was entirely rebuilt longer than before. The architect responsible was Sir Arthur Blomfield. The new chancel soon began to sink at the east, and became detached from the nave. Attempts were made to remedy the situation in 1900 by underpinning the chancel walls and jacking up the roof, fastening it to the nave wall with a large bolt. These measures did not cure the problem and more repairs to the chancel roof were needed in 1907 and 1923.

In August 1935 the church had become unsafe, and was closed to the parishioners, who used a portion of a school that was made available to them at the weekend. In May of the following year a meeting between the Archdeacon of Bedford, the churchwardens and Professor A. E. Richardson concluded that there were three possibilities: to rebuild a part of the church at a cost of £2000, to pull down the chancel and keep the nave only, costing £1000, or to pull down the entire church and build a smaller one at a cost of at least £3000. What ultimately happened was that the building was restored at a cost of £1500 and reopened by the suffragan Bishop of Bedford on Wednesday 2 June 1937.

At some time between the 1920s (when the tower is shown with battlements) and 1964 (the date of the Historic England List Description, which describes the parapet as plain) the parapet was restored without battlements, retaining the 1851 gargoyles.

Wilstead church tower from the south east (author photograph, November 2019)

I have called the sculptures at the angles of the tower gargoyles, but they are clearly not functional now, and the task of draining the tower roof is performed by two lead spouts projecting from either end of the tower’s E wall, and set at a level just below the stringcourse at the foot of the parapet. Water falling on the tower roof is thus directed into the nave roof gutters and thence into drainpipes. On close examination the tower gargoyles all have open mouths which have been blocked, raising the possibility that they were originally intended to be functional. All perch on a stringcouse at the foot of the parapet, whose profile has a projecting vertical face over an undercut hollow with a roll near the bottom.

The SW gargoyle

Wilstead church tower, SW gargoyle

This is a composite winged quadruped with a doglike head, drilled eyes under heavy brow ridges, drilled nostrils and small rounded ears. It has a wide open mouth blocked with a plug. Its body is arched and its legs are straight with lionlike claws. The forefeet rest below the lower roll of the stringcourse and the back feet rest on top of the roll, so that the back arches upwards considerably. The wings on its shoulders are small and rounded with deep fluting on the outer faces and sprocketed upper edges like a bat’s wing. The tail is curled and there are traces of fur or feathers indicated on the hindquarters.

The NW gargoyle

Wilstead church tower, NW gargoyle

This is a winged biped with a toadlike head, drilled eyes and an open mouth blocked with a plug. The head is badly eroded and only the right leg survives. It is slender and straight with long knuckled toes and rests below the lower roll of the stringcourse. The body tapers from broad shoulders and the wings are fanlike with deeply fluted faces and a scalloped upper edge.

The NE gargoyle

Wilstead church, NE gargoyle

This is birdlike: its body is broad and deep-chested with a bird’s wings and a beak like a duck, The eyes are drilled and the beak is open and plugged. Its claws appear to clasp the lower roll of the stringcourse, and the skin is covered with scales like a fish. Behind the head, the body curves up in a long tail that appears to join the top of the head. The wings are outspread and are carved on the face of the stringcourse block. On top of the creature’s tail appears to be a second, lizard-like beast, perhaps an assailant. It is badly eroded and details are not clear.

The SE gargoyle

Wilstead church, SE gargoyle

This is an agile doglike beast in an attitude of springing. The back feet are pressed against the undercut at the top of the stringcourse hollow while the forefeet are on or below the lower roll; the left foot lower than the right. There is a tiny wing on each foreleg, and the front view shows small but distinct horns on the head. As before the mouth is wide open and plugged.

Obtaining accurate dates for gargoyles is not always easy, but in this case it seems certain that they belong to the rebuilding of 1851. They appear to have been functional initially, and it seems fair to assume that they became purely decorative when the parapet was rebuilt in the twentieth century. Certainly the lead spouts that drain the tower roof today are not shown on the drawing of 1911. The creatures are lively and inventive, and without detracting in any way from the skill of Thomas Smith’s craftsmen, one cannot help wondering whether they were copying medieval models. Future investigations in the area might clarify this. Finally it seems surprising that the restoration history of All Saints, Wilstead is clear until the most recent event; the removal of battlements from the parapet. If any of my readers has information about this I should be most grateful.

Bibliography

Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 23 August 1935; 15 May 1936; 12 June 1936; 25 September 1936; 16 April 1937.

Victoria History of the County of Bedford, 3, 1912, 325-28.

Historic England List Description, English Heritage Legacy ID 36770, 13 July 1964.

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