St Nicholas Church Tower

by E L Dale (assisted by Humphrey Arthure)

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 3 (1982)
Written by Captain E L Dale RN second son of Rev L W T Dale, Vicar of Chiswick 1857-1898, during whose tenure of the living the church, tower excepted, was rebuilt by Mr Henry Smith, churchwarden; with a letter to Rev Rich, dated 16/2/35.

To the old Church of Chiswick, which the Domesday book of St Paul’s Cathedral mentions as having been standing ‘many years in 1181’, the Rev William Bordall, as says the tablet now in the tower, added the existing tower about 1410-25. The Rev Bordall died on 15 October 1425 (vide tablet above mentioned) and the tower must have been finished before his death.

During the rebuilding of the church the warming chamber (built in 1879) had to be deepened, and speculations were many as to the depth of the foundations of the tower – at least fifteen feet said the many, not less than twelve feet said the few, the writer ventured to suggest six feet (from previous experience) and the scorn of ‘those who knew’ was at once poured on him ‘ad lib’. However everybody was quite wrong, for three feet six inches was all that the 15th century builders thought necessary, and one ‘set off’ or thickening in chalk is to be made, seen to this day in the heating chamber.

The stone arches of the rebuilt church are not surmounted with brick relieving arches; this, the writer was told, was never done by the old builders; however, on removing the plaster of the east wall of the tower to face it with Corsham ashlar to match the church, a relieving arch, in no less than three rings of brick, was found above the tower arch, little bricks, quite unlike those in use now and, said the architect, J L Pearson RA, undoubtedly 15th century work; arches of similar brickwork are in the interior arches of the bell chamber windows.

In 1900 an inspection of the interior of the tower, the bells and bell frame, showed a lamentable state of disrepair; the writer had known of this for many years, but the ‘powers that ruled’ improved and enlarged the organ and paid the choirmen, and let things in the tower go from bad to worse, remonstrance being useless.

In 1900 Mr W D Caroe was called in and, under his very able superintendence, the tower was gutted and a large sum spent in bricks and cement, and the tower was put into a complete state of repair and strengthened in every way inside, the six bells were removed to the Whitechapel foundry for tuning, and the peal re-hung in a new iron frame and two trebles added to complete the octave. In October 1901 the steeple music once more rang out over father Thames and the tower was rescued from 20 years of silence and degradation.

The restoration of 1869 was of the exterior only; true, the tenor bell was re-cast but nothing further was done and, the funds failing short, the designs were modified – the foliations were cut out of the upper windows of the tower, the west window was not carried up to nearly its original height, as anyone can see inside or out, and the mullions and the tracery of the window-well are emphatically not what they were in the original drawings while the battlements were deprived of one opening on each side, that is two instead of three on east, west and north and one instead of two on the south side.

Here let me say a word about the bells. Of the pre-Reformation bells little or nothing is known. A peal of six bells all dated 1656 were cast at the Chertsey foundry of Bryan Eldridge in that year and of these the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th form the lion’s share of the present peal of eight – on these there is no inscription but the date is found; there has never been any inscription, bells were not popular in the reign of ‘Old Noll’. The name of the same Churchwarden, Francis Sich, is on the re-cast tenor of 1869 and on the two trebles of 1901 and he held office for longer than that period, 33 years, which is said to be unique in the history of bell inscriptions.

There is, I believe, an entry in the church books in 1656: ‘Item, Pay’d Goody Blake 1/6 for cleaninge ye Church after ye Souldiers’. One and sixpence was a large sum in those days and no soldiers were quartered in churches in 1656.

Query – was she paid for cleaning the church after the workmen who put up the bells? It was best to be quiet about such matters then. Of the peal of eight in the tower of St Paul’s, Hammersmith, the treble (now the third) bears nothing but the date 1657, an addition to the five bells of 1634, and is from the same foundry and has figures or stamps. One curious fact will interest the reader – on the return of the bells in 1901 from the bell foundry it was pointed out to the writer that as the bell lent by the foundry was still in use as well as the old ‘ting tang’ or clock bell, the tower for a short time contained ten bells.

The spire is 39ft 9ins high and is quite modern. It was first built in 1662 so far as is known. It was burned off once in the 18th century and completely burned off one Easter Sunday, just before morning service, in the 1840s so I was informed by A M Wright (the sexton) who was pulling the bells and noticed the molten lead dropping through the rope holes in the ceiling. It was yet again partly burnt in 1872, little damage but much water, for a tremendously high tide lapped the walls of the churchyard during the afternoon of the conflagration.

The worthy sexton, Wright, will be remembered by many. As to the weather-cock, ‘he’ was blown down somewhere about 1890: he is 5ft 9in long and what he represents nobody knows, neither was anything found to indicate what he represents but probably it is St George and the Dragon.

The flagstaff is perhaps the most historical of all the tower fittings. On the flagpole of the seventies, long since replaced, was always hoisted the Royal Standard whenever the present King George V was in residence at Chiswick House, then rented by the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) as a nursery house for the children. It is to be wished that the flag may always be hoisted on Church and State occasions, leave alone the fact that at Christmas, as the writer remembers since 1867, a large wreath of holly was always hoisted at sunset on Christmas Eve.

The tower is 63 feet high to the top of the stonework of the battlements and 70ft 9ins over the stair turret; the tower is 15ft from west to east and 12 feet from north to south, not square. The walls are 3ft 6ins thick at the base and 2ft 9ins thick from the bell-chamber upwards. The staircase is mostly of brick inside and the trefoil and quatrefoil openings, two of which exist at the top and were replaced by plain slits, might well be restored as they were in 1425.

It may not be known that a priceless piece of sculpture is hidden in the tower in the north-west corner, an exquisite specimen of the work of Chauntrey, the head of ‘Thomas Tomkins’, placed in 1869 as it is now where it is in reach of any vandal who cares to deface it, subjected to the dangers of coffin trestles bashed against it by vergers and others as the writer has seen not seldom, it cries out to be moved to a place where it could be seen and admired and appreciated; the writer implored for its removal in 1883-4 during the re-building, but the organ was more important so nothing was done.

Upside down in the tower floor, during the re-building of the church, was found the Purbeck marble stone coffin lid, now, alas, outside the North Porch, dated about 1340. It is the oldest thing in Chiswick; the greater part of a lovely floriated cross was quite perfect in 1884, alas it is now mouldered away. Experts said then that it was probably the coffin lid of a long-departed Vicar of Chiswick, RIP. May it full soon be removed inside.

Let me conclude this paper by mentioning that none of the windows in the upper storeys of the tower are regular in position, nor opposite each other, north, south, east or west, and that the doorway to the stair turret is mostly of 15th century work.

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