Last edited 30 Jul 2023

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Conservation skills training in a Norwich church

Setting up a volunteer team to undertake the work of cleaning church monuments provides skills training and routes to employment, and so can attract external funding for the project.

Cleaning ledgers.jpg
Left: Cleaning ledgers. Right: One of the uncleaned ledgers.

For the last year and a half, a team of volunteers has been steadily cleaning and polishing ledger slabs in St George’s Colegate. Guided by a skilled conservator, the group has brought together members of the congregation who work in partnership with volunteers from the Norwich Historic Churches Trust (NHCT) and the Matthew Project, a charity based in the parish, which works with recovering addicts.

St George is one of nine medieval parish churches which remain open for Anglican worship in the City of Norwich. Of the 63 medieval churches in the city, 31 survive. Eighteen are redundant and in the care of the NHCT, three are in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, and one is in private ownership. The city is rightly proud of this heritage and good work is done to maintain these buildings, nearly all of which have fittings and monuments which remind us of the city’s great trading past. The lives of its merchants, civic dignitaries and local gentry are recorded and celebrated in many fine sculptural monuments and ledger stones, but these rarely attract the attention they deserve.

St George Colegate serves the parish of ‘Norwich over the water’, to the north of the river Wensum, and an early settlement. It is now a mixed commercial and residential area. A handsome, spacious building with nave and aisles, largely rebuilt in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, it has a fine west tower. A spectacular terracotta chest tomb to Robert Jannys, twice mayor of the city, who died in 1530, sits in the north-west chapel. The interior has 18th- and 19th-century furnishings, and an organ of 1812 on a western gallery, all reflecting the wealth of its parishioners. Many of them are celebrated in a fine set of wall monuments and ledgers. All is well illuminated on sunny mornings when light floods in through the plain-glazed windows.

The building is in reasonable condition, having had substantial grants to aid repair of the tower and roofs in the last 30 years. The small congregation pays its way and manages routine maintenance. An NHLF grant some years ago supported research on the monuments, their dusting, and the publication of informative leaflets about the building and the parish, and the recording and mapping of ledger slabs, with the work carried out by members of the congregation, including Bryan Ayers.

But the wall monuments remained largely dirty and some needed repair, so I invited the conservator Deborah Carthy to visit and appraise the situation. She undertook a survey of the monuments, and we are researching their sculptors. Deborah also highlighted the opportunity to clean and polish the ledger slabs.

With no simple way to obtain funding for a full professional repair of monuments, I talked to Deborah about setting up a volunteer team to undertake the work. She and I had worked together on such a scheme in Newcastle Cathedral, and we were both keen to offer our time and experience. Such schemes can provide skills training and routes to employment, and can thus attract external funding.

But before launching into such an ambitious scheme, we decided to begin work, in a low-key way, on the ledger slabs. We set up an initial training week in partnership with the NHCT and the Matthew Project. Deborah taught a team of us how to gently clean out inscriptions, remove years of dirt and grease from the slabs, and apply polish which can be regularly buffed up. Within three days we saw amazing improvements in the ledgers and committed to continuing the work.

Our ledger stones are largely black ‘marble’ (a polished limestone from the low countries, brought to Norwich in ships returning from exporting finished woollen goods). Ledger slabs which cover burials in the church superseded brass memorials, and date from the early 17th century to the early 19th century, when burials within churches became illegal. We encouraged our volunteers to learn more by watching a lecture given by Julian Litten for the Churches Conservation Trust – the talk starts about 17 minutes in.

There are three stages in the cleaning process, which begins with picking out the dirt from lettering and associated designs using toothbrushes and wooder skewers. This first stage can take several sessions but it is a rewarding task. Next, we sweep or vacuum before applying Nitromors over the slab. This is left for a minimum of 20 minutes before being washed off with water and cotton wool, and left to dry. The next stage is to apply Johnson’s Traffic Wax, which takes an hour or so to dry, after which it is polished up using paper.

Our volunteer team meets fortnightly for a couple of hours, and we provide skills training for young and old. After 15 months we have cleaned and polished about three quarters of the slabs in the church and we are looking ahead to a more challenging project: the wall monuments. The PCC has obtained a faculty to clean and conserve the wall monuments, using a volunteer team to be led by Deborah. She would be on site throughout to teach and supervise the cleaning, and carry out some refixing and repairs to damaged sculpture. We will need a few dedicated volunteers who can commit to one and two weeks’ continuous work, and who will be comfortable on scaffolds.

We would like to build on volunteer work carried out on the NHCT’s churches, and thus establish St George Colegate as a centre for training in conservation skills. The needs and opportunities in our city’s surviving 31 medieval churches must surely demand it.

This article originally appeared in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 175, published in March 2023. It was written by Jane Kennedy who was a partner at Purcell, and worked on the conservation of churches, cathedrals and country houses.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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