ANY priest might be expected to take a passing interest in the architecture of his or her church, but for Canon Basil Clarke it was a boyhood hobby that became a lifetime passion.
From a few observations jotted down on scraps of paper when he was 15, his desire to chronicle the construction, style, and treasures of every church he came across expanded to 31 closely handwritten notebooks, 19 boxes of background material, card indexes of more than two-thirds of the 16,000 churches in Britain, and 20,000 postcards of ecclesiastical buildings. It ended only with his death, aged 70, in 1978.
This spring, thanks to a £9900 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, work will begin at the Church of England Record Centre at Bermondsey, south-east London, to digitise the collection and put it on the Church Heritage Record. Examples will also be uploaded to the website facultyonline.churchofengland.org/churches.
Ultimately, the aim is to develop guided tours and “church crawls” in Canon Clarke’s footsteps, and host learning events to engage the public with the collection and church buildings.
Basil Fulford Lowther Clarke was the son of Canon W. K. Lowther Clarke, who was the editorial secretary of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. As a teenager, Basil and his brother Martin showed an interest in church buildings, and so their father suggested that they should keep a record of the ones they had visited.
After about a year, he realised that the boys were serious in their study, and gave them a scrapbook to replace the slips of papers they were using. It was the basis of the collection as it exists today.
After school in Leatherhead, Surrey, Basil went up to St John’s College, Durham, before going to theological college at Cuddesdon. He later worked in parishes across Oxford diocese, and, while Martin’s enthusiasm waned, Basil pressed on building up his directory of churches, organising regular expeditions across the country to log new finds. Despite his lack of formal architectural training, his interest won him places on the Oxford DAC, an advisory board for redundant buildings, and a Westminster Abbey advisory panel.
His great interest was Victorian churches, and the Gothic Revival, which, in his time, had largely fallen out of favour. His book Church Builders of the 19th Century, published by SPCK in 1938, is still regarded as one of the best authorities of the period.
The Church Heritage Project Officer at the Church of England’s Church Buildings Division, Julie Patenaude, said: “The collection is a testament to his passion for these buildings and their treasures as much as an important 20th-century record of their condition. He made entries only for churches he had actually seen.
“His acute judgement, underpinned by meticulous research among published material and original sources, meant he was able to identify and record the architects of many churches and furnishings — information which cannot be found in any single place elsewhere.
“You can tell as you look at the books how his talent, skills, and knowledge improved over time. The first entries are just two or three lines, but the further you go, the more detailed they become. It’s a snapshot — a moment in time — of those buildings almost 100 years ago.
“Part of the project is to find out more about the man himself: who he was, why he did what he did, what drove him to continue. That’s the exciting bit. We have still to discover whether the books are all a straightforward listing of fact, or if they include anecdotal stuff about the places he visited and his travels around them.
“We hope the researchers will be able to pull out any fun stories, and share them with the public.”