A high-tech church in London’s Hampstead

FROM THE STREET, the Victorian gothic façade of Hampstead’s Heath Street Baptist Church is unremarkable. Over the past more than 60 years, I have walked or driven past this place of worship, but it was not until today (20th July 2021) that I entered it for the first time.

The church was designed by the architect and surveyor Charles Gray Searle (1816-81) and completed 1860-61. Searle was himself a Baptist. He had been apprenticed to the renowned master builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who bought stone from his father, John Searle, who owned a quarry near Wapping. Charles set up his own practice in about 1846.

According to C.W. Ikin, in his “A Revised Guide to Heath Street Chapel” (quoted in https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/37-5_249.pdf):

“An early print of the proposed chapel shows buttresses but in its method of construction it was more modern, cast iron being used not only for the pillars and probably for the whole interior framework, but also for the gallery fronts and the mouldings of the pew-ends. The strength of the building is based upon this framework formed by the cast-iron pillars in church and hall below and their linking beams. The brick walls cling to the framework and have tiebars linking the hammer beam roof.”

Cast-iron columns

Cast iron, which has high compressive strength, began being used to create buildings at the end of the 18th century. Pillars made of this material can be made slenderer than masonry columns required to support the same load. The slender nature of the columns in the Heath Street Chapel is immediately evident when you enter the building. What is less obvious is that the decorative fronts of the gallery that surrounds the nave are also made from cast-iron. The material has hardly been used for structural elements of buildings since modern steel and concrete became available at the start of the 20th century.

If you do visit this church, do not miss the fine art-nouveau stained glass window at its western end.

Although the Heath Street Chapel was certainly not the first church to be built using cast-iron structural elements, it must have been one of the first buildings of its kind to have been built in Hampstead, which is why I have given this short piece the title “A High-tech Church in Hampstead”.

When we stepped inside the church, two men were setting up things for a lunchtime concert. They told us that these are usually held on Tuesdays at 1 pm. Details about these can be found on the church’s website, http://www.heathstreet.org/activities/lunchtime-concerts/.  

A grand old house in north London

THE OLD WELLS AND CAMPDEN Wash Houses stand on an elevated section of Hampstead’s Flask Walk and overlook a distinguished-looking detached house standing in its grounds surrounded by walls at the eastern end of Flask Walk. Entered through an unusual double set of wrought iron gates, this is Gardnor House, which was built in 1736. The doubling of the gates has happened since the 1960s, during which time it was a single gate (see image at: https://images.historicenglandservices.org.uk/historic-images/1960-present-day/gardnor-house-hampstead-aa071908-1339539.html)

The house was built for the successful upholsterer Thomas Gardnor (c1685-1775) opposite the stocks that were used for punishment until 1831 (Barratt, T: “The Annals of Hampstead). He and his family were responsible for the development of several streets and buildings in Hampstead (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33). Thomas was responsible for building terraces of houses in Flask Walk and homes in what is now Gardnor’s Place. His family also:

“…enlarged their property holdings in the area to include Flask Walk, Streatley Place and parts of Heath Street, High Street and New End. The family also owned houses in Church Row on the site of Gardnor Mansions.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Gardnor).

In addition to his property interests, Thomas was made a trustee of the Hampstead Wells Charity, which aided the local poor, in 1761 (Barratt, T). Gardnor is believed to have died of smallpox (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1067366) and was buried in the graveyard of Hampstead Parish Church, where his tomb may still be seen.

During the mid-19th century, Gardnor House was owned by a dealer in chinaware. Later that century, by which time most of the area around Flask Walk was inhabited by poor people, the grand Gardnor House was the home of an architect. Moving forward 100 years, we find that Gardnor House was the home of the authors Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) and Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923-2014). By the time they moved in, their marriage was crumbling as Joseph Conolly, owner of the former Flask Bookshop in Flask Walk, recalled (https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/november-2020/very-amis-very-hampstead/):

“…by the time they were settled in Gardnor House in Flask Walk — also Georgian, though rather smaller and with a modest garden — the gilt was beginning to chip away from the golden couple, and that deterioration was about to accelerate rather rapidly.”

 When they separated, the house was sold in 1981. On the 14th of October 2020, the house, which contains five bedrooms, five reception rooms, and four bathrooms, was sold for £11,000,000 (www.rightmove.co.uk/house-prices/detailMatching.html?prop=66871156&sale=11118685&country=england). GW Potter, a local historian,  also once lived in Gardnor House, but I do not know when that was.

The house that Thomas Gardnor built for himself is one of the larger residences within the bounds of old Hampstead. It is either evidence of his success as an upholsterer and/or as a property developer. Luckily, the house seems to be well-maintained. Many of us, who spent our childhood in or near Hampstead, bemoan it having become a more upmarket area than it used to be, but with its property values rising, the condition of many historic buildings is being well-maintained.

Decorated walls

DURING RECENT TRIPS TO villages and small towns in Essex and Suffolk, we have noticed that some of the plastering on the external walls of buildings is decorated with patterns and illustrations in bas-relief instead of being flat and featureless, as it often is. I first became aware of this decorative plasterwork on a house in the tiny village of Tollesbury in Essex. As we begun to see more examples, my curiosity about it grew. When we visited Saffron Walden, we saw that the outer wall of a bookshop was covered with plasterwork with patterns and symbols. I decided that if anyone would know about this kind of plastering, it would be someone working in what looked like a serious bookshop.

PARG 12 Saf

In Saffron Walden

I entered Harts bookshop and noticed two things. Firstly, the shop was very well stocked. It was a place where one might spend quite a long time browsing. Secondly, the shelving units looked very familiar. I mentioned to the sales assistant that the shelving resembled that used by branches of the excellent Daunt’s bookshop chain. She replied that despite its name, Hart’s is now a branch of Daunt’s. Saffron Walden is lucky to have such a fine bookstore. I asked the assistant about the plasterwork with decorations that was on her shop and other buildings in the area. Another customer overheard me and explained that what I was asking about is called ‘parget(t)ing’. According to Wikipedia:

“Pargeting derives from the word ‘parget’, a Middle English term that is probably derived from the Old French pargeter or parjeter, to throw about, or porgeter, to roughcast a wall.”

However, the frequently fine and intricate patterns and illustrations created on the plaster suggest that creating pargetting involves little if any ‘throwing about’ of plaster but rather much care in its application.

The patterns or drawings were/are often produced by filling moulds with plaster while the wall is being plastered. An important ingredient in the plaster used to create these three-dimensional images and to give them some cohesive strength is fibre. 

The website http://www.buildingconservation.com suggests that:

“English plasterwork became increasingly elaborate in the 16th century and the dramatic external decoration of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace (1538) was contemporary with early plaster friezes in the great houses. Some of the most opulent pargeting was produced over the next 150 years with a high point around 1660 (for example, Ancient House, Ipswich, and the Sun Inn, Saffron Walden), then the technique began to fall out of fashion.”

Later in the 19th century, some architects like Norman Shaw who were involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement revived pargetting, but the effects produced were far less spontaneous looking than those produced by earlier craftsmen. The same website explains:

“The simplest pargeting takes the form of lines scratched with a stick across wet plaster to create, for example, a lattice within a border. More complexity comes from using fingers and combs or moulded templates, incising or impressing chevrons, scallops, herringbones, guilloches, fantails, rope patterns and interchanging squares.”

To create the images that can be seen in pargetting, the plaster used needs to have sufficient cohesive strength. This can be achieved by adding fibre to the plaster mix. According to the http://www.plasterersnews.com website:

“Early pargeting was always worked in lime plaster which had three main ingredients; lime, aggregate and hair … Traditionally it was probably cow or horse hair but BSE stopped them being used and imported goat and yak hair became popular.”

Modern craftsmen conserving pargetting sometimes use synthetic fibres instead of natural hair because some of the modern sources of natural hair have been washed and this removes natural oils, which prevent the hair dissolving in the plaster.

If you, like me, did not know about pargetting before, now you do. When the man in Harts bookshop mentioned ‘pargetting’, “The Archers”, the British radio serial set in a country village, sprung to mind. One of the memorable characters in this series, which was first broadcast in 1950, is a man called Nigel Pargetter. Sadly, his death was recorded in The Guardian newspaper on the 3rd of January 2011. The paper recorded:

“Pargetter, played by Graham Seed for almost 30 years, was felled by the combination of a loose slate, a flapping happy new year banner on the roof of his home, and the need for a rousing climax to the special half-hour 60th anniversary episode, which the producers promised would ‘shake Ambridge to the core’. It had been, the BBC said, ‘a tough decision’”

You will be relieved to learn that Grahame Seed, the actor who played the role of Nigel Pargetter, still thrives.  Nigel might be dead but pargetting still survives and serves to add visual interest to many buildings in East Anglia.