Issue 56 — September 2004
St Barnabas floored
Church out of action for six months for major repairs - and a strange discovery
You may have been surprised at the building works at St Barnabas Church – and a sign outside that says ‘Church closed until Xmas’. The reason is that the floor was cracking up and in June builders moved in to replace it and install a new heating system.
Part of the problem is that St Barnabas, whose main building was completed in 1869, was some way ahead of its time in its use of concrete. The Church’s benefactor, Thomas Combe, an early Superintendent of the Clarendon Press (OUP), insisted that nothing was to be wasted on ‘externals’ – which kept the price down to £6,492. The building he got was novel in that, although stoutly constructed, it used cheap materials – including concrete which was most evident in the cladding on the outer walls.
What was not so evident was that the original floor also used concrete which was mixed with rubble and covered with a layer of hard Portland cement. By the 1890s, however, the floor was cracking and, as the then Vicar explained, to “take away the chilly feeling”, it was covered with pine blocks. Now, however, the whole floor has started to give way and needs replacing.
The refurbishment includes installing central heating, so it was ironic that when the builders drilled into the floor they discovered the long-forgotten, original central heating system. This consisted of three ducts or flues running under the floor the length of the building, along which at intervals were diamond-shaped coal hearths that could be accessed via ‘manhole covers’ in the floor. The hot and smoky air exited through chimneys in both the east and west end walls. However, according to one report, when the wind was in the wrong direction the air seeped through the covers and filled the Church with ‘noxious fumes’. At any rate, in 1905 this system was replaced with one based on a boiler and radiators.
The old underfloor system is similar to that in Roman villas, appropriately enough since the main part of the Church is a Romanesque basilica after the style of the cathedral of Torcello near Venice.
A small section of the earlier system will now be preserved and available for viewing through an inspection cover. While providing an extra feature to the Church, this has also added to the cost. The original estimate was £165,000 which will exhaust the Church’s restoration fund. The inspection system will add another £4,000. Father Michael Wright, the Vicar, says he has found a donor for half of this but contributions are welcome for the rest.
Since the Church was built in 1869 and the ‘campanile’ tower added in 1872, there have been several modifications. The most notable were the organ loft in 1887, which filled in the space between the basilica and the campanile, and subsequently two additional chapels. In addition, because some tiles were falling off the steep campanile roof, the pitch was subsequently reduced.
Originally the Church only had the single ‘Barney’s Bell’. In 1890, when the clock was installed, it was decided to add a set of tubular bells to ring the chimes and the hour strike, as well as a tune or ‘carillon’. The new bells were driven by an elaborate mechanical contraption that is now in need of repair. It still strikes the hours – though rather erratically.
St Barnabas has a Grade II* listing from English Heritage, which means
it is a ‘particularly important building of more than special interest’,
so encroachment by the proposed Bellway development has aroused serious