SIR George Gilbert Scott, an architect of whom even the unreconstructed may have heard, was responsible for the Albert Memorial and for the magnificent St Pancras railway station, restored (it is said) most of England's cathedrals and designed handsome parish churches throughout the land.
His son, George Gilbert junior, designed St Andrew's church at Chilton Moor. A few years later he escaped from Bedlam.
Chilton Moor is a former pit village near Houghton-le-Spring, and therefore not to be confused with Chilton, which is on the old A1 near Ferryhill. There were Lumley and Lameside collieries, Lambton D and Lady Dorothy. There were brick works and coke works and, behind Redburn Row, a pit heap known as Mount Vesuvius because at night you could see it still burning.
To serve the pitmen and their families, St Andrew's mission church was dedicated on July 20 1876. The church - "modest and incomplete" conceded an article in a recent parish magazine - is much loved, nonetheless.
Scott the younger had been invited by Henri Gough, Chilton Moor's vicar from 1872-1915, to come up with something suitable. The Bishop of Durham seemed not to be suited at all. Both he and the Archdeacon, it's reckoned, objected to the provision of chairs as well as fixed seating, to a step inside the communion rail, to the difficulty of expansion and (of course) to the cost. Scott, a contentious convert to Catholicism, simply felt that the Bishop thought the design not "Protestant" enough and tried again two years later. "Though the Bishop and Archdeacon have signed the plans, the Bishop cordially hates them," wrote Gough by way of interesting ecclesiastical oxymoron. "I expect he will sit on me as before, but our friends have promised to muster and defeat the clique."
The building was completed at a cost of £2,273.7s, the chancel followed for £1,200 in 1893. Neither Scott’s intended spire, nor the south aisle, were ever added, the "temporary" brick wall to the south still awaiting a little permanency.
The then present Bishop of Durham helped an overflowing congregation mark the 125th anniversary (August 2001) without censorious thought for the architecture and only delight (as he assured us) for the occasion. There, too, were former parish priests Noel Swinburne, George Harris and Martin King, none having gone to the "wrong" Chilton like so many travellers down the centuries. Mr Swinburne had been Vicar from 1959-71, buried men who’d died from Weil's Disease - caught from rats down the pit - much admired the cheerful resilience of his parishioners.
"It was a cold, wet December day when we arrived and looked pretty bleak but we grew very much to love it here. Everyone got on so well together, the colliery managers on the Church Council with the miners, and it's good to see so many of them back here tonight."
Piers Davey, the next Vicar, had been a curate in Gateshead and Barnard Castle and Vicar of Aycliffe Village. He's also very fond of Chilton Moor and of Fencehouses, its inseparable neighbour, though the usual weekly attendance is little more than 40.
Many had worked hard to clean and decorate the church and to prepare the photographic exhibition which set off the celebration. Bob Rogerson had, at 17, been the youngest organist in the diocese and had played on for 60 years; Joe Robinson joined the choir at eight and was still setting out his stall 70 years later.
"I suppose we've lost the friendliness that there was in the long narrow rows of colliery houses," said Norma Soppitt. If your own mother wasn’t there to look out for you playing, then you always knew someone else's was."
The closure of the coal mines had been cataclysmic, said the Bishop, changing lives almost overnight - "like taking two legs off a three legged stool.". Throughout the upheaval St Andrew's had stood for stability - "for something you can trust".
"We sang O Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness and Now Thank We All Our God, as they had at Noel Swinburne's final service there 30 years previously to the day. Afterwards there was a splendid tea, a chance to renew old acquaintance and to admire the exhibition.
Scott the younger - "intellectual and highly strung" - had designed several more acclaimed churches, the two best known destroyed in London during the Blitz. "In the early 1880s, his behaviour had become increasingly erratic," noted the magazine. "After escaping from the Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) and finding refuge in France, Scott was declared of unsound mind following a sensational public lunacy trial in 1884."
His wife fled with their four children, one of whom went on to design Liverpool Cathedral (and Britain’s famous red phone box), another who designed Cairo Cathedral. Poor Scott junior - "the lost hope of late Victorian architecture" - died still in his father's shadow, whilst staying in 1897 at the St Pancras Hotel.
St Andrew's, Chilton Moor, is his own memorial. It stands not only defiant, but it stands the test of time.
This article first appeared in The Northern Echo 5th August 2001