Did Sir Christopher Wren design Cuckfield Church's spire?

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

It might, on the face of it, seem unlikely that such a busy man as Sir Christopher Wren - with no apparent connections with the Cuckfield - should have designed the spire of the Holy Trinity Church; but research now suggests that this just might be the case.


It was an anonymous letter to Mid Sussex Times dated 30 October 1894 that triggered the research. It read:

Cuckfield Church with the 1981 spire

Dear Sir,

In the course of his lecture on ‘Chichester and its Bishops’ Mr Starky said that the great architect Wren devised an ingenious pendulum for the steeple of Chichester Cathedral, to obviate the danger of its falling. I have been told that when he was in Sussex for the above purpose one of the Burrells invited him to Cuckfield, and while here he drew designs for our own steeple, which was just about to be re-built; furthermore, to this fact may be ascribed its graceful symmetry.


Can anyone learned in Cuckfield history tell if the above anecdote is true?


Thanking you for valuable space and the excellent account of the lecture.


I am, yours truly,

‘STEEPLE’

Cuckfield, October 27th, 1894.


Fact check

Sadly nobody replied to the Mid Sussex Times with further information.


Mr JH Starky was a ‘well-known lecturer of the Church Defence Institution’ and did give a lecture on ‘Our Sussex Cathedral and Bishops’ on Friday 19 October 1894 at the Cuckfield Schoolroom. The account of this is in the previous issue of Mid Sussex Times dated 23 October 1894.


The letter writer using the pseudonym ‘Steeple’ was almost certainly the church’s vicar Canon James Hughes Cooper vicar of Cuckfield (from 1888-1909). He was a keen historian and, for a time, Chairman of the Sussex Archaeological Society. Some of the material he wrote for the SAC was posthumously compiled into the first definitive history of this market town. He also chaired the talk that ‘Steeple’ refers to.


Chichester Cathedral’s masonry spire, built in the 14th century, was indeed repaired in April 1684 by Christopher Wren. He was 51 at the time. Wren was just half way through the work rebuilding London’s churches after the Great Fire of London (1666) which begun in 1670 with St Paul’s Cathedral being completed in 1694.


We have confirmation that Chichester’s central spire was in an unstable condition from Hubert Corlette. In an authoritative history of the cathedral, Hubert quotes architect and engineer James Elmes (1782-1862) who describes how Wren ‘took down and rebuilt the upper part of the spire of the cathedral, and fixed therein a pendulum stage to counteract the effects of the south and the south-westerly gales of wind, which act with some considerable power against it, and had forced it from its perpendicularity.’ The repair proved to be sound and was thoroughly tested when it survived a vicious lightning strike in 1721.



Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711

Did Wren meet one of the Burrells? Firstly which Burrell was it? Almost certainly it would have been Timothy Burrell (1664-1717) a well respected London lawyer who lived at Ockenden 1683-1714. There is a possibility that he was involved in the legal contracts for Wren’s scores of projects in London at the time.


Timothy was a kindly, charitable man with a keen sense of humour and was on good terms with Cuckfield’s vicar and had his seat in one of the best pews in the church. He regularly gave offerings to the church and gave presents to the vicar of the time - Rev M William Snatt (1681-1690).


According to Canon Cooper’s history of Cuckfield, Snatt was Oxford educated and highly regarded by the church and, along with many other Sussex clergy, refused to take an oath of allegiance to William and Mary in 1689 and was forced to resign his post. According to Canon Cooper’s history he lived his remaining days in Worcester.


The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 ended a turbulent period in the country and religion, and more structural work was soon carried out on Cuckfield church. The spire, architecturally-termed a ‘broach spire’, was reshingled (with oak tiles) and a clock installed in the tower in 1667.


The church certainly underwent considerable work in the late eighteenth century but so far no record has been found of the dates when the spire was either originally built or rebuilt. In 1699 a new gallery was built at the west end of the church. We know from church records that in 1700 the roof was repaired and the clock rebuilt.


It may be no coincidence, if there was indeed a personal connection with Wren, that records show that collections were made in Cuckfield Church for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral and other churches.


We have no decisive evidence that Wren met Burrell or designed Cuckfield’s spire. But we have to agree with ‘Steeple’ that it is very elegant and not dissimilar in style to Wren’s London church spires - with the style carefully blended to match an older rural church using local materials.

The troubled history of Cuckfield church spire

The Cuckfield spire has had a troubled past and Rev Cooper may have been unaware that the spire came close to being lost in 1776. We learn from Vol 59 of ‘The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure’ that Cuckfield Church spire suffered severe damage on 2 August 1776:

A letter from Cuckfield in Suffolk [sic], dated August 3, says, that “last Friday in the afternoon they had a violent storm of thunder and lightning, which threw the inhabitants into great consternation. The spire of the church, which was almost destroyed by a violent storm the beginning of the hard weather last winter, being nearly repaired, the new work, was beat down, and the inside set on fire at three or four different places, and it was with great difficulty they extinguished the flames.”

A fire during Easter 1917 was quickly dealt with, but another caused by a lightning strike in July 1945 caused major damage, especially to the bells and the woodwork inside. Six of the eight bells were disabled for 14 months.

The steeple you see today is an almost exact replica of the original burned down in a dramatic fire on 1 May 1980, it was made in two parts in Littlehampton and lifted and reassembled on top of the tower in February 1981. The only change to the appearance, insisted on by the church's insurers for fire reasons, was the insertion of larger louvres to provide easier access from the top of the tower to the spire.

Hubert C. Corlette’s publication: The Cathedral Church Of Chichester, A Short History and Description of its Fabric with an account of the Diocese and See’ can be seen at https://www.ajhw.co.uk/books/book350/book350d/book350d.html

Date of the cathedral spire collapse and repair is confirmed in Sussex Life as 25 February 2019 in ‘The story behind Chichester Cathedral’s spire collapse’ by Chris Horlock. https://www.sussexlife.co.uk/out-about/places/chichester-cathedral-spire-collapse-1-5850774 Captions: Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711 [Public Domain image]

The tower and steeple of the Holy Trinity Church [WikiCommons public domain image] Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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