Tag Archives: Whitby

A Thundering Good Sermon – Going to Church With the Georgians

In this print by Rowlandson of Dr Syntax Preaching (1813) virtually all eyes in the crowded church are on the minister at the top of the three-decker pulpit. The owners of the most important house in the district are in their own pew to the extreme right, the high-sided pews and the gallery are packed . Everyone else must stand. The altar is out of the picture – literally.

To simplify drastically, by the mid-eighteenth century worship in the Church of England was turning from both ritual and unquestioning belief in what your vicar told you or from the belief in predestination – that some were saved and some were not and that there was not a great deal to be done about it. What mattered by the early 18th century was the decision of the individual to turn to God and to live their lives accordingly – and to do that they needed to hear and understand the Word of God. Sermons became the focus of worship – the minister would expound on a text from the Bible, sometimes for hours. An increasingly literate population was offered texts to study and books of sermons became popular reading. Preachers such as John Wesley and others attracted huge congregations. On Kennington Common in 1739 the radical Anglican clergyman, and Methodist pioneer, George Whitefield, preached nightly in the open air to crowds of between 30-50,000 in the open air. Later that year, fellow Methodists John and Charles Wesley also preached regularly on the Common and attracted similar crowds. The emphasis on preaching became dominant in the parish churches across England. The image below is old Fylingdales church looking west,showing the triple-decker pulpit and the box pews, which are numbered.

Taking communion became something that the congregation would do only a few times a year (five was quite normal)  and therefore the altar moved from being the focus of the church interior, supplanted by the pulpit. In some cases pews were built that faced the pulpit even if that meant their occupants would have their backs to the altar. The pulpit dominated, often a three-decker with a desk at the bottom for the vicar’s clerk, then a desk above that for the vicar to sit at and above that the pulpit where he would climb to deliver the sermon.

The Rowlandson print shows pews with relatively low sides, but many were introduced with sides so high that only the vicar from his raised position could see into them – these were called box pews, enclosed spaces where the churchgoer could focus entirely on what was being said without distraction from others in the congregation. The print of October 1810 in Ackermann’s Repository [above] shows an attentive listener in her box pew. Hearing what was said was crucial and, as a charming reminder of that, the ear trumpets used by an early 19th century vicar’s wife can still be seen hanging on the back of the pulpit in Whitby church. [Below]

Pews were generally rented out so that the same families would occupy them for each service and, for the more prosperous, they soon acquired extra fittings and more comfort. They might be baize-lined, have wider seats with cushions and carpets on the floor. In winter little portable charcoal foot warmers would be introduced. Aristocratic families might well have extremely ornate pews built, separated from the rest of the church in a gallery, a continuation of much earlier practice. For large households the servants might have their own box pew at the back of the church or would occupy part of the gallery. Those unable to afford pew rents would have to stand or take advantage of free pews, often provided by charitable donations.

In Whitby church there is a pew marked ‘For Strangers Only’, to accommodate visitors to the town. At a time when not to attend a place of worship regularly might mark you out as a dangerous radical or freethinker, churches were crowded places on Sundays.

The board in the 1821 Fylingdales church commemorates the number of ‘free’ pews that had been provided in the newly rebuilt church.

But patterns of worship change and by the 1830s there was a move back towards what might be called ‘High Church’. Ritual, communion, vestments, a revival of Gothic styles of architecture and the influence of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement led to another change in church interiors. Box pews were ripped out wholesale, the altar was given renewed prominence and the pulpits were replaced or the old ones cut down in height with the two desk levels removed. Some Georgian interiors suffered more than others. In Coxwold church in Yorkshire the then vicar, Laurence Sterne (author of Tristram Shandy) installed high box pews in the 1760s. In 1906 they were cut down in height by 18 inches. His triple-decker pulpit was reduced in height to a single-decker in the 19th century. Many churches were entirely stripped of their Georgian fittings and ‘restored’ to a Victorian conception of what a medieval church ought to have been. Poet and architectural crusader John Betjeman derided these efforts in his “hymn” The Church’s Restoration.

The church’s restoration

In eighteen-eighty-three

Has left for contemplation

Not what there used to be…

Some churches were spared ‘restoration’, usually by lucky accident or poverty. The old church of St Stephen, perched high above the village of Flyingdales, North Yorkshire, was built in 1821 to replace a medieval church that had fallen into decay. Its interior is therefore complete in the Georgian style with box pews, the three-decker pulpit and seats on the eastern side turned so their occupants faced the preacher, not the altar.

In 1870 the new vicar, apparently despairing of converting the old building (and, reading between the lines, many of the parishioners) to the new ways of worship, had a new church built down in the heart of the village. This was not universally popular and a splinter group kept trying to use the old church for services until the vicar had it locked up except when it was used as a mortuary chapel serving its old graveyard. It is now in the care of the Redundant Churches Fund.

 

 

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“And Many a Frightful Face…”

For All Hallows Eve I am writing about Whitby for its connection with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This Gothic horror story was written in 1897, well outside my usual period, but the tale would have greatly appealed to readers of Gothic novels in the early part of the century and the ruins that inspired Stoker certainly had a spookily romantic effect on an earlier visitor.whitby-abbey-1813

Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Puckler-Muskau travelled extensively in England during his visits and left detailed diaries. In 1827 he found the little fishing town of Whitby picturesque, but dirty and “miserable”. He did admire the abbey “…now the property of some private individual…[whose] cattle feed among it mouldering walls” just as they do in William Daniell’s illustration (above) in his A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain…(1814).

von Puckler-Muskau visited the ruins of the abbey “..by the light of the young moon, and was enchanted by the romantic effect – lofty columns, darting up into the air like the slender trunks of pines; long rows of windows in good preservation, and many finely executed ornaments about them, still as perfect as if the wind of the first autumn now played among their ample arches. Other parts were quite altered and decayed, and many a frightful face lay scattered about, grinning at me in the moonlight.”

Perhaps it was those “frightful faces” that played on Bram Stoker’s imagination when he visited the abbey. Certainly its ruins, high on the cliff, would have been the first thing that was visible when the doomed ship bearing Count Dracula in his coffin full of Transylvanian earth sailed towards the coast. When it crashed to the shore the crew was found to be missing or dead and a great dog leapt ashore to vanish into the darkness…

Even in broad daylight the sight is impressive from the sea as I found earlier this year when I sailed into Whitby!

whitby-from-sea

 

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Captain James Cook 1728-1779

Jane Austen was born in 1775, four years before Captain James Cook was killed in Kealakekua Bay in the Hawaiian Islands, so he might seem somewhat early for this blog. Yet Cook was one of the pioneering explorers and scientist who created the world Jane lived in, a world of scientific discovery and dynamic maritime trade with London at its centre. (The portrait below is c1775, by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland)

Plus I seem to be bumping into Captain Cook everywhere I go on holiday!

captainjamescookportrait

At the age of eighteen, after a prosaic start in life on a Yorkshire farm and as a shopkeeper’s assistant, Cook was apprenticed to John Walker, master mariner, at Whitby. The red house in the photo is where Cook lived, occupying the attic with the other apprentices.apprentice-house

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where I met him most recently, landing by Zodiac from a small ship and seeing the lovely little port somewhat as Cook had seen it. A half-scale replica of his little ship, The Endeavour, is tied up in the harbour (picture below, right). Even at twice the size it is hard to imagine circling the globe in her.

In 1755 Cook, by then a mate on a merchant ship, joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer and proceeded to demonstrate what a farmer’s son, with a village school education, talent and ambition could achieve in the navy. By 1763, at the age of thirty five he was appointed Surveyor of Newfoundland and in 1768, Lieutenant Cook, in command of the Whitby collier Endeavour, was tasked with sailing to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.

endeavour

Observations of the planet Venus passing in front of the sun from various positions on the globe would, the astronomer Edmond Halley predicted, enable the distance of the earth from the sun. (Too complicated to go into here, but there’s a useful explanation on this site).

The Admiralty needed a navigator with exceptional accuracy and rigour and had chosen well: Cook made the observation successfully, then went on to complete the circumnavigation of New Zealand, landing in the bay he called Ship Cove. He revisited the Cove again on his voyage. He went on to survey the east coast of Australia, landing at Botany Bay. (Below: Ship Cove by John Webber, 1778 and the modern memorial in the cove)

ship-cove

cook-memorial

Cook returned home in 1770 and was then sent on his second great voyage in 1772 which involved sailing around the world from west to east, making Cook the first man to have circumnavigated the globe in both directions. He explored far into the south towards what we now know is Antarctica, seeking for the great southern landmass that was believed to exist. His was the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle and he returned with evidence that the southern continent, of which Australia was supposed to be part, did not exist.

He landed in New Zealand again and we were lucky enough to visit Pickersgill Harbour, a tiny, wild patch in the South Island’s fjord area that Cook had used for observations. It still looked just as the artist had depicted, even to the fallen trees that Cook made such good use of – ideal for the shallow-drafted Endeavour. (Below: on-site information board and Pickergill Harbour today)

dusky-sound-notice

pickersgill-harbour

On his way home Cook explored Easter Island, the Tongan Islands, aNew Caledonia and the New Hebrides, returning in 1775.

On his third voyage , beginning 1776, he landed in Tasmania, revisited New Zealand and landed in Tahiti and Tonga. In 1778 he was the first westerner to see the Hawaiian islands but carried on to attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. Stopped by ice he returned to winter in Hawaii, but on 14th February 1779 he was killed, along with four marines, when a dispute with the islanders exploded into violence.

It was a tragic incident, not least because Cook had been rigorous in setting out rules for his crew to ensure their interactions with the local people was peaceful and fair wherever he landed. It seems that Hawaiian society was very different from the southern Pacific peoples he had become used to and a series of tragic misjudgements and misunderstandings led to the fight.

His body was disembowelled, baked and the bones carefully cleaned and removed, all in accordance with local customs showing respect for dead chiefs and important elders. The crew managed to reclaim some of the remains which were buried at sea.

Cook was only fifty one at the time of his death and one wonders what discoveries he would have made if he only had a few more years to explore.

 

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