Archaeologist comes in from the cold: archives and the history of churches

WK-A7-74 St Peter and St Paul's parish church, Aston, Birmingham n.d. [c1890] Interior view of east end of church before restoration.

St Peter and St Paul’s parish church, Aston, Birmingham n.d. [c1890] Interior view of east end of church before restoration. [WK/A7/74]

Like all archaeologists, Dr Mike Hodder spends quite a lot of time in libraries as well as out on sites but says he’s a sites person at heart (whatever the weather!) and in particular he never really feels at home in archives. However, he has recently been using some archive sources to supplement his site visits in an assessment of the archaeology of churches in the Diocese of Birmingham (this includes north Warwickshire, parts of Sandwell, and other adjoining areas as well as Birmingham itself) which he has been undertaking in his voluntary role as archaeologist with the Diocesan Advisory Committee.

Large Views Aston Box 1 [LV-9] St Peter and St Paul's parish church, Aston, Birmingham 1868

St Peter and St Paul’s parish church, Aston, Birmingham 1868 [Large Views Aston Box 1 [LV-9]]

Over 40 of the churches in the Diocese were first built in the Middle Ages, but all of them have been modified at later dates and many were extensively “restored” in Victorian times. Usually at least some parts of the earlier buildings were retained and can still be seen, but in some cases restoration amounted to almost complete rebuilding, leaving little or nothing visible above ground, although remains may survive below ground. Restoration was particularly extensive in the churches of Birmingham and its suburbs, many of which were enlarged to serve growing populations.

Fortunately for us, some 19th century Birmingham architects took a great interest in historic churches and noted features which were revealed during restoration but were subsequently concealed or completely removed. Amongst these architects, Jethro Cossins particularly stands out. He visited Warwickshire churches between 1850 and 1890, in some cases before or actually during restoration (and he is often rather critical of other architects’ restoration work!). His observations are contained in five volumes of handwritten notebooks (MS 3414/1-5) which also contain drawings, including architectural details, and photographs.

MS 3414 - Antiquarian notes, sketches, photographs and plans of Warwickshire churches by Jethro Cossins, architect & antiquarian

MS 3414 – Antiquarian notes, sketches, photographs and plans of Warwickshire churches by Jethro Cossins, architect & antiquarian

The church of St Peter and St Paul church in Aston is a grand building near Aston Hall and Villa Park. A priest here is mentioned in Domesday Book and the church itself is first mentioned in the 12th century. The church was almost wholly rebuilt and substantially enlarged in the 19th century, leaving only the 15th century tower of the earlier church. Jethro Cossins’s notebooks include a description and ground plan that he made when he visited the church in 1850, before restoration took place (Vol I, p57). The subsequent restoration exposed a Norman doorway (p58). Cossins’s notes and drawings supplement the 18th century illustrations of Warwickshire churches in the better-known Aylesford collection.

Mike is giving a talk about his research on 5 March at “News from the Past”, an event organised by the Council for British Archaeology. For details and a booking form please click on the link below:  http://www.archaeologyuk.org/cbawm/downloads/NewsFromThePast2016.pdf

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