Back to the past with Ed Grimsdale: Renowned architect leaves his mark

Picture of Gawcott Rectory taken in 1880. Picture courtesy of Andrew Pollard PNL-140715-101758001
Picture of Gawcott Rectory taken in 1880. Picture courtesy of Andrew Pollard PNL-140715-101758001

A fortnight ago I wrote of Mary Pix, author and early Women’s Libber who was breastfed learning while her mum taught the boys of the Latin School.

This week, I shall describe Sir George Gilbert Scott who became the most renowned and prolific architect of his age despite never having attended a school.

Gilbert Scott (as he termed himself) was born just over 200 years ago in Gawcott vicarage, a building designed and built by his father, the Reverend Thomas Scot, ‘perpetual’ curate of Gawcott.

Times were hard for the Scotts. Their living was poor and Thomas was expected to fund his own parsonage and then to foot most of the bill for rebuilding Gawcott’s scruffy church that fell apart due to its feet of clay.

The family income was supplemented by fees from the boarders at Scott’s Academy that Thomas had established in his huge vicarage. This school prepared lads for university or a career as clergymen. Gilbert’s elder brothers were academic enough to study in the academy but young George had the mind of a happy wanderer. He picked up his learning as he roamed north Bucks and talked to locals.

In fact we owe much of our knowledge of country folk around Buckingham at the start of the 19th century to Gilbert’s memoirs written towards the end of his life. He recalls his father telling of his first visit to Gawcott. Thomas found the road from Buckingham impassable because the ‘quaint’ locals had dug a large hole across the road opposite the present village hall – they were engaged in baiting a badger!

Have you heard the term ‘filthy lucre’ for ill-gotten money? Gilbert Scott sketched how the term arose: “The churchwarden lined the collection plate that he held at the church doors with a one pound note, a now obsolete form of money that has been called by its greasiness ‘filthy lucre’ and with which his breeches were always well filled.”

Gilbert Scott examined the hovels of poor folk, the father would be away all day tending fields whilst his wife would be busy making intricate “Bucks” lace.

What of their kiddies? In the centre of the living room, called ‘the house’ would be a pole from earth floor to a ceiling beam. On the pole were hoops to each a child was tethered by harness and rope. These days, we’re told that by the age of seven, children have spent a year in front of the TV.

Across north Bucks 200 years ago, children had run many marathons by the same age without getting anywhere!

Gilbert Scott’s talent for observation developed into a talent for geometrical drawing. Thomas Scott scraped money together to ensure that a Buckingham artist, Robert Jones, visited twice a week to tutor his son. “His visits were the very joy of my life,” recounted Gilbert.

Beauty for Robert and Gilbert lay in the ‘cathedral in the fields’, the perpendicular glories of Hillesden Church that was in Gawcott’s parish. That emphasis on the aspiring vertical was undermined by the ancient lancet windows of Chetwode Priory.

Thomas Scott’s evangelical connections saw that young Gilbert became apprenticed to London architect, Thomas Edmeston. His practice produced appalling estates of identikit Georgian homes. Edmeston’s architectural sins are long forgotten but every Sunday he wrote hymns. One has gained immortality: “Lead us, Heavenly Father, Lead us, through the world’s tempestuous ways”.

Gilbert Scott learned one lesson from Edmeston, the virtues of mass production with a master architect creating the vision and pupils filling out the boring bits.

The vision of a ‘Gothic revival’, a proliferation of the beauties of Hillesden and Chetwode worldwide never left him. Firstly, he needed to earn bread and butter for his growing family (a Scottish boarder at Scott’s Academy had written of the bread in Gawcott Vicarage being “frightened with butter”).

Workhouses were being rolled out across England. Gilbert Scott mass-designed dozens of them including those at Brackley, Buckingham and Winslow. Later he designed or modified over 700 churches and 10 cathedrals. The Gothic Revival was fronted by the Great Goth, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who never went to school but learned all he needed by sketching the churches of his native north Bucks. Love him or loathe him, Gilbert Scott is an international figure, important to Buckingham and the villages of north Bucks.

Andrew Pollard is mounting a History of Gawcott in its church on Saturday, August 9.