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Archives 75 – St Helen’s

  • 13th July 2022

During the 75 Years of Worcestershire Record Office (now of course part of Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service) we have had several homes – Shire Hall, County Hall, Worcestershire History Centre and now The Hive. One which has special memories for staff and users is St Helen’s, a church on Worcester High Street, where we welcomed researchers for over 40 years, and also may be the earliest church site in the city. We thought we’d look back on it’s time as a Record Office, and it’s long history, which we helped bring together and promote as part of their HLF project.

 

St Helen’s as a Record Office

Shire Hall was the first home to Worcestershire’s archives, which were mostly County Council and Quarter Session records in the early days. As time moved on the collections grew, and, like many counties, discussions took place with then local Diocese about looking after their archives and becoming a Diocesan Record Office. For Worcester this was then held in St Michael’s, a church next to the Cathedral which had closed for worship in the early 20th century. With the large number of documents held there, and more private collections coming in, extra space was needed so they could transferred to the Record Office. Worcester Diocese offered St Helen’s, a church on Worcester High Street which had stopped being used as a church in 1939 and had since been a war time club and YMCA centre. It was given in lieu of payment for looking after their records.

Lord Kilmaine, Alderman R.R.Adam (Chair of Worcs County Council) and the Mayor of Worcester at the opening of St Helen’s as a Record Office 10 October 1958

We moved into St Helen’s in 1958. Archivist Margaret Henderson was given responsibility, and she oversaw the transfer of documents from St Michael’s, which was in a bad way – it leaked, and some documents were too far gone to be worth moving.

View of searchroom

Harry Sargent, County Archivist, retrieving a box of documents from the 1st floor shelves.

As a Record Office it has many special memories for visitors. It was very atmospheric and reading documents (particularly church records) in the nave of an old church made the experience special to many people, especially on winter afternoons as darkness fell. We sometimes still get people who used it tell us how much they enjoyed going there.

For Record Office staff there are special memories too, but also memories of the challenges of managing an archive service in an old building! It was still a consecrated church, and listed building, so there were numerous restrictions on what could be done with the building, with Faculties needed from the Diocese for any works. The church was filled with shelves, like Meccano sets, but they could not be attached to the stonework. Eventually they were 3 stories high. Partitions then divided up the space for searchroom, storage and staff areas.

 

The heating was problematic, with the boiler (in the basement) breaking down sometimes, requiring staff to wear multiple jumpers when they had no heating, which could be for several days! As an old sandstone building there were also times when small bits of the stonework would fall down onto desks below.

Fire and intruder alarms were installed, but could also cause problems. As an old building they would go off after being triggered by the wind, creaking timbers or insects. Robin Whittaker recalls regularly going out in the middle of the night to check all was ok after getting a call to say the alarms had gone off.

Another issue was pigeons in the tower. As well as their sounds, the bird droppings created various problems, not least of which was infestation of flies in the summer! There is a memo which outlined this:

County Archivist to Clerk of the Council, June 1968

‘Above the Record Office workroom is a large loft which at present seems to be full of pigeons and their families. We can hear them cooing and scratting about. In the workroom below, particularly in hot weather, is an increasing plague of flies which I believe is the outcome of what goes on above. I have tried fly spray which is only slightly less unpleasant than the flies. In brief the whole set up is, I believe, hazardous to health now.

A similar problem at St Helen’s was solved by a Mr Hatfield’s of Haughtons Ltd. (a firm now defunct) creeping about in the tower loft after lights out and catching the pigeons by hand, screwing their necks and burying the corpses quietly the next day. This has had to be done only twice in twelve years but once the pigeons nest their offspring come back and multiply.

Could the situation be tackled please? I think I could find Mr Hatfield.’

 

The solution was to put mesh over the tower slats, but in order for this to be effective the birds needed to be got rid of. A man came and went up the tower with a bird of prey, the birds left promptly, and then the mesh was attached. No more pigeons inside the tower.

The tower was also home to the Photostat camera – a massive camera which had bellows, and used lots of chemicals. Pre-photocopiers (and smartphones) it was the only way to get copies of documents.

Workroom, with shelving units in background.

A major refurb of the space took place in the 1980s, increasing the size of the searchroom for visitors. This coincided with an increase in users, and start of the rise in popularity of family history. More people were coming in to look through parish registers. Around this time the Latter Day Saints came to photograph the registers in St Helen’s to make microfilms of them, which meant that we didn’t have to use the originals, helping with preservation of the registers.  The changes included opening the main doors onto Fish Street, rather than using the doors into the tower (which taller people had to duck to go through). Original plans to have glass doors on the outside of the porch were changed after realising that in the city centre they may not last very long. The last lady who had been married in the church (in 1939) was invited along to the reopening.

Although popular with visitors, by the 1990s it was realised that it didn’t meet the current needs and standards. The lack of environmental controls were not conducive to keeping old documents. Managing a building of this age was a headache, and it was hard to adapt to the needs of staff and users in the computer age. The National Archives indicated that permission to hold official records may be withdrawn in the future unless there were changes. Discussions were underway about a joint library and archive centre, which became The Hive, and in the meantime led to Worcestershire History Centre opening (with microfilm records and local studies library), and the move of the original documents to County Hall.

Beating the bounds in 1912. Photo from the Worcestershire Photographic Survey. At Rogationtide each year people would walk the parish boundaries ‘beating the bounds’, to remind themselves of the boundaries and check everything was ok.

 

 

The History of St Helen’s

St Helen’s is possibly the oldest church in Worcester. Although the oldest physical remains are 13th century, there may have been a church on this site since before 680, when Worcester Cathedral was founded. Documentary evidence is scarce, as you’d expect, but a document of 1092 described a dispute which ended with St Helen’s being agreed as to being the oldest church. Other evidence is that a land charter described the parish area, which covered 11 current parishes, stretching from Knightswick and Martley in the west to Huddington in the east. This suggests St Helen’s was established before other churches were founded. It occupied an important site within Worcester on the High Street, whose layout was established in the Saxon period.

During the medieval period it was rebuilt several times. This was needed due to several fires, such as in 1113 when we know the vicar Fritheric donated the tithes (income) for the rebuilding of St Helen’s. These fires led to rules forbidding the use of thatch in Worcester in the city ordinances. There was then major rebuilding in 1450, much of which can be seen today.

 

Although we are used to pews and chairs in churches today the first in St Helen’s only came in 1519 when they were introduced for the old and infirm. As preaching became more common in churches more seating was added, and by 1636 we get a seating plan surviving in the archives. Pew rents were charged, which people paid instead of through a collection, and they ranged from 5s to 10s (£22-44 today), although free seats for the poor were available by the tower. This money was used for the upkeep of St Helen’s and also to help the poor.

 

In the time of Henry VIII parish registers started to be kept. These for the Diocese were kept in St Helen’s whilst it was a record office and are now in The Hive. Through the thousands of everyday entries of baptism, marriages and burials, they document the lives of those who lived in the local community and are important for family history. A few stand out – during the Civil War period the registers say George Lawrence had preached since the surrender of Worcester in 1646. He was possibly a chaplain with the Scottish part of the army, and was described as “a violent puritan and great admirer of the Scotch covenant”. He stayed a few years, having a daughter baptised here. Several soldiers are described as being buried in the registers, some of whom were unnamed – presumably many miles from homes and no one knew their names.

Parchment parish register

St Helen’s Worcester parish register showing the baptism of Susanna, daughter of Rev George Lawrence and his wife Susanna on Christmas day 1647

Bishop's Transcripts

A Bishop’s Transcript of St Helen’s baptism, marriages and burials. Bishop’s Transcripts were copies of parish register entries sent to the Diocesan registry each Easter. They were also some of the documents housed in St Helen’s when it as a record office.

St Helen’s c1780s from the Burney watercolours collection

It took Worcester a while to recover from the ravages of the Civil Wars, but by the 18th century it was more prosperous and many of the city churches were rebuilt and updated at this time. St Helen’s had repairs in 1718 when the east wall (facing the High Street) and part of the north wall were rebuilt and faced with limestone, and in 1790 the church was whitewashed, which would have made it look very different from today.

Then in 1836 major work took place inside, with new pews, a gallery at the back, pulpit and organ. It was later called ‘unsightly’ by a later architect and the pews were said to be very uncomfortable as they were too deep to sit on.

A census of churches in 1851 (a printed version of which can be found in the local studies library) recorded that there were seats for 634 people, an incredible number when you look round today, with attendances at morning and evening services 160 at each with another 160 children attending Sunday School. The local parish at the time was suffering with overcrowding in the streets and courts off the High Street as Worcester’s population grew rapidly, and toilets shared by multiple houses led to insanitary conditions.

articleBy 1879 despite the previous repairs St Helen’s was in desperate need of tender loving care. It had a musty smell, was damp, there was peeling plaster, and ivy was growing through the walls. The graveyard had closed as it was full, but burials still took place in the vaults below the church floor. When the vaults were opening the windows had to be opened for a long time because of the stench, and local residents complained about the smell. The architect Aston Webb was appointed to carry out work. He became a famous architect, later knighted, designing Admiralty Arch, the V&A Museum entrance, Victoria monument on The Mall, part of the front of Buckingham Palace and nearer to St Helen’s he designed St George’s in Barbourne. He gave a talk about his work, as well as the history St Helen’s, to Worcestershire Archaeological Society, which was then printed in their Transactions. This included mentioning that he uncovered a Norman doorway, although sadly this was not recorded and not visible today. He also removed the whitewash to reveal the stonework, giving St Helen’s the appearance we see today.

Engraving of St Helen’s by Aston Webb

With the removal of areas of housing in the early 20th century there was no need for so many parish churches in a small area and in 1939 is closed for public worship, although remained consecrated. In 1939 the local church members decided to convert St Helen’s to a soldiers club run by the YMCA as it was suggested that this was a pressing need for the local community. So pews were removed and it became a canteen with billiard table and table tables added, plus toilets. The YMCA continued using it after the war, adding a stage, before it was offered to Worcestershire Record Office.

Playing snooker in St Helen’s during WWII

Soldiers queue up for food

YMCA in St Helen’s 1954

 

YMCA in St Helen’s

St Helen’s Today

After we vacated the building it reverted to Diocesan use, and was passed to All Saints church to use as a church hall and extra building. Regular church services resumed – it had never stopped being a consecrated building. HLF helped fund major work on the stonework, which desperately needed repair. We were asked to help with the historic interpretation, writing a booklet and leaflet, providing information for an exhibition, and delivering training for the stewards who would be in the building for their events and coffee mornings. As one of our former homes it was great to be involved, and a great excuse to delver into the archives, as well as helping them share the history with the wider public. It is also for community events, and we used it for an open day as part of the Cathedral Roundabout excavations.

Paul Hudson, our Learning & Outreach Manager, leading a workshop for the guides and volunteers about the history of St Helen’s and how to share the heritage with the visitors

Cathedral Roundabout excavations open day

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