St Matthew’s Church Cobo
A Report and description of it’s architecture and construction
and events following it’s completion.
given to P E Guilbert
George M. Bramall B. Arch. Hons. Arch. (Sheffield) RIBA.
Peter Girard B.Sc.
The simple church of St. Matthew of Cobo is an excellent example of the scholarly work of a little known London ecclesiastical architect combining with the skills of Guernsey masons of that time and through the caring benevolence of a well known island family creating an architectural gem of the Victorian period.
The Romanesque style of the church is so fitting for an island whose heritage is so closely linked with the Norman homeland only a few miles away in the Contentin on the continental coast of Europe.
Few of our early ecclesiastical buildings still show the art and skill of the eleventh century Norman builders – only the vaulted chancel of the Vale church and a few scattered stones on Lihou island give an indication of the beauty of the Romanesque buildings that graced these islands – and even these are not in our local granite, but in the much easier to work stone imported from Caen.
At St. Matthew’s we have all the beauty of those ancient mouldings and carvings recreated again in Victorian times in our own much harder, though warmer, brown granite from the Cobo quarries nearby.
The church is sheltered from the north by the rocky pine covered headland of the Guet, once a bare outcrop of granite dominating the west coast of the island, surmounted by a Georgian watch-house and battery for defensive cannon. The headland is sculptured on the seaward and the east side by the stone quarry workings, the brown granite which provided so much of the builder’s material to create the attractive vernacular architecture of the surrounding area and of Victorian St. Peter Port.
The road from the coast at Albecq to the estate of St. George, runs along the crest of a north-south ridge and the field, now the graveyard, in which the church stands above the sloping field and comprises the basic components of any religious structure, nave, chancel, porch and priest’s vestry arranged traditionally on an east-west axis.
The Laying of the Foundation Stone
The 21st of September 1852 must have been a great day for the community – the laying of the Foundation Stone. The Star newspaper of that date records the event and on the following day reports the ceremony as follows:-
Report on the Laying of the Foundation Stone.
‘Long before the appointed hour many a household gathering, many a group of happy children were seen emerging from the cottages near the seashore and bending their steps in holiday attire along the romantic lanes of that picturesque neighbourhood to the scene of attraction.
Over the entrance to the ground was suspended a legend worked in flowers appropriately directing the thoughts of all to the Giver of all good, by it’s inscription “Louez le Seigneur”.
The site of the church was marked out by St. George’s banner at the west end and by an embroidered flag at the east end, which floated aloft with the prayerful motto “QUE DIEU DIRIGE L’OEVRE DE NOS MAINS”.
The weather was propitious. The sun shone brightly upon the solemnity and the north west wind sweeping widely over the foaming waves of Vazon and causing “the floods to clap their hands with joy”, added to it’s invigorating charm to the wild grandeur of the scene.
Two hundred and eighty school children attended the ceremony. The foundation stone was lowered into place – a fine piece of granite – by Miss Carey daughter of the late General Peter Carey, while the Reverend James Maingy, the Rector of the Parish officiated.
As at all Victorian public occasions tea was provided afterwards, on this occasion in the Castel Infant School with Mrs. General Carey supplying “a bountiful supply of tea and ‘gache a corinte'”.
The concept of the church at Cobo was that of a young lady, Marianne Carey, who even from her childhood was obsessed with the idea to help the “poor old people” of Cobo who had to walk more than 2 miles to their parish church of the Castel. from the age of sixteen she cajoled and persuaded members of the Carey family and their friends to support her own efforts in providing the finances for the building of the church. The story of the raising of the money is told in detail by her grand-daughter Mrs. Thomas in the Review of the Guernsey Society – Winter 1977, and the following extract has been taken from that issue.
‘In the years between 1831 and 1839, Major General Peter Carey and his wife Julia (daughter of General the Rt. Hon. Sir George Hewitt) were living in the Isle of Wight; they used to bring their young family to Guernsey for the summer months most years. Their youngest daughter Marianne, was very fond of Cobo and liked to celebrate her birthday in July by having a picnic there.
On one particular visit when they had walked from Havilland Hall, accompanied by some of their cousins from La Chaumiere, Marianne who was not as strong as the rest, felt very weary and went to lie down on the Rocque du Guet. From there, she looked down on the houses of the fisher folk and felt great compassion for them as their nearest church was the parish church of the Castel, more than two miles distant, and she doubted if they ever went there.
The need for a church had been in her mind even from the age of five years, when one Sunday she saw everyone on the way to Castel Church. She went to her father, reading his paper, and said she was so sorry for those “poor people” (almost nobody over 25!”) having so far to walk, and she wanted to build a church for them at Cobo. General Carey swallowed hard, said it was rather a tall order for someone so young, but she should come again when she was older.
He probably forgot the whole thing, but Marianne did not. Meanwhile, she was a good an dutiful daughter, and as she got older a great many things occupied her time: sewing of all kinds, schoolwork, district visiting, walking with her father, keeping her brothers amused, reading to old people and so on – quite unlike the present day concept of the idle Victorian young girl. But at the age of 17 she again went to her father and this time he gave his permission, with the proviso that she was not to use her beautiful voice to make money for the scheme.
Marianne began by selling a series o f £1 pictures which she had bought, framed and sold for 2 guineas. Then her sister Caroline became very ill and needed reading to and other attentions so this delayed the serious work of raising enough money to build her church. But inspired by a book about a peasant girl in France who founded a hospital, the two girls pondered on what could be done. Caroline, who died soon afterwards and was buried in Guernsey, arranged to leave £200, her parents gave her another £200, Marianne herself gave £300, and then she went to see her various relations begging what they could spare.
She went to see her “Aunt Mourant”, (Sophy, the widow of Peter Mourant), who was usually generous; but she had never heard of anything so mad, what was Marianne’s father thinking about, and she would not give money to mad folk! Had she been to see her uncle Dean Carey? He would certainly refuse and then as Marianne turned to go out, probably feeling rather depressed, the aunt added “If he does give you anything, I’ll double it – but he won’t!”. In actual fact the Dean was thrilled with his niece’s persistence and gave her £20. So Aunt Mourant had to cough up £40.
Gradually the money came in and culminated in a total of £1600, which in those days was sufficient to build a good church with 300 seats. Other gifts were as important – her godmother, Mrs. Thomas Carey (sister of Cardinal Manning) offered to build the Vicarage, the site for the church was given by Mr. de Beaucamp of Cobo, the Rev. William Collings presented the turret, two bells and the lychgate, and the Rev. Lord de Saumarez and Col. the Hon. St. Vincent Saumarez, the churchyard.
But a great blow was in store. The Dean said “This will be useless unless there is a Vicar to serve the Church. Where and how do you propose to find him?”. The endowment for a Vicar’s salary would need to be a minimum of £2000. However, again things went well, the Dean was a great help and a further sum of £300 was raised to start the endowment fund which built up the required amount.
At some time in the early 1850s, contact had been made by the Carey family with the architect Mr. John Johnson of No. 9 St. John Street, Adelphi, London. It is interesting to speculate how this meeting came about, and at the present time, more research has to be carried out on this point. Johnson does not appear to have been a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, although he was a most talented architect and in association with his partner F. B. Newman, was responsible for many building projects. To date we have no information on his pupilage or early career, although he was a Royal Academy medalist and student; and had exhibited at the Academy on several occasions. The RIBA have a few drawings of his in their collection but, regrettably, the drawings of St. Matthew’s have not yet been traced.
John Johnson – Architect
At the Royal Academy, he exhibited the following works: –
• 1848 Design, Army and Navy Club, Pall Mall.
• 1851 St. Edwards Church, Romford, Essex.
• St. Saviours Church, Walmer Beach, Kent.
• Christ Church, etc., Stratford le Bow, Essex.
In association with his partner F. B. Newman he also exhibited the following at the Academy:-
• 1852 Church, Thornhill Square, Islington.
At that time the practice address was given as 12, Furnival’s Inn.
Johnson was born in 1807 and started his career with honours, gaining the Gold Medallion of the Royal Society of Arts for a competition design in 1833, the silver Meal of the R.A. in 1835 and the Travelling Studentship in 1836. He travelled to Italy under this studentship and remained abroad it is believed until 1840, bringing back with him a valuable collection of sketches. This experience, the Builder of 11th Jan 1879 states “assisted no doubt, to develop the excellence he always displayed in detail and colour”.
His obituary in the magazine of the same date also gives the following information:-
‘His best works, perhaps best known to the general public, were the decorations of Her Majesty’s Theatre for Mr. Lumley, and his designs for the Alexandra Palace; for the latter work, he was in 1877 made a Fellow of the Florentine Academy, an honour totally unexpected on his part, till he received his Diploma through our Ambassador. His designs for the terraces at Lancaster Gate, and Prince’s Gate, Hyde Park, for Sir John Kelk, are also well known. He published a book called “Johnson’s Churches of Northampton”, which for reference was highly useful to architects. Mr. Johnson was for some years District Surveyor for East Hackney; but though it was a lucrative appointment, he found it interfered with those occupations which were more congenial to his taste – and he resigned.
Though seventy one years of age, he may be truly said to have died “in harness”, for in 1878 he carried out an Italian design for a large mansion for Sir John Kelk at Tedworth, Wilts,. at a cost of £45000; and also completed the design, details and contract for a church at the same place to cost £12000, which when finished will certainly be the most perfect of his works.’
In addition to being a very fine and talented architect, a further obituary states:-
‘It would appear that Mr. Johnson was a fisherman of renown. He was a member of the Piscatorial Society and their books recall some wonderful takes of fish in the early parts of his life. In the year 1866, he obtained the leading prize for the greatest weight of fish, there being a total of some 550 lbs. placed to his credit. He was also up to his death, the ‘author’ of the Club in conjunction with his old friend Mr. Thomas Gillatt.’
Mr. Johnson was an old member of the Thames Angling Preservation Society, and for the last ten years was on of it’s general Committee.
John Johnson died on the 28th. September 1888.
What a coincidence that the architect of the church had such a close affinity with the occupations of the greater part of it’s congregation!
Builder of the church
The builder was Messrs. Daniel de Putron and Sons – a well known and highly respected island contractor of the Victorian period. The quality of the firm’s workforce, both in workmanship of the granite and timber would be difficult to match today. The firm specialised in ecclesiastical work and was later in the century responsible for St. Barnabas and St. Stephen’s churches in St. Peter Port, the construction of Elizabeth College Gymnasium and Swissville in the Rohais.
The construction of St. Matthew’s was marred by an unusual and unfortunate incident which caused a delay to the completion of the building. The chancel arch which is of very generous proportions collapsed in the course of construction. A report prepared by an inspector at the time states that the cause was:-
“.. opposing weight on the spring of the arch insufficient for the central weight of the bell turret, which had been increased six feet lately by Johnson the Architect. This was already thirty feet above the chancel arch, so that the cause of the accident is easily made out – want of resisting force at the sides where strong buttresses should have been constructed – or a transept wall at the spring of the arch. Probably the pulpit opening, weakened the side. The roof was not yet up fortunately. This accident will throw back the use of the church till next year.”
This was the case and the church was not completed until November 1854.
The completion, however, was worth all the skilled labour and love in it’s creation. The following extracts from newspapers of the time describe the building in detail:-
• The church on the heights of Albecq is dedicated to St. Matthew and consists of nave and chancel with belfry standing over the chancel arch pierced for two bells. On the south side of the nave is a low but neat porch with a bold Norman semicircular arch enriched with some of the usual simple ornaments of that style. The large door leading into the nave from this porch is handsome and gives much credit to the workmen under whose hand it has been formed; – the iron scrollwork on it’s elegant and not too elaborate design.
• The chancel has a small but neat vestry or sanctuary with a side entrance leading to the Minister’s house and on the opposite side of the choir a Norman door through the South wall. Near this is a small vestibule which forms also a passage into the pulpit on the same side. Opposite to it on the outside of the chancel arch is the reading desk.
• The chancel which is a semi-circular apse has fine small windows filled with coloured glass containing scriptural subjects, the gift of the late General Carey’s family. Externally they are round headed, but the straight lintel supported by the splay of the jambs produces somewhat of an imperfect trefoil when viewed from inside the church.
• The windows of the nave are plain Norman on both sides, but the western gable has three ornamental lights which externally are enriched with Norman indented mouldings. The terminal point of this end, as well as that of the belfry, is surmounted by a stone cross of Grecian variety.
• The stone font is of Norman style, elaborately worked with transitional foliations of trefoils and quatrefoils in several series producing a very neat effect with it’s handsome covering of oak and iron.
• The roof is externally covered in slates. The construction of the timber work within is plain and so raised as to give considerable height to the interior area of the church. in these islands we are not accustomed to meet with these open roofs in our churches.
• They are better calculated for comfort than the stone vaulted roofs of our ancient structures.
• The small ornamental gable over the chancel roof is particularly striking; but the necessity of this sort of termination is not quite apparent to us.
• The floor of the chancel is beautifully paved with encaustic tiling and the altar is raised on a floor of the same material, but of a different elegant pattern. The communion table and it’s furniture appear neat and appropriate. The whole, we believe the munificent gifts of friends of the new church. The font which is the free gift of several young persons is beautifully executed in Caen stone, the four evangelists being carved on the plinth. The poor box likewise a freewill offering represents the incident of the widow casting her mite into a treasury with the French inscription “Dieu aime ceux qui donne gaiment” – ‘The Lord loveth a Cheerful Giver’.
Dimensions of the building
The following are the dimensions of the edifice extracted from The COMET Thur. December 7th 1854 :-
• Length of Nave 60 feet
• Breadth 28 feet in the clear
• Chancel 27 feet by 16 feet
• It contains 301 free sittings.
A final extract from the STAR newspaper of the same date sums up the quality and charm of the building:-
“To both parties (architect and builder) the building is highly creditable, the design and execution being alike excellent. The general plan appears to be in accordance with the best principles of ecclesiastic architecture and it has been carried out even in it’s minutest details with admirable fidelity and skill”
What more can one add to the most delightful Victorian gem in Guernsey!
Information from Mrs. C.P. J. Fyffe who left an entry in the visitor’s book – 1991 – her great grandmother Julia Carey was Marianne’s eldest sister her father was Peter Carey – son of John Carey and his wife Marie Le Ray who lived at La Bigoterie in SPP. Marianne was born 22nd July 1826 – married 4th October 1853 Colonel Dugald Stuart Miller of Ayreshire and died 27th November 1912. letter dated 31st August 1992.
– Peter E Guilbert