I recently read a post on the Exploring Southwark website about this mysterious little building. It’s a mini structure in a children’s playground in Camberwell, in South London, which has recently received a blue plaque from the Borough of Southwark. According to the new plaque, it is the porch of old St Giles, the old parish church with medieval origins which burnt down in the nineteenth century and was replaced by the current building designed by George Gilbert Scott.
The current parish church of St Giles, re-built in Victorian times after the fire.
An article in the Southwark News on the unveiling of the plaque claims that the porch is 862 years old. But Zoe Lyons, from Exploring Southwark, wonders if it might actually be Victorian. Since I’m a historian of medieval architecture, happen to live round the corner and have a soft spot for St Giles, I thought I’d have a crack at solving the mystery! Is the porch medieval or not? How do you work out if something is medieval or not?
These days Camberwell is firmly part of inner London, so it’s hard to believe that it was once a small village surrounded by agricultural land. There has been a church on this site for at least a thousand years. About a century after the Norman conquest (1066 and all that….) the church was re-built. The re-building began in 1154, which would make it 862 years old if it were still standing today (hence why the Southwark News claims the porch is that old). The church from the twelfth-century was changed a lot over the centuries (we’ll come back to that later) but parts of it probably did survive until the Victorian fire finally finished it off. Read more about the history of the church here.
Does the porch come from the Victorian Vicarage?
Before we look at the medieval church, let’s start with Exploring Southwark’s suggestion that the porch might be Victorian. Until the 1960s, the land opposite the church was Glebe land and part of it was occupied by a large Victorian vicarage. In the 1960s the church sold the land to the Council, who pulled down the vicarage to build flats.
Watercolour painting of St Giles’ vicarage, painted in 1963 by Russell Reeve, now in the Cuming Museum.
The Southwark Heritage Collection has a picture of the vicarage and Zoe Lyons, quite rightly, noticed a similarity between the porch with the blue plaque and the one in the painting. She wondered if the porch in the children’s playground might actually be the one in the painting, that was perhaps salvaged when the vicarage was destroyed. I don’t think this is the case (although it’s a good idea). First of all, the vicarage was built in red brick and the porch is not. That alone is enough to make me discount the idea. Second, old maps show the vicarage garden with a small structure in the exact location of the current children’s playground. I had a very quick look through some old maps and the porch structure seems to have been in the same place at the end of the vicarage garden since at least 1875. The porch was put on the listed buildings register in 1954, about ten years before the vicarage was demolished (you can see the listing from Historic England here). I can just imagine the vicars’ children playing in it, or maybe it was used to store tools or have picnics.
A map showing the vicarage and the ‘porch’ at the end of the garden. Taken from Southwark Council’s collection of old maps.
Now for the Detective work!
Well, it’s not from the vicarage, but is it medieval? The best way to work out the date and function of a building is to look at it really carefully. So let’s take a closer look at this porch.
What can we see? There are a few clues that it comes from a religious building. First of all, there is a little niche above the doorway. That would have been a space for a religious figure – probably saint Giles himself but possibly the Virgin Mary, with or without Christ. The niche is quite shallow so the image of the holy figure was probably carved in relief (a sculpture that is quite flat). This statue announced which saint the church was dedicated to and it also gave people the opportunity to pray without going inside the church: as people were passing by, they would be able to look up at the statue of the saint and cross themselves and say a prayer.
There is a similar niche above the porch in the current church, with a statue of saint Giles in it.
The porch of the current church, with a statue of St Giles in a niche above the door.
The second clue that the porch came from a religious building can only be seen if you go inside. On the interior walls, at about hip-height, we can see some strange dents in the wall. These are where there were once containers to hold holy water (often called a stoup). As they went in and out of the church, people would have been able to dip their fingers in the water and use it to make the sign of the cross. They did this for two reasons. First, to remind themselves of their baptism as a baby, when they symbolically entered the church community. Secondly, because holy water protects people.
This is what’s left of the holy water stoups.
What’s the date?
So far, this does indeed seem to be a church porch that we’re dealing with. But when was it built?
Again, there are two clues that can help us. The first clue is in the arched doorway and the second clue is in the materials that the porch is made of. So, let’s look at the arch. This is a pointed arch and that tells us a lot about the date. From the time of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, the style of architecture in England was called either ‘Romanesque’ or ‘Norman’ (both terms are fine and mean the same thing but I prefer Romanesque). This kind of architecture is based on round arches, like this:
A Romanesque doorway from the St Mary’s Church in Chepstow.
Our porch has a pointed, Gothic arch. That means it doesn’t come from the Norman church built in 1154. It must have been built later. Gothic architecture began in Paris just before the 1150s, but it hadn’t reached England yet, let alone a small parish church in the country village of Camberwell. Small parish churches don’t tend to get the latest trendy architecture. The church built in 1154 probably had a doorway that looked a bit like one in the picture of St Mary’s in Chepstow above.
Now let’s look at the materials the porch is built from. Materials can tell us a lot. The porch walls are made of flint, a traditional building material in the south of England. Flints are stones that look matt, dull and white-ish on the outside but are shiny, smooth and darker-coloured on the inside. They are an excellent building material, very strong and durable.
You can see that flint looks like a boring old stone on the outside but dark and interesting on the inside (photo source).
Up until the fourteenth century flint walls looked quite rough and uneven, with a lot of the matt white part of the stone on display (a good example is the tower you can see here). But by the fourteenth century, builders had improved their technique and flint walls look neater and the smooth dark surface of the inside of the stones was more visible. Like our porch.
All this makes me think that our porch was probably built in the fourteenth century. In fact, we know that major alterations were carried out at St Giles in the 1340s. So that fits nicely.
Are you sure it comes from St Giles?
In her article in Exploring Southwark, Zoe Lyons also showed an 18th century engraving of St Giles. The engraving has a porch but, as Zoe points out, the porch in the engraving has a square doorway that looks nothing like the actual porch in the children’s playground. This is a really good point.
Engraving of Old St Giles made in 1798. From the Southwark Heritage Collection.
The engraving seems to show the north side of the church, the side that faces onto Camberwell Church Street (the view that residents of Camberwell have always been most familiar with). But the majority of the churchyard is on the south side of the church. The current church has porches on both sides and it’s likely that the old building did too. So the fact that the porch doesn’t look exactly like the one in the engraving doesn’t mean that we should discount it.
Medieval or not?
I’ve only thought about this very briefly but my best guess is that this is indeed one of the porches from old St Giles. It did survive the fire and it was moved to the vicarage garden. But it certainly isn’t 862 years old. I think it was probably built in the 1340s.
That makes it late medieval.
I’m thinking of doing a second post with a few more thoughts on the porch, so stay tuned for part two!