Building the church
The church and the almshouses next door were designed by Halifax architect William Swinden Barber, to form a single unit. He was asked to create ‘a church in the style of ‘the latter part of the 13th century’ with ‘a simplicity of outline in the leading features being preferred to a profusion of ornament’.
The architectural style was called Gothic Revival, inspired by 13th century Gothic art and architecture. It was very popular in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly for privately commissioned churches like St James the Less. While the exterior was very plain, the interior decoration was colourful and dramatic. The shape of the church, emphasising the chancel, is a key feature of the Gothic Revival style.
The church was built in local stone by local craftsmen with names that are familiar in New Mills to the present day. The site foreman was a Mr Pollitt, the mason in charge was Thomas Stafford and the joiner was Joseph Hudson. Thomas Stafford built many houses in New Mills at the end of the nineteenth century, and there is a ‘Stafford Street’ just down the hill from Spring Bank.
The artistic movements of the nineteenth century placed great value on the work of the craftsman and Swinden Barber is reported as being well pleased and bearing ‘ungrudging testimony to the good workmanship and willingness’ with which his instructions had been carried out.
The architect: William Swinden Barber
Swinden Barber was a regional architect who was responsible for many churches in the North of England (including another commission from Mary Mackie – St John the Divine at Calder Grove, West Yorkshire, designed by Barber in 1892 and very similar in style and from to St James the Less).
Not much is known about Swinden Barber’s life. He was born around 1832 in Brighouse, Halifax the son of John Barber and Sarah Swinden and married Anne Byrne in 1877. In the 1851 census he is seen at the age of 19 apprenticed as an architect. By 1870, he was in partnership with James Mallinson (1819-84), working from offices in George Street, Halifax. Barber was made ARIBA in January 1860 and FRIBA in November 1873.
We also know he was part of a circle of London artists (the St John’s Wood Clique) who were portrayed in the 1860s dressed in medieval costume by society painter/photographer David Wilkie Wynfield as part of ‘A Collection of Photographic Portraits of Living Artists, taken in the style of the Old Masters’ (1864).
The painted decoration: Powell Bros.
The interior of the church was originally entirely covered with an elaborate painted scheme, covering all the walls, the ceiling and the roof rafters. Almost all of this was painted over during the 20th century, leaving the frescos in the north wall alcoves standing alone against a cream backdrop. Restoration work in 2012 by Crick Smith saw other areas of the original painted decoration revealed and the west wall redecorated, faithfully following the original pattern.
The painted decoration has been attributed to Powell Brothers of Leeds, better known for their stained glass. In fact, the decoration in St James may be the only surviving painted scheme of this kind by Powell Bros. Charles and Albert Powell founded a stained glass studio in Leeds in 1872 and provided stained glass or churches in the north of England throughout the 1870s and 1880s.
Many Gothic features can be seen in the painted decoration:
The frescos in the blind arcades are particularly striking. They were created using a spirit fresco technique, described as ‘yet rare in Derbyshire and other districts’ in a lengthy report on the church décor in the Stockport Advertiser of 16th September 1881 (this newspaper report proved invaluable as a reference for the conservators, and a copy can be accessed at Spring Bank).
The spirit fresco technique was created by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88) in 1851. He used a complex blend of beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin and copal varnish. Unlike ‘true’ fresco where pigment is applied directly to wet plaster, spirit fresco can be undertaken on dry plaster, and is very durable, creating bright, stable colours.
The fresco immediately opposite the entrance to the building looks just like the others, but is painted on sheet metal, suggesting it may be an early 20th century copy of the original fresco.
The stained glass: Charles Eamer Kempe (1907-1937)
C.E. Kempe designed and produced all the stained glass windows in the church. Kempe’s workshop was well known and prolific in the mid to late 19th century, producing stained glass for many cathedrals in England, including Gloucester, Lichfield and St Paul’s.
Charles Eamer Kempe, seen here as a young man, came from a wealthy family. Kempe’s career began in the architect G. F. Bodley’s office designing furniture and embroidery, and he later worked in the studios of stained-glass manufacturers Clayton & Bell. In 1866 he set up his own studio in London, and we know that by 1888 he employed over 50 people. (The Victorian appetite for building and ‘restoring’ churches provided a ready market for his talents.)
Kempe’s early work, as represented by the windows at St James, was inspired by 15th-century English glass and late medieval styles. Kempe is renowned for the textural detail of his work and for his technical research in solving the problem of reproducing the colour yellow in stained glass. By 1888 he had a large studio employing more than 50 people in London. Kempe windows are found throughout the British Isles and as far afield as the USA, Australia and Pakistan as well as on Spring Bank, New Mills. His work is often ‘signed’ with a wheatsheaf motif, which can be seen in the nativity window in Spring Bank.
More information about Kempe and his work can be found through the Kempe Society.
Stone carving – John Thompson of Peterborough
John Thompson was responsible for the pulpit and font at St James. He worked on several important Victorian churches including Skelton Church (1878) near Newby Hall, Yorkshire and Bangor Cathedral (1882), suggesting he was a well-regarded contractor.
Brasswork – Messrs Richardson, Ellson & Co. of Coventry
This company produced the gaslights, brass altar rail and decorative ironwork. They also produced ironwork for the South Kensington Museum in the 1890s (now the Victoria and Albert Museum).
Lectern – Messrs Jones & Willis of Birmingham
Jones & Willis made the brass and iron lectern which was given to the church by Robert Mackie and his daughter Edith. The company were the largest suppliers of church furnishings in the country. They provided catalogues for clients to choose ready-made designs, and also produced pieces to architects’ designs.
Tiling – Maw & Co. of Shropshire
The encaustic floor tiles were produced by Maw & Co., who were one of the principal manufacturers of domestic, ecclesiastical and architectural tiles and ceramics of the 19th century. During the 1880s the company was the world’s largest producer of ceramic tiles, supplying more than 20 million pieces a year. The company still exist and are now based in Stoke on Trent.
Organ – Kirklands of Wakefield
The organ was supplied by Kirklands, a firm established in by Alfred Kirkland (1857-1927) in Wakefield in 1874. The organ was removed in 1969, suffering from dry rot.
Much of the information on this page is taken from the Conservation Management Plan for St James the Less, prepared by Architectural History Practice in November 2008.