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James Fowler ~ Church Restorer & Mayor of Louth

Restored in 18.. by James Fowler of Louth
That’s a phrase I’ve come across time and time again, the name James Fowler has become synonymous with churches in Lincolnshire so it’s about time I took a look at the history behind the name.

The ubiquitous James Fowler was born in 1828 and first surprise . . not in Lincolnshire but Staffordshire. It was in his home town of Lichfield that he was educated and began his training to become an architect - eventually moving to Louth in Lincolnshire.
It was here he worked on several projects as well as going into partnership with another local architect. Eventually he went on his own and hung his plaque outside 102 Upgate.
Subsequently, he also lived in Gospelgate before moving into Grove House in Westgate which he designed himself and still stands today.
He married, had three children and nurtured a great interest in theological studies. Possibly it was this interest in the study of the history of Christian religion and the church that lead to his appointment as a church surveyor and eventually to all those restored churches we keep coming across in Lincolnshire.
It would be interesting to know just how this position affected the work he did or on what basis he did some of his work.


Sixhills Church

Sixhills Church Rebuilt in 1869 by James Fowler in the Early English Style

I’ve found myself defending him in the past when the quality of his work has been called into question by various commentators. I feel these occasional comments are unfair as we do not necessarily know the context in which the work was carried out.
Clearly he has overseen some excellent work, the picture above is proof positive of that, and likewise some work is noted as quite the opposite. My opinion / guess would be much of it was budget related. His work seems to have ranged from small additions such as entrances to full restorations and rebuilds - I imagine he did the best he could with the money available for the particular job.
There’s an obvious difference is the patronage enjoyed by some churches in Lincolnshire so I’ve no doubt this bias showed itself when the collection plate was rattled for the restoration fund !


Blue Plaque ~ James Fowler's House in Louth Lincolnshire

Blue Plaque ~ James Fowler’s House in Louth Lincolnshire

You’d be forgiven for thinking he only worked on churches given the number of buildings he’s associated with but he did find time to work some schools, including De Aston in Market Rasen not to mention being involved in Grimsby’s Town Hall as well as many other building and design projects.
Talk of Town Halls brings us to the other aspect of his life - he was Mayor of Louth no fewer than 5 times !
He must have been well thought of locally as he became mayor relatively early in his Council career and his record of longevity in the elected post remains unrivalled.
Testament to this comes from David Kaye who says that on his death in 1892 (aged only 63 and four days after Alfred Tennyson) he was ‘greatly mourned’ and many of the townsfolk lined the streets of Louth as his funeral procession made its way to St James’ church, where he was a church warden incidentally.

You can see plenty of examples of his work still standing and many of the churches he’s worked on have been visited and recorded by myself. I should very much like to get a picture of the man to illustrate this brief biography but I cannot find one though there is one in Louth Town Hall I believe - any help in that area would be appreciated.
If you know any more about James Fowler of Louth then please do leave a comment - likewise if you’ve any opinions on his work or have visited any of ‘his’ churches.

Restoratively Yours
Rod

24 Comments »

  1. Peter Mullins said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    I’m not sure it is so much the quality of his work which people call into question as the way in which it (and the volume of it) wiped out what was there before - a Victorian standardising rather than true restoration in church after church across the county. How much more interesting St Nicolas, Great Coates looks in the eighteenth century Natters print (with porch and clerestory) than it does now because Fowler got at it - and I guess that this is even more so indside. Canon John Wickstead of Holbeach is the one I know who has done research on Fowler and may well be able to provide you with his sabbatical study and/or reading list.

  2. Rod said,

    June 15, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    Peter,
    I agree with what has been lost but that’s a tricky one as we today look at these things as we’d want them now rather than as people saw them in the day.
    History is littered with things undervalued at the time so consequently lost/allowed to go which becomes a matter of regret for later generations.

    My point about the work was the quality really as some is genuinely bad and clearly a bodge job with presumably limited funds. I thought it unfair that his work has been questioned at these times.
    Best
    Rod

  3. Amiguru said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    Rod,

    When I was up in Lincs last August, my sister and I had a half day in Louth and after enjoying an absolutely scrumptious and healthy ostrichburger on the market we visited the town museum. A charming little museum with, as is often the case, some amazing surprises.
    The point of my literary excursion is to suggest making enquiries there regarding portraits of Fowler. Apart from the portrait in the town hall I expect you are aware that there is a relief portrait in St. James church.

    Regards,
    Neville

  4. Rod said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    Neville,
    I’ve seen a picture of a plaque which I’m now guessing is the one you mention.
    Next time I’m near Louth I’ll swing by and try to get pics of both

    Ostricburgers . . . whatever next :)
    Best
    Rod

  5. Peter Mullins said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    I take both points: historic judgements are always ambiguous; Fowler was often doing his Victorian best with limited funds. Nevertheless I cannot tell you how much my heart sinks when I hear the words ‘restored by Fowler’.

    The meat for the burgers probably comes from the Ostrich Farm near Revesby; I’ve bought seriously big eggs from there and meat from there at Farmers’ Markets.

  6. Rod said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    Peter,
    I with you all the way there, the heritage lost is enough to make you cry - quite literally.
    The worst thing is we haven’t leant a thing, we only value what’s gone - look at things like the WWII HAAites I’ve visited - nobody really cares about them or looks after them - one day they’ll be ancient history too.

    I dread to think what’s been lost in the name of ‘progress’
    Cheers
    Rod

  7. Amiguru said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    Rod,

    I don’t wish to be judgemental about Fowler as I have seen little, knowingly, of his work. Just out of interest here is something Ihave just come across of a contemporary assessment by an obviously besotted admirer in The Lincoln Architectural Society’s Report for 1887. The Society had had a day trip which included St. Swithin’s Church, Lincoln:

    “The whole design of this steeple has been evidently thought out very carefully by Mr. Fowler, who may be congratulated
    on having produced a work of such rare excellence. From his long residence at Louth, in daily view of what Sir Charles
    Anderson has justly termed ” the finest pyramid in England, except the Queen of Spires at Salisbury,” Mr. Fowler has drunk in a sense of form and proportion which is far from being as common as might be wished in modern architects.”

    Regards,
    Neville

  8. Rod said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    Neville,
    I think that illustrates my point about contemporaneous thought.
    Look at Sixhills church in the original article. That’s a nice solid well crafted piece of work by him both architecturally and build quality.

    We may lament the loss of the medieval building but I wonder whether most of those directly involved were pleased to see the back of an old crumbling and badly built church for example - I’m sure that was often the thought process.
    Best
    Rod

  9. John Wickstead said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    John Wickstead’s research was on Charles Hodgson Fowler of Durham - an architect whose work he considers to be far superior to that of Fowler of Louth. For proof, simply compare St. Swithin’s Lincoln with its neighbour, All Saints, Monks Road.

    James Fowler was a “restorer” of churches - i.e. he was of that generation which was quite prepared to knock out a good Perpendicular window and replace it with an Early English lancet, if he thought that is what might “originally” have been there. Hodgson Fowler decried such practices, and instead of “restoration” preferred to talk about “reparation.” This year (2010) sees the centenery of his death.

  10. Rod said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    Hi John,
    thanks for the comment and welcome to the site - hope you’ll return.
    I was a little confused by it at first but eventually fouind it referred to Peter’s comment.
    I’m sure many would have wished to see more of Hodgson in Lincolnshire than James !
    All the best
    Rod

  11. Rod said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 7:17 am

    Photograph added to original article. Blue plaque on the wall of James Fowler’s house in Louth

  12. Wheels&Song said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    I first came across Fowler in John Betjeman’s poem ‘Norfolk’ bewailing the lost innocence of childhood. You might know it. The last stanza begins:

    How did the Devil come? When first attack?
    The church is just the same, though now I know
    Fowler of Louth restored it. …

  13. Rod said,

    October 27, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    Wheels&Song,
    fabulous !
    Never seen that before, really appreciated and welcome to the site
    Regards,
    Rod

  14. angry_mutant said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    Hi Rod.

    I have just re-read this article, having visited a good number of Fowler’s churches over the last few years while looking for Green Men. I’m with you in feeling that his work is often vilified unfairly, and also in the feeling that many of his less impressive results were most likely due to budget restrictions.

    It took me a while to get my head round this idea (no change there, then) but I think I had misunderstand the term “restoration” when applied to work by Victorian church architects. I certainly used to take the term at modern face value, and imagined that the work involved making good and preserving the buildings that were extant. In this I was wrong; what Fowler and his contemporaries were doing was (as well as making structures sound) completely revamping churches to look like a Victorian vision of what they might have looked like before the Reformation.

    I’m a pagan, so my apologies if I’m a bit off beam with assumptions I make about the theology behind this, I’ll apologise now. After Henry VIII established the Church of England, things carried on pretty much as before; buildings, services and so on were of broadly similar form, just the line of reporting to the big guy upstairs had changed, as it were. In the 17th century, though, the rise of Puritan Protestantism led to many churches being stripped of “idolatrous” items such as stained glass images, statues of saints, altars etc. The emphasis was more on preaching, and worship generally was standardised, hence the production of a Book of Common Prayer and a standardised English translation of the Bible. This also left church interiors very plain and unadorned.

    In the mid 19th century, a movement within the C of E led to the desire for a more “catholic” style of worship and buildings. Many new churches were built in the “Victorian Gothic” style, an approximation of the English Decorated style, often by well known architects like George Gilbert Scott, and many existing buildings were revamped/vandalised/restored/destroyed (delete as your prejudices dictate) to go with the fashion of the time. Interestingly, even at the time there was an outcry against this process; one such “anti” voice was William Morris. I reckon he had a bit of sauce (as they say) in taking this stance, as his company had supplied much stained glass to go in the “restored” churches - take a look at St Martins in East Ravendale; I believe this was Fowler’s first complete church build (in “restored” style) with windows by Edward Burne Jones and William Morris!

    Local restorations being dependant on local funding, I agree that budgets must have varied a lot, and presumably so would the craftsmen employed and the results achieved. I reckon Fowler was a bit of a smart cookie, though, as many of his rebuilds were, like the wonderful example of Sixhills, above, in the Early English style rather than the later decorated. This being generally a bit plainer (especially the window tracery), it would seem a way to get a more aesthetically pleasing result on more limited funds.

    Following Fowler’s death, his son, Reginald, continued to work on church restorations until the turn of the 19th/20th century.

    All the best with the site - please keep up the good work!

  15. Rod said,

    January 8, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    AM,
    absolutely wonderful contribution, many thanks indeed.
    You’re right when you question the term restoration - in some cases he had to deal with sections of churches that had just collapsed !

    He would have been working on strict budgets as well, how much were people prepared to spend, was there a wealthy patron - simply looking at rebuilds around Lincolnshire shows the huge difference in available money.

    I also think it’s unfair to criticise Fowler in terms of period style, in many cases his brief would be to bring something up to a more contemporaneous style or design.

    Spookily AM I was stood looking at Fowler’s own house only last week
    Best
    Rod

  16. Amiguru said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    Rod,

    Here’s another item you may wish to read: ;)

    The Lincoln Architectural Society’s Report for 1883 page 9 -
    Church Restoration: What to do and what to avoid. by C. Hodson Fowler F.S.A. F.R.I.B.A.

    James father perhaps?

    Regards,
    Neville

  17. Rod said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    Neville,
    not come across that one before - could well be . . .
    Regards,
    Rod

  18. Mike van der Vord said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

    Hello Rod,

    I came across your site whilst researching the Architect of my local Church, All Saints Kenley, where I was married 32 years ago. When I discovered that it was Fowler of Louth I was intrigued as I was born in Cleethorpes and I remember worshiping at St Peter’s Cleethorpes in my early teens. My parents moved to Surrey in my late teens. Fowler must have been an extremely busy man when one sees how many Lincolnshire Churches he was involved with. I don’t understand how he came to build All Saints Kenley (a few miles south of Croydon) which is quite a distance away from Lincolnshire. It is a small world. I still have some family connections in Cleethorpes but rarely get the opportunity to visit.

    Many thanks,

    Mike

  19. Rod said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

    Mike,
    Thanks for the comment and welcome to the site
    Regards,
    Rod

  20. bonnie r. said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 11:07 pm

    Rod, …fascinating stuff …interesting m an It seems to me he was dong an “update” to each, not an actual restoration in the classic sense of the word. Old buildings of all kinds are updated these days also; undoubtedly the case then. How many churches did he update, is there a tally or list ? How many did he design from scratch? He seemed tohave a lot of work so must’ve had the people’s liking. He surely loomed large in Lincolnshire! And his son continued after him!

    Great slice of history there! Many thanks & warm regards……bonnie r.

  21. Rod said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 7:50 am

    Bonnie,
    I don’t know how many he did but he did a lot, makes him an important man here in Lincolnshire
    Regards,
    Rod

  22. V said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    Just a few points for your timeline .

    It would appear that the James Fowler born in Lichfield in 1828 had parents named Joseph and Hannah Fowler. Therefore possibly not Charles Hodgson Fowler.

    A sentence in the Lincolnshire Chronicle in 1876 , states that James Fowler had recently restored Sixhills church tower. An interesting comment which suggests that the tower restored a few years after the 1869 work.

  23. bonnie r. said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

    Rod….Louth museum website states 240 buildings; most, but not all, churches. Wikipedia has a long lst.Grimsby town hall is on it! Most of his career was in Lincolnshire but not all; he even did some in London.Five times mayor! Nopictures of him though, odd for someone so prominent but maybe he was camera-shy! Thanks for a most interesting read—it encouraged me to “dig” a very little myself! warm regards….bonnie r.:):):)

  24. Rod said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 5:16 pm

    V & Bonnie,
    Many thanks indeed, great additions and much appreciated.
    Regards,
    Rod

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