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St Margaret, Leiston

  Nineteenth Century Anglican churches are a bit like failing schools and stolen cars - they are things we don't have much experience of in Suffolk. Our schools tend not to fail because we always seem to have a pretty good County Council, whichever party is running it. We don't steal each others cars because most of us are very nice people here. And there aren't many Victorian CofE churches because, simply, they weren't needed. Outside the four big towns, there are hardly any.
The major exception to this otherwise water-tight rule (which I shall call Simon's rule) is Suffolk's finest, grandest and most important 19th Century church.

This is Edward Buckton Lamb's St Margaret, Leiston, and there are unique reasons for it being what it is - unique in Suffolk, anyway.

In the 1780s, the population of Leiston was about 400, making it a fairly typical middle-sized rural community of the time. But then, Richard Garrett expanded his Woodbridge blacksmith's shop by opening an engineering works in Leiston, and people flooded into Leiston from all over East Anglia.

The Garretts built agricultural machinery, like the Ransomes of Ipswich; many of the ploughs and harrows that tamed the British Empire were forged in Leiston. By the 1850s, the population of the village had reached 2,000.

By the early 20th century, it was over 4,000, a more than ten-fold increase in a little over a hundred years, unprecedented in a county where, by and large, the Industrial Revolution was like motorways and universities - something that only happened to other people.

It became clear in that extraordinary age of faith, the 1850s, that the medieval predecessor of St Margaret was simply not big enough anymore. We know that it was a long, thin church. A contemporary report describes it as 'like to being in a tunnel'; perhaps Ellough is a good comparison, although St Margaret was even longer than that, at 128 feet.


An Angel guards the tower. Everything to the west is E.B. Lamb's.

  Lamb's brief was to build a large, squarish, cruciform church, on the site of its predecessor, retaining the noble 14th century tower. The church was to be fitting for protestant, evangelical worship, for the Vicar of St Margaret was a firebrand preacher, the Reverend J.C. Blathwayt, very much against the new sacramentalist grain.

Lamb's great nine-square cruciform church, from the north-east. The War memorial is by Margaret Rope.

The rest of the Church of England at this time was busy rediscovering its Catholic roots, and had turned to the Camden Society and the Oxford Movement for approved architects, who were designing in the proper English medieval manner. Lamb was by no means one of these, which is probably why he was chosen here. He was a maverick, who ploughed a lonely furrow, mixing and matching and generally inventing in the High Gothic manner. His only other work in Suffolk is at Braiseworth, now redundant.

The gorgeous chancel from beneath the crossing.

  His design for St Margaret was revolutionary - or, at least, his execution of it, for he constantly changed the plans as he went along, and totally ignored the tight budget he had been saddled with.

The new church was aligned in the same direction as the old one, and was of roughly the same length, but in a most unusual shape. The central crossing is extended outwards at each corner to form 9 squares, 4 smaller ones infilling each corner, and the central square largest of all.

This is filled with rather sombre mid-century pews, the weakest feature of the whole church, and no wonder; Lamb had them made of the cheapest stained deal, so that he could use the furnishings money on other fixtures.

The nave behind is effectively overflow seating, with the transepts facing inwards to the central square. The two westerly corner squares form an entrance area (north) and a childrens corner (south). The two easterly corner squares form chapels; the northern one is furnished by Munro Cautley, and has reserved the Blessed Sacrament since 1974.

The chancel is shortened in a most dramatic way, with the great east window (the glass of which is by Kempe) really full on and in your face. Six candles sit on the retable behind the high altar, which must have the Reverend Blathwayt spinning nicely in his grave, for this parish embraced wholeheartedly the Anglo-catholic movement in the early years of the 20th Century. The walls are highly decorated, and the space above the crossing disappears into a mystical gloom.

This is enhanced by Lamb's most remarkable feature, the roof that looks like a mathematical puzzle, and is either inspired by, or a joke at the expense of, the famous medieval roofs of Suffolk, depending on your perspective.

The west end has an organ gallery, decorated in the Arts and Crafts manner.

The church was opened on August 31st 1854, by Bishop Blomfield of London, who had been born in Suffolk, and was, coincidentally, the father of that most prominent in Suffolk of all major 19th Century architects, Sir Arthur Blomfield.

The west gallery (detail)

But the finest and most remarkable features of the church are after the Reverend Blathwayt's time. In 1874, he was succeeded by Father Berney Wodehouse Raven, who cleverly and gently introduced high Anglo-catholic practice here.

During the course of his ministry, and that of his successor Father Roe, and then in the years afterwards, the aspects of this church that make it so beautiful found their home here.


St Luke. Above, the Adoration of the shepherds, with the Annunciation cut off to the left (oops).

Bronze memorial to Arthur Rope.

  These are almost entirely the work of one family, the Ropes, whose windows and reliefs are found in several churches in Suffolk, as well as Churches and Cathedrals all over the world.

They lived in this parish, and in the north transept, we find the finest hour of Margaret Edith Aldrich Rope ('Tor' to her family - you can see her tortoise symbol on the right hand side). The left hand window shows scenes from the Gospel of St Luke. The right hand window is a memorial to her parents, who died in the 1940s. Scenes at the bottom show us rural Suffolk life in the years of the 20th Century, a stained glass narrative to the books of Adrian Bell, perhaps.

Elsewhere, we find Dorothy Rope's art nouveau memorial to the young Arthur Rope, who died at the age of 16 in 1905. But my favourite piece of work is Ellen Mary Rope's plaster relief in the children's corner, which shows the nativity. I'm considering taking it to my Desert Island as my luxury.

Above it is a little window that, if you look, contains tracery in the shape of the letters EBL. It is Lamb's signature.

It is right that this maverick architect should have designed this maverick church here, because Leiston is a most curious place.

You arrive from what is probably the wildest part of Suffolk, which ever way you enter it, to find yourself briefly surrounded by council estates and flyovers. And then, you are out in the countryside again.

The main shopping street is, obviously, all 19th and 20th century, and has the feel of a miners' town in South Yorkshire or South Wales about it. The trouble with towns that only have one employer, of course, is what happens when that single employer closes, which is exactly what happened to Garretts in the 1970s.

Then, the town really DID become like a miners town. The great salvation to the town, was the Sizewell B nuclear reactor, which stands a mile or so to the east of Leiston, and employs just about everybody in it. Anti-nuclear protestors don't go down so well around here.

A great curiosity to me is the way that Leiston lives in symbiosis with Aldeburgh, a town of almost exactly the same size just three miles away. Aldeburgh, as you may know, is probably Suffolk's poshest, classiest town; Leiston, and let us be frank here, is one of the shabbiest.

It is as if a normal town had been split in two, one part keeping the big houses, wine bars and designer clothes shops, the other keeping the blue collar estates, working mens clubs and industry. Most curious.

I arrived at St Margaret to find the church being cleaned, and the kind lady gave me a guided tour. She knew the church very well, and obviously loved it dearly.

This isn't a common experience for me - so often, I find myself explaining to people about their own church - and so I was terribly pleased, and think that the parish should be proud of her.

However, in conversation, she did tell me that the church is kept locked. More than this, she told me that the key is not now given out to anybody, so this remarkable testimony to High Victorian Gothic, and the Arts and Crafts movement, is locked away, except for services. This decision was taken after a cross was stolen, so perhaps we in Suffolk haven't got so much to be smug about after all.


Mosaic memorial to Father Raven, Parish priest who led the Catholic revival between 1874 and 1909.

Ellen Rope's panel to the Nativity (roughly 80cm long).