St George's Church

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

“My respecks to St. George and the Dragoon,” wrote the gay and festive showman, at the conclusion of an epistle – penned under the very shadow of “moral wax statters” – to the Prince of Wales. And there was no evil in such a benevolent expression of feeling. George, the particular party referred to, occupies a prominent position in our national escutcheonry, ant the “Dragoon” is a unique creature always in his company, which it would be wrong to entirely forget. The name of the saint sounds essentially English, and it has been woven into the country’s history. The nation is fond of its Georges. We had four kings – not all of a saintly disposition – who rejoiced in that name; we sometimes swear by the name of George; and it plays as good a part as any other cognomen in our universal system of christening. Nobody can really tell who St. George was, and nobody will ever be able to do so. Gibbon fancies he was at one time an unscrupulous bacon dealer, and that he finally did considerable business in religious gammon. Butler, the Romish historian, thinks he was martyred by Diocletian for telling that amiable being a little of his mind; ancient fabulists make it out that be killed a dragon, saved a fair virgin’s life, and then did something better than either – married her; medieval men, with a knightly turn of mind, transmuted him into the patron of chivalry; Edward III made him the patron of the Order of the Garter; the Eastern and Western churches venerate him yet; Britains have turned him into their country’s tutelary saint; and many places of worship have been dedicated to this curiously mythologic individual. We have a church in Preston in this category; and it is of such church – St. George’s – we shall speak now.

In 1723 it was erected. Up to that time the Parish Church was the only place of worship we had in connection with what is termed “the Establishment;” St. George’s was brought into existence as a “chapel of ease” for it; and it is still one of the easiest, quietest, best behaved places in the town. It was a plain brick edifice at the beginning, but in 1843-4 the face of the church was hardened – it was turned into stone, and it continues to have a substantial petrified appearance. In 1848 a new chancel was built; and afterwards a dash of Christian patriotism resulted in a new pulpit and reading desk. The general building, which is of cruciform shape, has a subdued, solemn, half-genteel, half-quaint look. There is neither architectural maze nor ornamental flash in its construction. It is plain all round, and is characterised by a simplicity of style which could not be well reduced unless a severe plainness were adopted.

Its position is not in a very imposing locality, and the roads to it are bad and irregular. Baines, the historian, says that St. George’s Church is situated between Fishergate and Friargate – rather a wide definition applicable to about 500 other places ranging from billiard rooms to foundries, from brewing yards to bedstead warehouses in the same region. That brightest of all our historical blades, “P. Whittle, F.A.S.,” states that it is located on the south-west side of Friargate – a better, but still very mystical, exposition to all not actually acquainted with the place; whilst Hardwicke comes up to the rescue in the panoply of modern exactness, and tells us that it is on the south side of Fishergate. These historians must have missed their way in trying to find the place, and in their despair guessed at its real situation. There are many ways to St. George’s – you can get to it from Fishergate, Lune-street, Friargate, or the Market place; but if each of those ways was thrown into one complete whole, the road would still be fifteenth rate. Tortuousness and dimness mark them, and a strong backyard spirit of adventure must operate largely in the minds of some who manage to reach the building.

The churchyard of St. George’s has nothing interesting to the common mind about it. The great bulk of the grave stones are put flat upon the ground – arranged so that people can walk over them with ease and comfort, whatever may become of the letters; and if it were not for a few saplings which shoot out their bright foliage periodically, and one very ancient little tree which has become quite tired of that business, the yard would look very grave and monotonous. The principal entrance can be reached by way of Lune-street or Chapel-walks; but when you have got to it, there is nothing very peculiar to be seen. It is plain, rather gloomy, and in no way interesting. The interior of the church wears a somewhat similar complexion; but it improves by observation, and in the end you like it for its thorough simplicity. No place of worship can in its internal arrangements be much plainer than St. George’s. If it were not for three stained windows in the chancel, which you can but faintly make out at a distance, nothing which could by any possibility be termed ornamental would at first sight strike you.

On reaching the centre of the place you get a moderately clear view of the pulpit which somewhat edifies the mind; and, on turning right round, you see a magnificent organ which compensates for multitudes of defects, and below it – in front of the orchestra – a rather powerful representation of the royal arms, a massive lion and unicorn, “fighting for the crown” as usual, and got up in polished wood work. We see no reason why there should not be something put up contiguously, emblematic of St. George and the dragon. It is very unfair to the saint and unjust to the dragon to ignore them altogether – The Ten Commandments are put on one side in this church – not done away with, but erected in a lateral position, very near a corner and somewhat out of the way. One of the historians previously quoted says that St. George’s used to be “heated by what is commonly called a cockle” – some sort of a warmth radiating apparatus, which he describes minutely and with apparent pleasure. We have not inquired specially as to the fate of this cockle. It may still have an existence in the sacred edifice, or it may have given way, as all cockles must do in the end, whether in churches or private houses, to hot-water arrangements.

The pews in St. George’s are of the old, fashioned, patriarchal character. They are of all sizes an irregularity quite refreshing peculiarises them; there are hardly two alike in the building; and a study of the laws of variety must have been made by those who had the management of their construction. Private interests and family requirements have probably regulated the size of them. Some of the pews are narrow and hard to get into – a struggle has to be made before you can fairly take possession; others are broader and easier to enter: a few are very capacious and might be legitimately licensed to carry a dozen inside with safety; nearly all or them are lined with green baize, much of which is now getting into the sere and yellow leaf period of life; many of them are well-cushioned – green being the favourite colour; and in about the same number Brussels carpets may be found. There is a quiet, secluded coziness about the pews; the sides are high; the fronts come up well; nobody can see much of you if care is taken; and a position favourable to either recumbent ease or horizontal sleep may be assumed in several of them with safety.

The general windows, excepting those in the chancel, are very plain; and if it were not for a rim of amber-coloured glass here and there and a fair average accumulation of dust on several of the squares, there would be nothing at all to relieve their native simplicity. The pillars supporting the nave are equally plain; the walls and ceiling are almost entirely devoid of ornament: and primitive white-wash forms the most prominent colouring material. The gas stands, often very elaborate in places of worship, have been made solely for use here. Simple upright pipes, surmounted by ordinary burners constitute their sum and substance. The pulpit lights are simpler. Gas has not yet reached the place where the law and the prophets are expounded. The orthodox mould candle reigns paramount on each side of the pulpit; and its light appears to give satisfaction.

There is no Sunday school in connection with St. George’s. In some respects this may be a disadvantage to the neighbourhood; but it is a source of comfort to the congregation, for all the noise which irrepressible children create during service hours at every place where they are penned up, is obviated. Neither children nor babes are seen at St. George’s. It is considered they are best at home, and that they ought to stay there until the second teeth have been fairly cut. The congregation of St. George’s is specifically fashionable. A few poor people may be seen on low seats in the centre aisle; but the great majority of worshippers either represent, or are connected with, what are termed “good families.” Young ladies wearing on just one hair the latest of bonnets, and elaborated with costly silks and ribbons; tender gentlemen of the silver-headed cane school and the “my deah fellah” region; quiet substantial looking men of advanced years, who believe in good breeding and properly brushed clothes; elderly matrons, “awfully spiff” as Lady Wortley Montague would say; and a few well-disposed tradespeople who judiciously mingle piety with business, and never make startling noises during their devotional moments – these make up the congregational elements of St. George’s. They may be described in three words – few, serene, select. And this seems to have always been the case. Years since, the historian of Lancashire said that St. George’s “has at all times had a respectable, though not a very numerous, congregation.” The definition is as correct now as it was then. The worshippers move in high spheres; the bulk of them toil not, neither do they spin; and if they can afford it they are quite justified in making life genteel and easy, and giving instructions for other people to wait upon them. We dare say that if their piety is not as rampant, it is quite as good, as that of other people. Vehemence is not an indication of excellence, and people may be good without either giving way to solemn war-whoops or damaging the hearing faculties of their neighbours.

Considering the situation of St. George’s Church – its proximity to Friargate and the unhallowed passages running therefrom – there ought to be a better congregation. Churches like beefsteaks are intended to benefit those around them. It is not healthy for a church to have a congregation too select and too fashionable. Souls are of more value than either purses or clothes. More of the people living in the immediate neighbourhood of St. George’s ought to regularly visit it; very few of them ever go near the place; but the fault may be their own, and neither the parson’s, nor the beadle’s. The choir of St. George’s is a wonderfully good one, and whether the members sing for love or money, or both, they deserve praise. Their melody is fine; their precision good; their expression excellent. They can give you a solemn piece with true abbandonatamente; they can observe an accelerando with becoming taste; they can get into a vigorosamente humour potently and on the shortest notice. They will never be able to knock down masonry with their musical force like the Jericho trumpeters, nor build up walls with their harmony like Amphion; but they will always possess ability to sing psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, and whatever may be contained in popular music books, with taste and commendable exactitude. We recommend them to the favourable consideration of the public. In St. George’s Church there is an organ which may be placed in the “h c” category. It is a splendid instrument – can’t be equalled in this part of the country for either finery or music – and is played by a gentleman whose name ranks in St. George’s anthem book, with those of Beethoven, Handel, and Mozart. We have heard excellent music sung and played at St. George’s; but matters would be improved if the efforts of the choir were seconded. At present the singers have some time been what we must term, for want of a better phrase, musical performers. They are tremendously ahead of the congregation. Much of what they sing cannot be joined in by the people. Many a time the congregation have to look on and listen – ecstacised with what is being sung, wondering what is coming next, and delightfully bewildered as to the whole affair.

The minister at St. George’s is the Rev. C. H. Wood – a quiet, homely, well-built man, who is neither too finely dressed nor too well paid. His salary is considerably under £200 a year. Mr. Wood is frank and unostentatious in manner; candid and calm in language; and of a temperament so even that he gets into hot water with nobody. You will never catch him with his virtuous blood up, theologically or politically. He has a cool head and a quiet tongue – two excellent articles for general wear which three-fourths of the parsons in this country have not yet heard of. He is well liked by the male portion of his congregation, and is on excellent terms with the fair sex. He is a batchelor, but that is his own fault. He could be married any day, but prefers being his own master. He may have an ideal like Dante, or a love phantom like Tasso, or an Imogene like the brave Alonzo; but he has published neither poetry nor prose on the subject yet, and has made no allusion to the matter in any of his sermons.

No minister in Preston, with similar means, is more charitably disposed than Mr. Wood. He behaves well to poor people, and the virtue of that is worth more than the lugubriousness or eloquence of many homilies. Charity in purse as well as in speech is one of his characteristics; and if that doth not cover a multitude of ordinary defects nothing will. In the reading desk Mr Wood gets through his work quickly and with a good voice. There is no effort at elocution in his expression: he goes right on with the business, and if people miss the force of it they will have to be responsible for the consequences. In the pulpit he drives forward in the same earnest, matter-of-fact style. There is no hand flinging, hair-wringing, or dramatic raging in his style. The matter of his sermons is orthodox and homely – systematically arranged, innocently illustrated at intervals, and offensive to nobody. His manner is calculated to genially persuade rather than fiercely arouse; and it will sooner rock you to sleep than lash you to tears. There is a slight touch of sanctity at the end of his sentences – a mild elevation of voice indicative of pious oiliness; but, altogether, we like his quiet, straightforward, simple, English style. People fond of Church of England ideas could not have a more genial place of worship than St. George’s: the seats are easy and well lined, the sermons short and placid, and the company good.