St. Andrew’s, Roker (1905-7) in Sunderland is recognised as one of the finest churches of the first half of the twentieth century and the masterpiece of Edward Schroeder Prior. The design of St. Andrew’s drew together many of the strings of Prior’s philosophy and approach to design and building. Three years before commencing St. Andrew’s, Prior had written that the architect’s first purpose was to provide
“a dignified distinct building dedicated to the service of the Church”. “Church architecture, least of all, has been able to go beyond the trivial efforts of traditional picturesqueness; least of all our building it has been monumental.”
At St. Andrew’s Prior achieved a monumental church free from style. His experiments in structure, concern for materials and means of building reached their apogee at St Andrew’s.
Throughout the 19th Century Sunderland’s population had been rapidly expanding. By the end of the century only the area around Roker Park remained undeveloped. The development of the area prompted the need for a new church. The Roker and Fulwell New Church Committee was set up in 1903 to raise funds for the church. A local shipbuilder John Priestman offered £6000 towards the construction in memorial to his mother. As conditions of the offer Priestman required the church to be completed by 31st December 1905, to retain the right to approve the arrangements of the new church and to provide the living for a vicar of his own choice.
Prior seemed feted to win the commission. B.F. Wescott Prior’s tutor at Cambridge had been Bishop of Durham until his death in 1901. His successor the Revd. Handley Moule was an original trustee of Prior’s Henry Martyn Hall, Cambridge. The vicar of the adjacent Monkwearmouth church the Revd. D.S. Boutflower was a close friend of Prior’s brother Charles.
Priestman appears to have been a religious radical, heavily influenced by the late 19th century liturgical movement that sought a return to the importance of the word and communion, rather than placing an emphasis on the mysteries of the church and sacrements. These views were reflected in his design requirements for the church. He wished the church to seat 700, and most importantly for all the congregation to have an uninterrupted view of the altar and pulpit, with no chancel screen and good acoustics. These requirements had a major influence on Prior’s design.
The first plan of January 1905 envisaged a nave, side aisles to the north and south, quire, square ended chancel, short transepts and porches to the north, south and east sides. The design provided for a capacity of 590. Priestman wanted 700. Prior re-worked the design adding a morning chapel and moving the south porch to the west. This arrangement provided for 688.
The hill-top exposed site by the sea and availability of stone suggested a similar structure and approach to that taken at Holy Trinity, Bothenhampton. However dressed stone was too expensive and St Andrew’s was designed as a reinforced concrete building. The use of the material has a significant influence on the design, for example the nave arches are shaped to ease the pouring of concrete.
The church has a five bayed nave 52’ wide with an extraordinary single span roof with thick, deep arches that spring low from massive walls. The chancel is narrow, shallow and tapered towards the east end. The nave walls are 3’6’’ thick at floor level which reduce to 2’6” at window sill height.
The transverse nave arches basically follow the design at Holy Trinity but the span of the roof is 42’ instead of 29’. They are brought down into the church as internal buttresses. The buttresses are pierced to make side passages, the weight being transferred to paired columns of a pattern of Saxon origin, with simple cushion capitals similar to those depicted in William Lethaby’s The Church of Sancta Sophia.
The stone masonry is of local Marsden limestone from a quarry three miles north of the site. Fulwell Quarry was nearer but this was highly mechanised. Prior initiated a rediscovery of masonry skills in conjunction with the quarry company. Prior, Randall Wells and the masons explored the limits of the stone through the construction and adapted the design accordingly. The roof is covered in Yorkshire slate.
The interior and exterior finish is of un-plastered un-coursed random-rubble with only the quoins and voussoirs dressed to a flat surface. In early plans it appeared to be the intention to leave the walls as exposed concrete. The chancel was originally left with its shutter marks displayed until Macdonald Gill implemented Prior’s suggested decorative scheme.
A prominent square tower was located over the chancel aligned with the road leading to the sea. Prior regarded “a square-topped spireless tower was an expression of “democratic growth”. The positioning of the tower over the chancel blurred the distinction between nave and chancel, clergy and parishioners. The tower has with angle turrets that rise to pinnacles above the castellated parapet. There are pairs of round headed openings on each face that open to ventilation shafts leading to either side of the altar. The bell openings have corbelled lintels. To the north east corner of the tower there is a round tower staircase that acts as a buttress. The tower forms a memorial to Priestman’s mother.
The windows and their openings make a major contribution to the character of the church. Those of the nave have stone block mullions with simple feathering. They are crossed braced with transoms with triangles above formed by simple canted stone. The small windows of the tower show a distinct Saxon influence, directly quoting St Peter, Barton on Humber. The openings are spanned by two stones meeting at the apex. They project forward to form a rain hood. In the chancel the tracery is more complex with stepped ‘capitals’ formed by three blocks in the lower tracery each faintly suggesting the Crucifixion. The windows are glazed in Prior’s Early English Glass, except for the chancel east window and the Lady Chapel. The iron glazing bars were made by Priestman’s.
Externally the church appears simple and massive. The nave wall is set back from window sill level upwards allowing light further into the interior but creating a visual impression that the building is rooted in the ground and that the walls are much thicker than they are. Buttresses are continued up between the windows to near apex height. Roofed pinnacles at parapet level imply their structural continuation. The parapet itself is high and continuous around the nave and transepts suppressing the verticality of the building.
The tower, unusually located over the chancel, has four hexagonal corner towers with two small openings in each face. They were originally capped with pyramid roofs, but these have been removed due to wind damage. Each face of the tower has a broad shallow bell chamber window. The nave roof appears to be carried through the tower to a vestigial nave roof projecting from its east end.
The porches are simple lean to structures to form entrances.
Ventilation, heating and lighting were integrated into the structure. In addition to the ventilation shafts in the tower that worked on a stack effect, heating shafts were provided within the mass concrete walls connecting to a plennum system running below the floor to a chamber below the chancel where high indirect radiators were located. A Blackman fan was capable of producing 700,000 cubic feet of air per hour into the church.
Prior called on a range of associates from the Movement creating a rage of very fine fittings. Ernest Gimson provided the altar rails, Bishop’s chair, alter and processional crosses, candlesticks, pulpit, choir seats and lectern. The tapestry altar cloth is from cartoons of Edward Burne-Jones and was made by Morris and Co., as was the chancel carpet. The foundation stone was carved by Eric Gill. After Prior’s death Macdonald Gill painted the dome over that chancel to Prior’s sketch scheme, depicting the days of the Creation.
The walls of the nave are panelled in oak to 7’ 8” high with boards of uneven width, fixed with hand made nails.
A fine peal of 10 bells was installed in 1948. These bells were cast in Croydon by Gillett and Johnston. They were given as a War Memorial. The largest, or tenor, bell weighs 22cwt 2qtrs 26lbs, or 2550lbs, or 1150 kg. Details can be found here
As at Home Place, Kelling Prior disposed of the normal method of procurement, There was no overall contract. Contracts and estimates were issued and received as the works proceeded and as was necessary. Priestman & Co, the shipbuilding concern of the church’s main benefactor, were responsible for various works including all the iron work and the main doors.
Prior and Randall Wells acted in partnership. Wells acted as resident architect sending drawings of details to Prior at regular intervals. Prior approved or altered the details as he desired. Prior was careful to give full credit to Wells.
The church was finished on 17th July 1907.