Category Archives: St Helen’s Church

Work begins on the Hearse House interior

With the Hearse House build finally completed, the team can now turn their attention to the interior of the building. Our Buildings Team Assistant, Shannon, has been collecting research on a number of similar buildings across the north of England in order to gain a better understanding of what the interiors of these buildings may have looked like in the Georgian period and what objects should be included to ensure historical accuracy.


There are a good number of hearse houses still in existence across the region, often owing their survival to being tucked away on church property and frequently repurposed as storage space. There are in fact quite a few listed hearse houses in the country, though generally listed in association with the church itself and based on age, rather than on architectural interest. Where records do exist, they generally focus on the exterior of the building with little record of the interiors. For our purposes, rare surviving examples offer a good basis from which to start. For us, the well preserved Georgian hearse house at St Mary’s Church, Prestwich (Greater Manchester), with its lime washed walls and original fixtures and furnishings was an excellent source.

A number of the hearse houses have decorated or carved key stones, usually either inscribed with the date of the building inscribed with the date of the building (St George’s Church, Hyde, Cheshire) or with depictions of ‘momento mori’ style images, such as the skull and cross bones see at St George’s, Hyde; St George’s, Tameside and All Saints, Stockport.

skull and cross bones key stone

Skull and crossbones keystone, St. George’s Church, Hyde, Cheshire

Similar images can also be seen in the interiors of these buildings, as visible at St. Mary’s Church, Prestwich where an earlier tomb chrest and a medieval tomb slab have been incorperated inot the later Georgian building.

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1668 tomb slab incorperated into the late building. St. Mary’s Church, Prestwich


These buildings would have all had lime washed interiors. This was common for most vernacular buildings during that period, whether functional or domestic, due to the antibacterial properties of lime wash.

While preparations begin to lime wash our building’s interior walls, Shannon has been busy down in the museum’s stores. She has been working with Rosie from our Collections Team to identify relevant objects from our collections which will help to give life to our building and tell the story of our Georgian grave digger.


Rosie from the Collections Team tagging objects from our stores for use in the Hearse House


These included some lovely examples of nineteenth century spades and shovels; the tools of the trade of a Georgian gravedigger. In the early nineteenth century grave digging was not a distinct profession as such, but often undertaken by a church sexton alongside their other tasks. The tools used by grave diggers at this time would therefore not generally be specialised for the task, but rather they would be general purpose farming tools of the day.


Examples of 19th century shovels and spades for inclusion in the Hearse House


The tools will hang in the Hearse House ready for our imagined gravedigger to use, along with a number of other more individual effects and objects to add a more personal touch to our grave digger. These will be items he would require to conduct his daily business; candles, a tinder box, a set of keys, perhaps carried on his belt and a place to hang his cloak and hat when he has come in from the bitter wilds.

Contemporary images often hold a wealth of historical information and we will often refer to them when trying to get the right historical ‘feeling’ and look of a building. This was also useful in thinking about our Georgian grave digger. We looked at a number of eighteenth and early nineteenth century etchings and paintings, including this nineteenth century engraving by Edward Dalziel that encapsulates the Georgian grave digger; from the keys on his belt, to the tear dropped shaped spade he carries.

grave digger 18th c

19th century image of a grave digger painted by Edward Dalziel (copywright Harvard Art)

Obviously our church yard at St Helen’s will not be in use but the hearse house helps to broaden the story we tell of life in the Georgian North and further expands the understanding of what life was like for ordinary working people at this time. It completes the story of how people’s lives interacted with the church in the late Georgian period. From their first interactions through baptism in the font, through to the celebration of marriage and the ringing of church bells, to their final journeys as customers of the hearse and grave digger, the church as an ever-present part of people’s lives. It is often only through parish records, like the ones from Marrick Priory that first record the use of our 1828 hearse, that we know any details of a person’s life prior to census records beginning later in the nineteenth century.

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Work continues on our Georgian Hearse House

In October of last year, after completing work on St Helen’s Church, the Buildings Team began work beside the church’s graveyard on a Georgian Hearse House.  It will help us to tell a more complete and in-depth story of our Georgian area. When finished, it will house one of the rarest objects in our collections; probably Britain’s oldest hearse, built in 1828. The simple two-wheeled hearse was collected by the Museum in the 1960s from Marrick Priory, a former Benedictine nunnery in the Swaledale area of North Yorkshire. This early and vernacular horse-drawn vehicle is exceptionally rare, and perhaps more so, as we are aware of its origin and history. We even have a record of its very first occupant, as the Marrick Priory registry records: ‘1828 April 2nd, Mary widow of Thomas Hillary [a farmer], Lanehead House, aged 67, Hearse first time used’. The completion of the hearse house at St Helen’s Church will mean that this amazing object will now have a permanent home of its own and be on display to the public for the first time in decades.


The Marrick Priory hearse, built 1828

Our stone-built hearse house is a copy of the one at Marrick Priory which originally housed this hearse and is contemporary with our church, although it incorporates earlier elements of the Priory church.


Marrick Priory Hearse House, North Yorkshire

The building is progressing quickly and the main structure is now complete. Paul and Cos have finished all of the stonework, while Shaun and Dan were responsible for the joinery in the building, including the roof structure and doors. The roofers are now busy working on laying the stone slab for the roof.


The completed building, just waiting to be roofed

Once the exterior of the building has been completed, we will then turn our attention to the interior. Our newest team member, Shannon, has been researching the interiors of these kinds of buildings in order to inform how our own will look when finished.


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St Helen’s Church opens to the public

Eston interior

The finished nave

Over twenty years since St Helen’s Church was first moved from its original location in Eston, Middlesbrough, it has reopened to the public in its new home at Beamish.

To get the church ready for the opening, a lot of work had to be done to finish the interior. The vestry, which the vicar and church wardens would have used as their office, had to be furnished with everything one would have expected to find. This included a Georgian bureau from Hamsterley covered in replica paperwork, candlesticks and a capstan ink well and quills. The glazed cabinet in this little room was filled with a collection of 1825 Adam Clarke Bibles,  a pewter mug and a brandy bottle! The whitewash on the walls were given another touch up and a resplendent and newly restored Royal coat of arms was hung above the gallery.   The beautiful box pews that were kindly donated from St Andrew’s Church in Wiveliscombe were being installed by Sid Lee and his tireless team right up to the morning of the opening!


The fully furnished vestry

Outside, the remains of Revd Moyle’s 1870s Gothic style window (which was a later addition to the chancel) were laid outside to form a flowerbed. Our contract blacksmith, Andy Basnett, created a wonderful arch, which supports an oil lamp, to go over the main gateway to the church yard. Still to do is to install the whale bone arch at the yard’s rear entrance. The two whale jaw bones from two different whales came from a Lincolnshire museum. St Helen’s did originally have a whale bone arch, which is not surprising given Eston’s close proximity to the coast.

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Some of the members of the team who worked on the church

On Saturday 14th a special service was held in St Helen’s for its former parishioners and community members – it was wonderful to see the church come back to life again!

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The box pews arrive at St Helen’s Church

Reg testing out the pews

Reg testing out the pews

We know from an 1824 faculty layout of St Helen’s that the church once had box pews, which would have been the norm in churches of the period. Box pews were enclose, panelled pews that were fixed to the floor of the church. Over the decades churches (including St Helen’s) often ripped out their box pews to allow for more flexible bench pews to be put in, and as such original box pews have become very rare. Last year we began a appeal to find replacement box pews for St Helen’s and luckily the Rev. David Widdows of St Andrew’s Church in Wiveliscombe, Sommerset responded. His very grand church was built between 1827 and 1829 and was installed with beautifully carved box pews at the time. However, because the pews were fixed to the floor and filled entirety of the nave it meant that the church couldn’t easily host community events or groups. While congregation greatly appreciated the pews and their history, they felt that for the sake of the long-term usability of the church, they needed to part with a few of them. They wanted the pews to go to a good home rather than be scrapped and so Rev. Widdows offered to donate them to Beamish, a plan which also gained the approval of Historic England. A couple of weeks ago we removed ten rows of the box pews from St Andrew’s, leaving the rest in place at the church for posterity. Our contractors Sid and Daniel are now working hard to install the removed pews into St Helen’s.

Box pews existed in churches at a time when the class divides were still very keenly felt. Each pew could be rented by a member of the local congregation, with the pews nearest the pulpit being the most expensive. Remarkably we have a list of the names of the people who rented the pews at St Helen, dated from 1824. We will be painting their names onto the side panels of our pews, as means of permanently recording the Georgian congregation of St Helen’s.

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The preaching cross is put in place in the graveyard of St Helen’s Church


Learn more about the cross here. 

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Ancient Preaching Cross for St Helen’s Church

The ancient preaching cross that we will be erecting in the graveyard at St Helen's.

The ancient preaching cross that we will be erecting in the graveyard at St Helen’s.

Hidden away in our collections is an ancient, possibly 14th century, preaching cross. Its age is given away by how eroded the granite it is made from is. The pink colour of the granite, also suggests that the cross came from Cornwall, where there are similar, still standing examples.

The original site of St Helen’s in Eston, Middlesbrough had been place of worship since at least the Saxon era, when there was an associated manor house. It could even have had earlier origins, as there is a theory that Medieval churches dedicated to St Helen, were often the previous location of sacred springs that were attributed to the Celtic water sprite ‘Elen’.  As was the case with St Helen’s, churches were often built by the conquering Normans (the chancel of St Helen’s is Norman) on Saxon holy sites. Parish church were then rebuilt continuously as congregations grew (this happened St Helen’s in the 17th and early 19th centuries). However, Saxon and Medieval preaching crosses were often retained or collected from elsewhere – sometimes, later antiquarians would reposition the crosses on plinths or move them inside of the church itself to be protected as an ancient religious curiosity.

Allegedly, St Helen’s had a preaching cross. We plan to re-erect our preaching cross on the south side of the church (which was conventionally where they were located).

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Frank’s Memorial at St Helen’s Church

St Helen's being publicly used for the first time in as the setting for a memorial to Dr Frank Atkinson.

St Helen’s being publicly used for the first time since 1985 as the setting for a memorial to Dr Frank Atkinson.

On Saturday afternoon St Helen’s Church became the setting for a memorial to the life of Dr Frank Atkinson – our founder director and the creator of Beamish. Although the church will not be completely finished, and opened to the public, until November, it seemed appropriate to hold the event in an ongoing project. Frank passionately felt that the Museum would never be completed, but would continue to grow as it recorded and collected the heritage of the North East.

Shaun, Keith and John completely the tricky task of hanging the chandeliers.

Shaun, Keith and John completing the tricky task of hanging the chandeliers.

Jim and Clara ringing the bells to signal the start of the memorial.

Jim and Clara ringing the bells to signal the start of the memorial.

The Buildings Team  and our local contractors were working hard last week to get the Church ready for the event. This included everything from installing and glazing the metal window in the chancel, to hanging the chandeliers, to repairing collections, to fitting the altar and gallery rails, to even fixing a leak in the roof! The final touch was to fill the church with items from our collection, including the huge Georgian commandment boards which were hung either side of the arch in the nave.

A huge thank you for everyone’s hard work!

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Staining the stairs of St Helen’s Church

Clara and Jim staining the splats on the landing of the Church's staircase.

Clara and Jim staining the splats on the landing of the Church’s staircase.

Yesterday, Jim, John and Clara were experimenting with getting the right historic colour on the staining of the Church’s staircase. Often the Georgians stained cheaper hardwood with a reddish dark brown colour to mimic the appearance of fashionable mahogany.  We think we’ve nearly found the right colour!

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Reg tests out the new mounting block at St Helen’s Church

Now all Reg needs is a horse!

Now all Reg needs is a horse!

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Objects for the interior of St Helen’s Church


The team sitting on one of the chancel pews.

While the lime plaster inside the Church dries, the Team have been sourcing collections to dress the interior.

These include two pews that have been reconditioned by the joiners and will be going into the Church’s chancel. Characteristically uncomfortable to stop you falling asleep during services, the most ancient of the two probably dates from the early 1700s.


We’ve also been experimenting with how to hang our Belgium chandeliers, which will be used to authentically illuminate the Church with candle light.


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