THE ARCHITECT - GEORGE EDMUND STREET

"In these days of railways and rapid travelling, there is scarcely any excuse for stopping quietly at home. The most busy man finds some short holiday in the course of the year, and, if wise as well as busy, spends it not in quiet sojourn at some watering-place, but in active search of the picturesque, the beautiful, or the old, in nature or in art, either at home or abroad."

 

                                                                                       George Edmund Street


The ecclesiastical Parish of Par was formed on January 20th 1846, from portions of the parishes of St. Blazey and Tywardreath. Who in Par in 1846 would have guessed that they were witnessing the building of a church designed by someone whose work was of such extraordinary force and uplift that it can honestly be said to have changed the course of church building for decades to come? 

 

Who indeed in 1846 would have guessed that they were witnessing the first work of a man who rose to such heights that later he was given the commission to design the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London?  The man of course was George Edmund Street (1824 -1881), the architect who designed our Parish Church of St. Mary’s.


Unknown to all but an enlightened few is the fact that Street also made a monumental contribution to the revival of the Established Church during his life.  Contributing to its spiritual revival and material expansion, he designed new churches and re-ordered existing ones. It was his philosophy that an architect’s personal style was synonymous with his moral dignity.   He believed he was a privileged servant of Almighty God, who had entrusted him with an individuality, the due expression of which was part of the Divine Plan.  Early influences nurtured his love of medieval Gothic and the High Church.  His religion was a necessity to him and he served God as a devout High Anglican.


Street was born on 20th June 1824 at Woodford, Essex, the third son of Thomas Street and his second wife, Mary Anne Millington from Farlington, Hants.  Thomas Street was a Solicitor in Philpot Lane, London.  When the young George was six years old the family moved to Camberwell and he went to school in Mitcham.  In 1839 George’s father retired and the family moved to Crediton in Devon.  It was here, whilst exploring medieval monuments in the countryside, that George’s inherent craving for beauty was satisfied, whilst he trudged off sketchbook in hand, to find some new subject for his pencil.  George’s eldest brother, eight years his senior, had a craving for English medieval parish churches and his interest rubbed off on George, whose sketching abilities soon outstripped those of his brother.


In 1840 whilst still only a boy of 16, and despite his interest in architecture, George was sent with his eldest brother to the family firm in Philpot Lane.  His artistic nature found nothing in the dull routine of the office and every hour stolen from work, every holiday saw him improving his draughtsmanship; details of which would be forever etched into his brain.


Upon his father’s death in May 1840 Street returned home, leaving his elder brother in charge of the family firm, and moved with his mother and sister to Exeter.  Here, he became interested in the Cathedral and priesthood and probably for the first time, he seriously turned his attention to architecture.  To improve his drawing techniques he took lessons from his uncle, Thomas Haseler, of Taunton, a painter and draughtsman who taught perspective and oil painting.


In 1841 Street spent a further unhappy period in the London law firm before his widowed mother persuaded Mr Haseler to recommend him to the architect Mr Owen Brown Carter of Winchester, as an articled clerk.  Street stayed three years but according to his son they were not happy years: he was lonely, missing his family, and as a result threw himself into his work - a habit he was to retain all his life.


On finishing his articles, in April 1844 he was employed on a temporary basis at the offices of Scott & Moffatt, a celebrated studio of Gothic architecture, in London (Later Scott was responsible for designing St Pancras Station Hotel in London in 1868).  The quality of Street’s work impressed Scott immensely and he was soon given a permanent position.


For all his good fortune, Street had a burning desire to design a church of his own and at the age of 22 he had the opportunity.  Through her work as an ecclesiastical embroiderer, his sister Mary Anne heard of a clergyman who intended building a church in Cornwall.  Mary Anne prevailed upon the parson, Mr George Rundle Prynne (the first Vicar of Par) to give Street a chance. 

 

Prynne liked Street’s plans and the enthusiasm of their boyish author and gave him his chance.  Prynne was also a pioneer of the Anglo-Catholic Movement and he too became famous as Vicar of St. Peter’s Plymouth.


In 1846 Biscovey was not just another church, it was a new church, of a kind undreamed of ten years before.  The plain tie beams and the irregular grouping of the windows, whose heads, externally, nestle up in cottage fashion beneath the eaves, showed the coarse simplicity of an ancient church.


St. Mary the Virgin in Par commissioned in 1846 was the turning point in Street’s career.  Street’s highly professional success in later years, his maturity of style, his inner drive to achieve something which was valuable to posterity and his personal commitment to his art, actually started here in this small, though important, shipping port of Par.


The success of St. Mary’s brought Street further work throughout Cornwall enabling him greater freedom to work on his own particular style.  By 1849 his career was secure enough to enter practice on his own account in London and in 1850 he moved his office to Wantage.


Famous pupils of Street included William Morris, Philip Webb and Edmund Sedding who designed the Mission Church of The Good Shepherd in Par Green.


Street was kept busy in Cornwall in the middle of the 19th century.  He was working on St. Mary’s in 1848-49 and in the same period was also involved in the restoration of the church at Probus and the building of the Church School to the east of Probus Church (now no longer standing). He was also renovating the church at Cubert.


The second commission was the church at Treverbyn which he worked on in the period 1848 - 50.  In 1851 he was busy restoring the chancel of the Church of St. Mary in Sheviock.  He designed the stained glass east window there which was made by Wailes, who also made the windows for St. Mary’s at Par.


In 1864 at an overall cost of  £2,200  he restored the chancel of the Church of St. Ladoca at Ladock the whole cost being defrayed by the Rector Richard Farquhar Wise.


Between 1862 and 1866, Street rebuilt the church of St. Michael Penkivel, almost all the original stones were re-cut and re-tooled which has made the Church more of a 19th century copy of the original 13th/14th century one.  In 1864, he designed a property outside Lostwithiel known as St. Faith’s House run by the Sisters of Mercy from a community in Wantage as a training home for wayward girls.


George Rundle Prynne was so pleased with Street’s work that, when he became Vicar of St. Peter’s Plymouth, he invited him to design the new chancel for the Church there.  Prynne later introduced him to Father Butler, who founded the Wantage Sisters, and it was through him that he met Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford.  So began a career in which he designed many glorious Churches including St. Mary Magdalene, Paddington. He also designed the Nave of Bristol Cathedral.


Sadly, Street’s life ended before he could see his last commission finished.   The commission for The Royal Courts of Justice was as a result of being selected by the method competition. Six architects were invited to compete for the new Law Courts, but because of immediate difficulties eleven architects finally submitted designs in 1867 each being paid £800.  None of them had undertaken such a complex task before and eventually Street was offered the commission although this was not totally a popular choice.  The plan actually used was a revised plan of the original.  There was a lot of objection to the building which led to a campaign against it.


Street was a man who gave his all to the project of the Law Courts and designed every last detail himself.  He spent much time on site and all the workmen knew him.   He worked on almost until his death visiting the Law Courts for the last time on 17th November 1881 and died on 18th December. The courts were opened in 1882.


He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 29th December 1881.

Memorial to Street in Westminster Abbey