“Oh, to lie awake at night and think of Buck’nam
Out of reach and far away;
Oh, to see her in the distance as a picture …”
These lines are adapted from a poem published at the start of the 20th century.
Such thoughts may have haunted soldiers from Buckingham as they were being moved to the front a hundred years ago at the start of the First World War. What local images would have been etched in their brains, and which ones come to your mind? Buckingham Parish Church on Castle Hill? The Gilded Swan on top of the town hall, or perhaps, the Old Gaol, built to resemble a castle?
Let’s start with Buckingham’s Parish Church, reclothed in Victorian times by local boy made great Goth, Sir George Gilbert Scott, but built originally by whom? And is there a double not 50 miles away? Have a peep at the two pictures of church spires. They’re labelled A and B. Can you tell which lies at the heart of Buckingham? The other, by the way, is St Nicholas in Warwick (the answer lies at the bottom of this page).
As local folklore suggested our builder had lived in Warwick, historians put two and two together and concluded their chief suspect was Francis Hiorne since he was busy erecting the church in Stony Stratford at the time Buckingham’s church was being built.
Some aspects of the Stony church are similar to Buckingham’s but they’re not two spires in a pod. During the late 18th century were two or three families of architects in Warwick. Why? Opportunity knocked.
Some years before Buckingham’s dreadful 1725 fire, Warwick suffered a worse conflagration. Unlike in the ‘pocket borough’ of Buckingham, the burghers of Warwick were well organised and got an act through parliament to rebuild their town. National money flowed, their extensive job was done thoroughly, and it involved teams of local architects: Smiths, Hiornes and Johnsons. You may well be surprised when I suggest the prime architect for Buckingham’s church in the late 1770s could have been a schoolboy.
Recent research I’ve undertaken in local newspapers suggests Thomas Johnson presented a model of his vision for Buckingham Church to the great and the good of Buckingham and they loved it.
The tower and spire of Buckingham’s church is close in style to that of St Nicholas in Warwick. Experts in that town feel Johnson’s 16-year-old son and assistant, John, designed that building.
If that’s true, then it’s likely young John Lees Johnson adapted his blueprint when creating a church for Castle Hill in Buckingham.
The lad died young before his more famous father so it’s nice to think that John Lees left behind fine memorials.
A: St Nicholas. B: SS Peter and Paul.