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St. Martin’s in the Bull Ring Birminghamby Colin Hickman

Birmingham’s Bull ring is a remarkable example of post World War 2 modernism with concrete flyovers, underpasses, high rise office buildings and pedestrian areas. Amidst all this stands fair and square the solid Victorian Church of St. Martin’s, the Parish Church of Birmingham. Here day in and day out the church is open to receive visitors who look round or spend time in prayer.

The church you see may look old and have a timeless aura but, in fact, it was only built in 1873 to the designs of J.A. Chatwin, a gothic specialist who had worked with Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin on the Houses of Parliament. Chatwin was a Birmingham man and so it was entirely appropriate that he was chosen to design St.Martin’s.

Although comparatively young, the building stands on a very old ecclesiastical site for there has been a church on this spot from at least the 13th century and it is almost certain that there was one in 1166 when Henry 11 granted a charter for a market.

The first known building may have been a simple rectangular 12th century nave with an apse such as that depicted on an old map of Warwickshire in the Bodleian Library.

A few stones have survived from this period but they do not tell us much. These can be found in the Guild Chapel.

St Martin's Church Published March 20th 1795We are on surer ground with the second church, which replaced the 12th century one. Round about 1290, a member of the de Bermingham family built a new church. The trouble with the 1290 church was that its construction was of red sandstone – a soft material that weathered badly over the years. By 1690 there was serious deterioration of the fabric, which is why the whole building, the tower included though not the spire, was encased in three thickness' of red brick. For the next 200 years the church looked like a factory, lacking only smoke coming out of the spire. Even that did not stop the erosion of the sandstone.
In 1849 the rector of Birmingham Dr.John Miller, commissioned an architect, Philip Hardwicke, to draw up a blueprint for restoration of St.Martin’s. At the same time he launched an appeal for £12,000 to carry out the work. In the end his scheme was abandoned, as £5,000 was the maximum he was able to raise.
However, Dr. Miller used the money for a thorough restoration of the tower and spire which work was completed in 1855. The top stone was placed on the spire in the presence of Prince Albert on the 22nd November 1855. It was not until some 17 years later, in 1872 that Miller’s successor, Dr.William Wilkinson decided upon more drastic measures. His plan was to demolish the building with the exception of the tower and spire, down to the foundations and rebuild in high gothic style.

Picture above is St Martin's Church March 20th 1795 Published by T Pearson Birmingham. In an History of Birmingham by W. Hutton, F.A.S.S The Third Edition MDCCXCV

‘Brummie’ Architect

Demolishion in 1872It was then that ‘Brummie’ architect Alfred Chatwin was called in. His scheme of rebuilding was to cost £32,000 – a very large sum in Victorian Times. Dr. Wilkinson had almost as much difficulty in raising money as his predecessor had. However, he was an enterprising man and when only half the cash had been raised decided to start the work.

On October 27th 1872, Dr. Miller was invited back to preach at the last service in the old building. Less than 12 hours later, demolition began and the congregation moved into exile at St.Peter’s, Dale End. There must have been some nostalgia, but it did not go deep; as one member of St.Martin’s put it, "We saw with no regrets, the destruction of that ugly brick building which successive generations of meddlers and muddlers had tacked on to a fine spire"

The demolition work was carried out with great skill, much of our knowledge of the medieval church being derived from the care with which it was done. Workmen also discovered that the ends of the beams across the center of the chancel were rotten and that the pillar erected to support two large galleries was built on soil with no foundations and close to a vault containing crumbling coffins. At any moment, there could have been a terrible accident, and Dr. Wilkinson, concerned about raising money, suggested that "those who had sat in danger should double their subscriptions as a thank-offering for their deliverance."



Burne-Jones Window


Alfred Chatwin’s plan was to retain the recently restored tower and spire and build on to them a new church, fifty feet longer than the old one, with north and south transepts, in the Gothic tradition. On the 20th July 1875 it was consecrated by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr Henry Philpott

On the site rose the majestic gothic building we see today – a minor masterpiece of Victorian architecture. Although Chatwin had intended to have stained glass only in the west and east windows, all the windows were filled with it, which gave the church a mysterious and numinous character. The window in the South Transept was designed by Burne-Jones and is a very fine example of his work.


Bomb damageToday you will find only fragments of Victorian glass in the church – with the notable exception of the Burne-Jones window. This is because disaster struck on the night of April 10 1941 when Birmingham was bombed. One of the bombs landed outside the west door, blasting the great oak framework from its base, bringing down stonework and masonry of the west wall and gable. Not a window remained. There was also much damage to stonework. The saviour of the Burne-Jones window was the then Bishop of Birmingham, Dr.W.E.Barnes who must have had some sort of premonition on the day of the raid, as he sent an order for the immediate removal of the window. It was at once removed and stored in boxes. That night the bombers struck but the window was saved, and is there for all to enjoy today. In spite of the devastation, the rubble was cleared away and the church was soon in use again for its proper purpose although in cold weather the congregation shivered as there was no heating, and in wet weather they bought their umbrellas as rain poured in through the nave roof.


All digital photographs by Colin Hickman, December 2000




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