Thursday, 24 June 2021

Caversham Heights Society

AS experts squabble about how to repair the crumbling Houses of Parliament — at a cost of £7billion

AS experts squabble about how to repair the crumbling Houses of Parliament — at a cost of £7billion at the last count — what of the man who designed its soaring Gothic interiors and the iconic tower of Big Ben, Augustus Pugin?

Pugin was born in the same year as Charles Dickens and did much to shape Victorian Britain yet few of us know anything much about the man.

John Brearley, our speaker for the society’s meeting on December 2, put much of that right when he delivered his illustrated talk called “The life and work of Augustus Pugin”, a man who married three times, was imprisoned for debt and, sadly, lost his mind before his death at the age of 40.

He was the London-born son of a French draughtsman who followed in his father’s footsteps with his love of Gothic architecture and championed the ornate style of everything he designed, be it theatre scenery, cathedrals, churches or stately homes.

His work ranged from the imposing Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire to the highly decorative furniture, tiles, panels and doorknobs which can still be seen at Windsor Castle and in both Houses of Parliament.

A devout Roman Catholic, Pugin designed literally dozens of churches in Britain and Ireland, including St James’s in Reading in 1837, and even built a medieval-style home for himself near Salisbury.

Thanks to his close relationship with the Earl of Shrewsbury, a fellow Catholic, he was commissioned to work on the family seat at Alton Towers, but it was his relationship with Sir Charles Barry which brought him the job for which he is best known.

After the destruction of the original Houses of Parliament in 1834, Barry won an architectural competition to design a new Palace of Westminster.

Pugin was given the task of designing all the Gothic interiors, including wallpapers, for which Barry gave him no credit.

Towards the end of his life, Pugin supplied detailed drawings for his final design: the iconic Palace clock tower, officially dubbed the Elizabeth Tower, but more popularly known as Big Ben.

Mr Brearley believes that it was Pugin’s tremendous workload — undertaken despite the constant criticism of his contemporary, John Ruskin, and with many of his designs never executed — that led to his final breakdown. He died in Ramsgate in September 1832.

Still on the Victorian theme, the society’s last session of 2015, on December 16, was a series of dramatised readings from Dickens’ most famous novels.

Entitled “Dickens at Christmas”, Vera Hughes and David Weller, of Chester House Productions, enthralled us with extracts from Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickelby, Pickwick Papers and, inevitably, A Christmas Carol.

Afterwards the assembled gathering moved into the church hall to enjoy their usual Christmas repast, made all the more special because this year saw the celebration of 40 years of the society.

Meetings are held on alternate Wednesdays at 8pm, following coffee, at Caversham Heights Methodist Church in Highmoor Road. New members are always  welcome.

Enquiries should be made to Jill Hodges on 0118 959 5307 or email

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