From the archive: Unrestored Churches Survey, 1878

Share on:

The SPAB manifesto urges those who care for old buildings ‘to put Protection in the place of Restoration’. We looked in our archive to see some church casework of carried out by early members.  

One of the main motivations for founding the SPAB in 1877 was concern about the unsympathetic alteration or ‘restoration’ of historic churches to their imagined medieval appearance. The influential writer John Ruskin called restoration ‘a lie from beginning to end’ because it sought to change the character of a building by erasing evidence of its whole history. From the outset William Morris, Philip Webb and other founding members aimed to gather information about how which ancient churches survived unaltered. In 1878 the SPAB appealed to its network of members to help, and asked them to complete standard survey forms recording details of ‘Unrestored Churchesacross the country. 

One of these, St Nicholas, Studland - which has Norman origins – was recorded by SPAB architect Charles Vinall in March 1880, when cracks were observed. This led to detailed investigation and repair in 1881 and the church still stands today.

Philip Webb and William Morris were both actively involved in the survey. Webb visited St Nicholas Church, New Romney, Kent with the artist George Boyce on 16 August 1880.  Their survey form includes a plan of the church with measurements and a comment that the church is “In a very satisfactory state – on the whole – the walls piers etc being remarkably upright”. They did, however, highlight the fact that north wall of tower aisle and the west part of north aisle had just been pulled down and was being rebuilt. The Society subsequently wrote to the architect in charge of the works, John Oldrid Scott, and urged him to do no more than was necessary to repair the building since it was rare in having “been practically untampered with for many years”.

Morris visited Eastleach in Gloucestershire on 5 May 1884 to record the details of the two churches there. He diligently completed the requisite forms, recording for St Michael and St Martin's Church, Eastleach Martin that “This church wants some looking to, but almost any ‘restoration’ would quite spoil its curious character”.

We hope that the archive cataloguing project will identify more unrestored church survey forms which are a valuable resource for researchers and provide a wonderful snapshot of the state of unrestored churches in the late-19th century. 

Read about our John Betjeman Award for conservation in places of worship


Top: St Nicholas, Studland, SPAB archive

Bottom: St Nicholas Church, New Romney, Poliphilo / Wikicommons


Get involved