UK market review - number 27, 2011
How to read an Old Rectory
Jeremy Musson, author and broadcaster considers the beguiling secrets of the English Old Rectory
The Old Rectory is a resonant name for the English. The particular tradition of the Anglican Church which meant that clergy were often wealthy and married with families, meant that the rectory was usually one of the leading houses of the village. The rectory was often second only to the manor house and sometimes exceeded it in architectural interest. There are reasons both for this distinction and for the examples illustrated here falling loosely into two stylistic characters: neo-classical and Gothic.
The custom had grown up for many clergy to enjoy a country "living" whilst employing a curate to conduct services in the parish. After decades of debate about this, in 1803 the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval brought in a parliamentary act to ensure residence of the clergy in their appointed living. The Gilbert Acts in the 1770s had also made it possible for loans to be made for the rebuilding of clergy houses from the fund known as 'Queen Anne's Bounty'.
The dominant styles employed in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century domestic architecture were the ones that were thus used for so many rectories – neo-classical and Gothic. The wit and cleric Sydney Smith had to take up residence in his parish of Foston-le-Clay in Yorkshire for the first time after the 1803 Act and famously bemoaned that he was living twelve miles from the nearest lemon. Nonetheless he took up building a new rectory, in the neo-classical style, with great enthusiasm: "I live trowel in hand. My soul is filled up with lath and plaster." It was admired as "the most comfortable" in the county, he thought, and it still stands today.
Jeremy Musson is a writer and broadcaster on the English country house, presenter of BBC 2's 'The Curious House Guest' and was Architectural Editor of Country Life magazine 1998-2008. He is the author of 'How To Read A Country House' (Ebury Press, 2005). His latest book, 'Up and Down Stairs: the history of the country house servant.' was published earlier last year.
Smith was not alone in his activity. Numerous rectories and vicarages were being built or extended all over England from this time, an activity which was also reflected in the life and novels of Jane Austen. She grew up in a rectory which her brother later pulled down and rebuilt more commodiously, in the neo-classical style, with spacious rooms and tall windows rising from the ground. The rebuilding of the rectory is a constant theme in her novels, from Mr Collins' improvements complimented by Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice to the new rectory being built by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Catherine Moreland admires the rooms in the latter one by one, including the drawing room: "a prettily shaped room, the windows reaching to the ground, and the view from them pleasant".
The Gothic Revival style had found an increasing currency from the late eighteenth century, as in the designs of architects such as Repton, Loudon and Blore, the picturesque possibilities of the style for the houses of the Anglican clergy became increasingly attractive. Rooms were still large and comfortable, but they could be arranged less formally in plan and the national and especially Christian credentials of the Gothic Revival style gained an increasing currency – championed by A.W.N. Pugin. In the later twentieth century when the Church of England sold off many of the larger rectories, they not surprisingly became immensely popular country homes, sited in the heart of villages rather than in remote locations, yet in ample private grounds, often with views of ancient parish churches.
Timothy Brittan-Caitlin, The English Parsonage in the Early Nineteenth Century, Spire Books (2008); Anthony Jennings, The Old Rectory: the story of the English Parsonage, Continuum Books (2009); also see www.rectorysociety.co.uk