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Heritage pulses are set racing on a council estate in Leeds

13 December 2007

by Paul Wilkinson

English Heritage

English Heritage

A “GEM” of a church that was “lost” for 70 years on a run-down Leeds council estate has been granted listed-building protection.

St Mary’s, on the Hawksworth Wood estate, north Leeds, was completed in 1933 in the Arts and Crafts style. Hitherto unknown to conservationists, it was “found” 18 months ago by an English Heritage researcher, John Minnis, who describes it as a “priceless gem”.

William Douglas Caröe, architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from 1895 until his death in 1938, designed St Mary’s (interior, right), now Grade-II listed.

Mr Minnis was gathering material for a book on Leeds churches when he first saw it. “I knew nothing about it, and only had a couple of very fuzzy old photographs to help,” he said. “I was very surprised. I thought ‘My goodness! I think I might have found something here.’

“Then, when I got inside and saw all the beautiful decorations and carved woodwork, blending Classical and Gothic styles so cleverly, I knew I had, and that it was something we should be taking care of. Its fine detailing, rood screen, and choir stalls deserve wider recognition. I drew up a report immediately, and now it has been listed. I must admit I feel rather proud that I have achieved that.

“I believe its location, out on the edge of the city and on the edge of the estate, led to its being overlooked in previous surveys. It is off the beaten track. Also, it is really only recently that we have started taking a closer look at buildings from the 20th century.”

St Mary’s was commissioned by Hugh Myddleton Butler, owner of a neighbouring engineering works, Kirkstall Forge, which employed many of the estate residents. Incongruously for a 1920s red-brick Northern council estate, the church was built in the traditional Norfolk style with flints, knapped to expose their dark blue-grey interior faces.

There are two alternative explanations for that: either Butler believed flint was better than the local stone at resisting the depredations of the sooty atmosphere; or his wife came from Norfolk, and it evoked happy memories. In any event, it proved too difficult for the Leeds builders. Caröe had to bring in Norfolk flint-knappers to complete the work.

Although the estate is among the UK’s bottom ten per cent for social deprivation, it has escaped the attacks many estate churches often suffer. They have so far been limited to theft of the lead lightning conductor and an attempt many years ago to chisel out the rare 1933 penny — only six were minted — beneath its foundation stone.

St Mary’s has a congregation of about 60. Margaret Rawnsley, PCC secretary, first started worshipping there in 1963; but it was only about ten years ago that she began to wonder about the name Butler inscribed as a benefactor on the choir stalls. “Then our Vicar at the time, Robin Brown, who was interested in that sort of thing, began to dig into its history,” she said.

“It was quite something when we learned all about it. We felt quite proud that we have such a special church, but it had always been ‘our church’, and that has not changed, even if there is now an extra reason to look after it. Now at least, with the Grade-II listing, we won’t have to pay VAT on our repairs.”

Religion and Place in Leeds by John Minnis and Trevor Mitchell is published by English Heritage (£7.99; 978-1905-62448-5).

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