National Treasure: St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney

Sarah Freeman introduces us to a medieval gem – a freestanding former bell tower in east London. From the spring 2014 SPAB Magazine.

Tucked away in the secluded churchyard of St John at Hackney lies St Augustine’s Tower. This striking Grade I listed medieval former bell tower, located just behind a former Hackney Town Hall (now a betting shop) on the Narroway at the top of Mare Street in Hackney Central, holds the prestigious claim of being Hackney’s oldest building, dating to the late 13th century.

Whether sought out or stumbled upon, a visit to the tower is inspiring, due to the significance of its architecture, the story of the fortuitous series of events responsible for its survival as well as the experience of climbing up the spiral staircase. The invigorating ascent up the 135 steps reveals the Tower’s rugged character and is concluded by clambering out on to the open parapet where you are greeted by an unusual panorama of the London skyline. Whatever the weather there is nothing quite like spending an hour on top of this amazing structure, talking to the medley of local and not-so-local visitors.

Favourite Building_Tower exterior

Photo by Richard Allen

The Tower, constructed of Kentish ragstone with diagonal buttresses, is the only remnant of the former medieval parish church, which once extended to the east of the Tower, covering a large portion of what is now the churchyard of St John at Hackney. Wedge shaped stones in the churchyard show the extent of the former church. Unusually, the Tower gave out on to the south aisle of the medieval church; the remains of a connecting arch can just be seen externally on the east elevation. The likely construction date of the lower portions of the walls is circa 1275, the upper portions being the product of a later reconstruction circa 1520 carried out by Christopher Urswick, a courtier of Henry VII (and a minor character in Shakespeare’s Richard III).

In the late 18th century the medieval church was no longer big enough to cater for Hackney’s rapidly increasing population. When it was decided to construct the new parish church of St John at Hackney, designed by the architect James Spiller and built 1791-97, the £10,000 allocated did not stretch to a new bell tower. So when the medieval church was demolished, the Tower remained to serve as an ancillary bell tower to the new church.

A bell tower was in fact added to the main church around 1814, but, fortunately for the Tower, Spiller was not confident that it was sufficiently strong to bear the weight of the cast-iron bells. The church’s new tower was strengthened in 1854, after which the bells were relocated. But by this time the Tower had survived long enough for the Victorian sentiment for medieval buildings to be well established, and its long-term preservation was secured.

Once inside the Tower, the thickness of the stone walls is apparent, clearly shown by the depth of the window opening with its late Perpendicular tracery. The spiral staircase in the south-east corner leads to a series of rooms laid on top of one another, the first of which now houses a fantastic new permanent exhibition of the history of Hackney, curated by the Hackney Archives and Museum and the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust and largely funded by the Sainsbury Family Trusts.

The next room up houses the clock, which has been dated to the late 16th century. It was manually wound for over 400 years until mechanical winding was installed in 2006 to protect the mechanism. The former bell room is on the third floor, where there is a single bell that was installed in 1857, cast by Warner’s Bell Foundry in Cheapside. The bell openings have been restored with stone tracery.

Photo by Richard Allen

The Tower has been lovingly cared for by its custodians, the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust (HHBT), since 1990. As part of a wave of financial cuts in the late 1980s Hackney Council, who have owned the freehold of the Tower since the 1930s, stopped winding the 16th century clock and effectively shut up shop. Laurie Elks, the unofficial ‘Custodian of the Tower’ and a trustee of HHBT, recalls his early involvement with the Tower:

‘It was quite a job to get the Council to find the Tower keys; and a much bigger job to clear the accumulated debris of the countless pigeons who had made the Tower home. We managed to carry out some minor repairs but the Tower was a pretty treacherous visitor attraction at this time – with fenestration open to the elements, unguarded battlements, and very limited lighting.

My role as custodian of the Tower really took off when we got the old turret clock repaired and we needed someone to wind it each week. There was something irresistible about visiting the Tower each weekend, often at night, and slowly cranking up the huge weights to keep the clock running for the next week.’

Laurie and the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust oversaw works to the building in 2005-6, enabled by grant funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to make the Tower into a safe and welcoming visitor attraction for members of the public. It is also increasingly being sought out by local artists and story-tellers as a venue and exhibition space, and even serves as a particularly entrancing Santa’s Grotto once a year!

The Tower is open to the public on the last Sunday of every month and annually during Open House weekend. Please visit the Hackney Historic Building Trust website for details.

Working Party: Day 4

Working Party_Schools day5

Our Working Party team welcomed 150 year 6 pupils from local Rydon Community College today. An important part of the Working Party is encouraging young people to think about building conservation in a practical way, to let them feel traditional materials and immerse themselves in the history of a building. The pupils really enjoyed their day of hands-on history away from the classroom.

Fixing peg tiles with nails and wooden pegs

Fixing peg tiles with nails and wooden pegs

John Russell and team explained the tools involved in constructing the types of buildings the pupils could see on the farmstead and then gave them the opportunity to try their hand at some traditional crafts. Groups of three split hazel to make wattle panels to be daubed with mud. After some hesitation the children enjoyed getting their hands dirty!

Making wattle and daub panels

Making wattle and daub panels

The children were also taught how to use shave horses to make wooden pegs for timber framing and were delighted that they could take their hand-made pegs home. Medieval-style tiles with geomateric patterns were also being made in a shady corner. The pupils took them back with them to fire in the school’s kiln.

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Examples of medieval tiles

Gail and Grahame Kittle, owners of Sullington Manor Farm, led the children on a tour explaining the long history of the site. The farm has a long history of people who have owned and worked on the farm; the children completed worksheets about the different characters connected with Sullington whilst sitting in the church yard.

Illustrations of the lord of the manor and a 20th-century farmer

Illustrations of the lord of the manor and a 20th-century farmer

Elsewhere on site our dedicated team of volunteers continued work in their designated areas, making great progress with the cart shed and the church boundary wall in particular.

Lime pointing on the church boundary wall

Lime pointing on the church boundary wall

SPAB Guardian Stephen Bull and Scholar Joanna Daykin

SPAB Guardian Stephen Bull and Scholar Joanna Daykin

Working Party: Day 1

The SPAB’s annual Working Party, where we put our philosophy of conservative repair into action at a building in need, is off to a great start. All our volunteers arrived over the weekend at Sullington Manor Farm in Sussex to pitch their tents, establish their barbecuing areas and get to know each other.

Working Party_2015

The packed programme of work began today. Our 70 strong group of volunteers were divided into their groups so work could begin on the six buildings on site; the tithe barn, small barn, cart shed, cow shed, granary and the local church.

‘Sullington’ is a Saxon word meaning, more or less, ‘muddy place’ and the church, which forms part of the complex of buildings, has Saxon origins – so the complex of buildings at Sullington dates from 1000 years ago but it can still be muddy in winter! The tithe barn is not quite so old but many of its timbers have been reused and could date from early medieval times. The construction of the east porch indicates that this was built around 1500 but the main construction of the barn is recorded as being 1685. In 1685 the manor was owned by the Shelley family who increased the area being farmed with the addition of neighbouring land on the south side of the Downs, thus explaining a major re-build of the barn.

Small barn, Sullington Manor

Small barn, Sullington Manor

Sullington farmstead is now a rare example of a once frequent settlement model along the spring line on the north slope of the South Downs. In medieval times Sullington was owned and occupied by the lord of the manor; the Saxon thegn, Ulward, held the manor of Edward. The Norman noble family, de Couvert, owned the manor from c.1242 until 1366. Sullington was bought in 1546 by the Shelley family who refurbished the house, re-built the small barn and then enlarged the tithe barn to its current size. The Shelleys moved from Sullington to Sandgate which became the seat of the lords of the manor from the mid-18th century, the farmhouse was again tenanted.

Work on the small barn roof

Work on the small barn roof

Sullington farm was sold to Lord Leconfield of Petworth in 1789, as indicated by the odd numbering, 491 and 492 (Petworth estate numbers) are the only houses on the west side of Sullington Lane. Tenant farmer Albert Hecks bought the farm from the estate in two phases in 1912 and 1920 but very sadly he and his son died in the same year, 1951, and the farm was broken up for sale. Ivan Kittle purchased the farm itself, and John and Grahame Kittle, Ivan’s son and grandson, have since farmed in succession at Sullington.

Cart shed at Sullington Manor

Cart shed at Sullington Manor

Winter Warmth

Both my cottages currently lack central heating so last autumn I purchased several oil-filled radiators to temporarily provide some warmth. Given the age of my electrical installation, I took the precaution of connecting these using plug-in RCD adaptors (www.masterplug.com).

The radiators are controlled by thermostats, which help maintain steady room temperatures. I’m conscious that old timber-framed buildings are similar to fine antique furniture in the sense that sharp variations in relative humidity caused by large temperature fluctuations can distort or crack the wood. In my case, this could also harm some of the fragile internal plasterwork that’s awaiting repair.

The data loggers I’m using show that the heating has created a more stable internal environment. The only snag has been that one of the heaters developed a small oil leak. Fortunately, I discovered this before any damage was done to the building fabric and the supplier replaced the faulty unit immediately. The previous day I’d ordered a couple of extra radiators. By chance, they’re oil-free.

Jack Frost

The recent very cold spell severely hampered work on local building sites. A contractor employed on a nearby church where work to a flint wall had been adjourned until the spring commented to me how a 1 tonne bag of sand had been transformed into a single, large, frozen cube, joking that you’d need a jackhammer to break into it.

At home, the sub-zero temperatures have fractured the second of my outside WC pans, even though I’d drained it of water. My other external WC, the rim of which was damaged last winter, now causes great amusement for my two young nieces. Every time the lavatory is flushed it sends up a fountain of water in the direction of unsuspecting users!

Frosty conditions are said to improve the quality of lime putty in storage, though, of course, it must be allowed to fully thaw before use. I picked up some more the other day when visiting conservation builder Anthony Goode (www.ajgoodeconservation.co.uk) and added this to the other tubs I’ve left maturing in one of the yards. The longer the putty is stored, too, the better it becomes. Lime will be a key ingredient in the work I’m planning.