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We tend to think that our problems are special, but the more we know, the more we realise that other people in other times or other places have been there before us. When the West door was put out of bounds because of the risk of falling pebbles, it was not only a nuisance, but seemed a novel idea, and of course it has led us to the current programme of restoration (see article on page xxx). But how novel is it?
I am currently researching the history of ringing in Wokingham, which entails reading through old records. By coincidence, the day after I had been chatting to the workmen on the tower about the size of the loose chunks of stone they had removed, I found myself reading through extracts from the 19th century ‘Parish Notices’. The major restoration completed in 1864 had left the tower untouched. Reading between the lines, it seems the Parish needed a few years to recover before making another major effort to raise money to complete the job. But in May 1875 this policy of waiting was disrupted when a piece of stone fell from the tracery of the West window, and it was realised that more stone was loose.
The vestry appointed a committee to manage the restoration. The estimated cost was £1150, though the eventual sum was nearer £1500. This was a huge amount in those days, and the committee resolved not to begin the work until they had enough money to meet the liabilities. Fund raising was slow, and work did not start for nearly three years. Meanwhile, in the Spring of 1877, the Rector received an anonymous letter headed ‘Let Wokingham take warning and exert itself’ describing the collapse of a church tower in South Wales. The delay was clearly controversial. Later that year, the committee met to ‘consider what repairs were necessary to secure the free stone from further accident’. The stonework was inspected, and loose portions removed to prevent further falls, for the safety of people using the West door. The reporter regretted spending money ‘for such a temporary purpose’.
The external work was begun in the Summer of 1878, with increased efforts to raise the money needed for the associated internal work, which in turn was completed by the following Spring.
The appearance of the tower, then as now, was of concern. In his initial report, the architect (Joseph Morris, whose family designed so many of Wokingham’s architecturally important buildings) commented that the restoration could be done ‘without altering in any way the appearance of this venerable and interesting tower’.
John Harrison (July 2005)
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