St Mary de Crypt Church and the Old Crypt School undergo regeneration thanks to local charity
PUBLISHED: 16:39 17 September 2018 | UPDATED: 10:57 24 September 2018
St Mary de Crypt Church and the Old Crypt Schoolroom in Gloucester produced two world famous Christian leaders, schooled ‘Long John Silver’, and is the burial place of ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’
Walk along Southgate Street in Gloucester towards the Quays and you will discover a hidden gem. The Grade 1 medieval church of St Mary de Crypt Church stands next to one of the few remaining Tudor schoolrooms in the country, The Old Crypt Schoolroom. These remarkable buildings are undergoing a £2 million regeneration thanks to a local charity called Discover DeCrypt. The regeneration is project-managed by experts in heritage regeneration, The Prince’s Foundation. The buildings are being brought back into public use as a place of worship, a community hub and a venue for the arts, culture and learning that everyone can enjoy.
The stories that surround the buildings are fascinating. St Mary de Crypt Church and the Old Crypt Schoolroom are of international importance because they produced two world famous Christian leaders: Robert Raikes and George Whitefield. Raikes is one of the founders of the international Sunday School Movement; he was baptised in the church, went to the Crypt School and lived opposite the church in a house which is now the Robert Raikes pub. George Whitefield is one of the founders of Methodism; a charismatic preacher, he was also baptised here, attended the Crypt School and lived in Southgate Street in the Bell Inn. Whitefield preached his first sermon from the pulpit which is still in the church today; it was said that afterwards there were complaints to the Bishop that his enthusiastic delivery had driven 15 people mad!
Raikes is buried in the church in the chapel that bears his name. Just outside the Raikes Chapel is what is thought to be the original 18th-century font in which both Raikes and Whitefield were baptised. The church also owns a first edition of Whitefield’s sermons, published after his first trip to America. On reopening, the church will offer interactive interpretation trails celebrating the lives, the faith and the influence of both men. Alongside Raikes and Whitefield, there will also be an interactive trail celebrating the life and work of Joan Cook, the woman who was responsible for the building of the Old Crypt Schoolroom, the first free school for Gloucester.
St Mary de Crypt is an exceptional church not only because it is beautiful and historic but also because it is a unique and irreplaceable part of Gloucester’s proud history. It has been described as a ‘Cathedral in Miniature’ because its large choir is taller and longer than its nave. It is rare in being one of only a few medieval churches to have a crypt, and a crypt that had a rather unusual use during the English Civil War. In 1643, whilst the City was besieged by the Royalists, the crypt contained the main magazine of the Parliamentary defenders.
The tall east window with panel tracery is filled with 19th-century stained glass which is a copy of a medieval European credo window. In the eastern blind bays of the Sanctuary are mutilated medieval wall paintings dating from around 1530. These were whitewashed over at the time of the Reformation; whilst one is in quite poor condition the other one is recognisable as depicting the Adoration of the Magi.
The bell tower is also fascinating; it contains eight bells cast and hung in 1710 by Gloucester’s famous Rudhall Bell Foundry. The bells are still rung today.
Raikes, Whitefield and Cook are not the only famous names associated with Discover De Crypt. Buried in the church is James ‘Jemmy’ Wood, the notoriously mean Gloucester banker, who was the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’. Locals apparently threw stones at his coffin as it was carried through the streets to the church. The Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, famous for his 1865 poem ‘Invictus’, attended the school. A friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, Henley became the inspiration for Long John Silver in ‘Treasure Island’ after tuberculosis of the bone led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee.
The school outgrew the site in 1860 but there is still a strong link with the successful Crypt School (now outside the city centre at Podsmead Road). The church hosts various school services and each year at the Crypt School Founders’ Day Service in Gloucester Cathedral, the head boy presents the Rector of St Mary de Crypt with a red rose as quid pro quo rent for the land on which the schoolroom stands.
The sensitive programme of regeneration, carried out by Croft Building & Conservation, has been underway since the beginning of the year and is expected to be completed ready for reopening in March 2019. The works include repairs to the fabric of the buildings, in particular the Tudor panelling (complete with 18th- and 19th-century graffiti) and brickwork of the schoolroom. Repairs will make the schoolroom available for flexible use once again: the upstairs will also be equipped as an art studio, with high quality light and an adjoining kitchen; downstairs will have a storytelling area with coffee point and family-friendly facilities. Both rooms will be available as an affordable venue for community use: for meetings, training, classes and workshops. New heating and lighting will be installed throughout. Toilets, new stairs and a lift will make the community spaces fully accessible. The interior of the church is being re-ordered, removing most of the pews to allow a more flexible use of the nave for services, concerts, drama, exhibitions and large community gatherings. Parts of the Victorian tiling will be lifted to uncover the earlier flagstones beneath; Discover DeCrypt’s Historical Research Group is involved in recording and researching any new material discovered as the flooring comes up. The completed project will undoubtedly be the most exciting new venue in the City Centre, also available to private groups who want a unique venue for their function or event.
Discover DeCrypt’s community art project ‘Dry Bones Live’ draws on words from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. School groups, groups working with those living with dementia, Inclusion Gloucestershire and others are all contributing to the renewal of this community space. “St Mary de Crypt Church and the Old Crypt Schoolroom were built by and for the community of Gloucester,” explains the Rector, Canon Nikki Arthy, “Discover DeCrypt will ensure that once again these buildings stand at the heart of our community where everyone is welcome to worship, to enjoy art and creativity, to hear and play music, to take part in family activities or simply to soak up the beauty, spirituality and history of the place.”
The Prince’s Foundation has significant experience delivering work to improve the built environment, save heritage and promote culture. The Foundation runs community education projects across the UK in a broad range of subject areas, including traditional arts, design and architecture, building crafts and heritage.
“We are delighted to be restoring the building in a way that saves and celebrates its wonderful heritage, but also develops it in a way that means it can be used and enjoyed by residents and visitors today,” says Nicola Dyer, senior project manager of The Prince’s Foundation. “Gloucester is a really exciting place to be right now, with so much ambition and appetite for culture and heritage-led regeneration.”
The project has been made possible with the generous support of a number of funders including the Heritage Lottery Fund.
For regular updates on the project, photos and blogs please see the Discover DeCrypt website discoverdecrypt.org.uk or take a look at the Twitter and Facebook pages @discoverdecrypt and facebook.com/discoverdecrypt.