705This article is a summary of a talk given by Neil Rees, to the Chess Vale Archaeological and Historical Society at Chesham Town Hall, on Friday October 21, 2022.
One the most famous architects in British history is George Gilbert Scott. He was the most prolific Victorian architect and during his career he designed or restored about 850 buildings. His most famous buildings are St Pancras Hotel in London, the Albert Memorial, and the many cathedrals across Britain which he restored. However, what is not well known is that many of his earliest works can still be seen locally in the Chesham and Amersham area. This is the story….
The Scott Family
George Gilbert Scott came from an Anglican family which produced many vicars of the evangelical low church variety, which meant that they emphasised a living personal faith. In his memoirs he wrote “I was born at Parsonage House at Gawcott near Buckingham on July 13th, 1811. My father, like myself was born in Bucks.” Four of his brothers, went to Cambridge and become vicars. Although he had his own Christian faith, he did not follow them into the ministry. He preferred to explore the villages of north Bucks, and sketch architecturally interesting buildings, especially its many mediaeval churches.
Coming to Latimer
His father’s youngest sister Elizabeth Scott married Rev Samuel King. He wrote that “my Uncle King was presented to the living of Latimers. Our visits to which place were the brightest spots in my early life.” His uncle and aunt undertook to tutor him when he turned 15, and so in 1826 George Gilbert Scott moved to Latimer, then called Isenhampstead Latimers, where his uncle was rector. Whilst there he used to explore the Chess Valley area and he sketched local churches. He wrote: “This little valley is not much known to the world around though of exquisite beauty.”
In 1827 George Gilbert Scott started a four-year apprenticeship with James Edmeston in Homerton, Middlesex, where he learnt about building. In his free time at summer and Christmas, he visited his family in Bucks, when he would visit local churches and sketch them. Mr Edmeston wrote seriously to his father warning him that his son was employing his leisure hours on matters, which could never by any possibility be of any practical use.
Doctor’s house, Chesham
From 1832 to 1834 George Gilbert Scott worked as a clerk to Henry Roberts, another architect, and he started designing houses. In 1833, Scott’s father became vicar to the village of Wappenham in Northants, and he asked his son to design him a new vicarage. This was his first ecclesiastical commission. After this, Scott’s Chesham friend Dr Henry Rumsey asked him to design a new doctor’s house and surgery. This was finished in 1834 and was Scott’s first secular commission. It still stands as 16 High Street, Chesham, next to the George and Dragon. It is currently occupied by the Sue Ryder (formerly Mackays) store, and is a Grade II listed building.
In 1835 George Gilbert Scott started his own architect’s business. In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act created Workhouses and his firm designed over 40 new workhouses. In 1837 Amersham Union wanted a new workhouse and asked him to design it. At this time, he was experimenting with the Tudor style. From 1924, this became Amersham hospital, and is now modern flats. You can still see “1838”, the year it was built, and “A. V.” (for Amersham Union) in the brickwork.
Meanwhile in the 1830s, Rev Samuel King, rector of Latimer, had concerns about Flaunden church which he also was vicar of. The old church in Flaunden was by the River Chess and was prone to flooding, was little used and falling into ruins. Much of the village of Flaunden had moved up the hill to avoid flooding, where in 1836, a Baptist chapel had been built, which local people were going to instead of the old Anglican church by the river. So, in 1837 Rev Samuel King got a grant for a new church at the top of the hill, which he asked his nephew to design. The new church was in Tudor style built with local flints. Today it is a well-loved church and Grade II listed. This was the first church George Gilbert Scott designed.
In 1848, George Gilbert Scott 1848 inspected Aylesbury Parish Church and spoke about it at the Bucks Architectural and Archaeological Society. As a result, in 1849 he was commissioned to restore the church, which was completed in 1851. The success of this resulted in more local work. He was then commissioned to restore over 20 Anglican churches across Buckinghamshire mainly in the Vale of Aylesbury, but also in south Bucks at Iver, Taplow and Bledlow. Near Chesham he was also commissioned to design a new church for Bourne End (between Berkhamsted and Boxmoor) in 1853. In the 1860s he was also commissioned to restore the churches at Sarratt and Chesham, and build an extension for his uncle’s church at Latimer.
In Chesham the St Mary’s Church tower was becoming dangerous, and the church building needed restoring and updating. George Gilbert Scott was chosen to lead the project. Most significantly, the tower was strengthened, the roof repaired, and the church given an east window. Inside Scott removed the galleries, high-sided pews and three-tiered pulpit. The church was given a new font, and smaller wooden pews and pulpit, to make it more practical for contemporary Christian worship. The work was completed in 1869. Although the church has been updated since, the current style dates from Scott’s restoration.
In 1871 George Gilbert Scott was knighted. He died in 1878 aged 66, and is buried at Westminster Abbey. Today about 600 of his structures are listed as historic buildings, which is more than any other architect. The most recent memorial to him came in 1999, when Amersham Workhouse was converted to flats and named “Gilbert Scott Court”.