Advice & Guidance

Researching your Place of Worship

Getting started...

There are many different approaches to learning about a place of worship. The first step is simply to look at the building and record what you can see. You might find it helpful to obtain a copy of the list description if your building is listed. This can be requested from your local authority's planning department or you can access list descriptions for buildings in England on the Images of England website or via the Heritage Gateway. The list description will provide basic details about the form, style and age of the building, the materials used in its construction and perhaps the name of its designer or builder. You might also look up the relevant county edition in the Buildings of England or Buildings of Wales series (usually referred to as ‘Pevsners' as most were originally written by architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner). In addition, a large number of places of worship will already have a guidebook, which may contain useful information about the building and its contents.

Looking at the context of the building

When describing your building, start from a long way off and think about the building in its setting. Is there a spire or a tower that forms a prominent feature in the surrounding landscape?

Christ Church SpitalfieldsDoes your place of worship dominate the village or town or is it hidden away down a path? How does your building fit into the built fabric of the townscape? Is it made from the same materials or different materials? Does it have connections with other buildings in the area?

Next, look at the churchyard or garden. Is it full of monuments or is it a home to wildlife and a much valued amenity? Are there any special trees or other features?

Does the planting frame views of the building or add to the character of its setting? Is it a wild and interesting place to explore or is it carefully planned and landscaped?

 

You might also consider the boundary of the churchyard or garden. How is the boundary defined? How old is it? Has it changed or does it follow the original pattern?

Looking at the fabric

Once you have described the setting, look at the building itself. You might find it helpful to start at the west end and work systematically around the building. Try to describe the various parts of the building and the materials that were used in its construction. Are the stones neatly shaped into regular blocks or are they rough and uneven? Is the roof covered with lead, slates, tiles or even thatch?

Rose windowAlso, think about architectural features such as buttresses, doors and windows. What shape are the windows? Do they have tracery? Are there pinnacles or other decorative features? Can you see gargoyles or other sculpture? Look carefully at the stonework too - you might find reused grave markers or other interesting features.

 

After you have explored the outside of the building, you can move inside. Again, it is probably easiest to start at the west end and work towards the east. Think about the layout of the space and the quality of fixtures and fittings. Is the building symmetrical? Is it open and lofty or is it made up of lots of enclosed spaces? What materials are used for the floors and ceilings? Are there important items such as monuments or stained glass?

Altar frontalDoes the building have its original seating or other artefacts? Are there interesting vestments, books or liturgical objects? You may also find that there are old plans or photographs of the building that can give clues about how it has changed over the years. It can be useful to keep a copy of these in a file with your research along with a note of where the originals can be found.

If you are not already familiar with the words used to describe ecclesiastical buildings you might find an illustrated glossary of architectural terms useful.

Alternatively, you might like to visit the Looking at Buildings website. This is an educational resource created by the Pevsner Architectural Guides. It contains a wealth of information to help you understand historic buildings, styles of architecture and methods of construction. You can also search for particular architects or use the interactive timeline.

Other sources of information

Once you have exhausted the information already available in your place of worship you might consider carrying out further research using local libraries, record offices or the internet. Here are some suggestions of useful sources of information about old buildings:

Ellerburn St
HildaThe Historic Environment Record (HER), previously known as the Sites and Monuments Record, is maintained by your county authority and may have useful archaeological information relating to your site. You could also contact your county archaeologist who may be able to provide further information.

The English Heritage Archive (formerly the National Monuments Record) is the public archive of English Heritage.  You can already view 93,000 images here, free of charge. The archive holds more than ten million historic photographs, architectural and archaeological reports, plans and other items related to the historic environment and is open to the public. This includes photographs dating from the 1850s to the present day, as well as reports, drawings, and plans of English buildings and archaeological sites.

The Victoria County History (VCH) may hold information about your place of worship. The Victoria County History is based at the Institute of Historical Research in the University of London and is written by historians working in counties across England. With 14 county sets completed, most counties have at least one volume. More than 240 volumes have been published in total, providing an invaluable local history resource. You can find details of the resources available for your county by visiting the VCH website.

Edenhall St Cuthbert Your local library, museum and county record offices are always worth a visit. You might also have access to a denominational archive, which might contain old plans and photographs. For example, in the Church of England, works of alteration require a faculty and these documents can often be traced with the help of the Diocesan Registry.

A useful internet resource for information about Anglican parish churches is Church Plans On-line. This is the digital archive of The Incorporated Church Building Society and includes over fifteen thousand files relating to grant applications made to the society.

 

The earliest file is dated 1818 and the latest 1982. Individual files may include application forms, correspondence, plans, building specifications, engravings or artists' impressions, certificates of satisfactory completion, parochial subscription lists, parish magazines and photographs.

Other sources may include primary and secondary written accounts, early maps, photographs and drawings or prints. Where appropriate, you might like to record oral testimonies from older people in the community. These can be invaluable for adding detail to the bare facts of history but do remember that such information needs to be checked for accuracy! Also, remember that it is important to consider how to present your findings and how to make the information accessible to other people. Find out where you can deposit copies of your reports so that they are available to researchers in the future.

Southam Church

Sharing your research with others

Once you have carried out all your research you will be in a good position to tell your community and your visitors what is important about your place of worship and why it is special to you.

Thornham Parva St MaryAlthough we tend to think about historic buildings in terms of their architectural design and significance there may be many reasons why people should value your building. It might be a splendid example of medieval craftsmanship or it might have a fabulous interior but it is just as likely that it will be important because it has a connection with an interesting historical figure or because it played an important role in the history of a community.

Sometimes places of worship are special because of the way they fit into the landscape or because they have a splendid collection of yew trees or tombs in the churchyard.

 

Occasionally the highlight might be something we can't readily see such as the below ground archaeology, the bells in the tower or even the wall paintings beneath the modern paint. It might even be the mortar, which has been there since it was trowelled into place by a Norman mason, that sets your place of worship apart. Whatever the reason we should not forget that all historic places of worship are special and deserve to be looked after, and the more we understand about them the easier that task becomes.

© SPAB 2012