Tag Archives: Eston

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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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 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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The interior of St Helen’s Church

The bell hanging in the belfry.

The bell hanging in the belfry.

Today, was an exciting day at St Helen’s Church as the two ancient bells were finally installed into the bell frames of the belfry. They will soon be set up with ropes and pulleys, so that the sound of bells ringing from the tower will be heard for the first time in half a century.

The newly hung priest's door.

The newly hung priest’s door.





The priest’s entrance in the chancel has now been hung with a reclaimed lapped oak door, complete with a iron Suffolk latch decorated with a pheasant head.





Our traditional lime plasterers from NEPR have nearly finished the top coat in the nave of the Church; gradually transforming the building’s shell.

The nearly completed plaster in the nave.

The nearly completed plaster in the nave.









To help inform  us about how to interpret the inside of St Helen’s, we have looked at other contemporary churches. A couple of weeks ago, Jim and Clara visited a beautiful church in Lincolnshire. St Mary’s has Anglo Saxon origins, including an intriguing cat carving on one of its external window lintels.

St Mary's Church at Barnetby le Wold, Lincolnshire.

St Mary’s Church at Barnetby le Wold, Lincolnshire.

Like St Helen’s, St Mary’s was greatly altered in the late Georgian period, and was again changed by the Victorians. The Georgian gallery and box pews (to the rear of the church), as well as the lime-washed walls and exposed roof trusses give a real sense of how St Helen’s should appear once it is completed.

The interior of St Mary's.

The interior of St Mary’s.

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Progress at St Helen’s Church

Shaun and Dan standing on the completed staircase

Shaun and Dan standing on the completed staircase

As the weather gets warmer, work on St Helen’s is progressing fast. Shaun, Dan and Jack have now finished installing their beautifully constructed oak staircase, which makes use of some reclaimed 17th century spindles.

The oak staircase that leads to the church's gallery.

The oak staircase that leads to the church’s gallery.

Our lime plasterers have also been busy and the final scratch coat of plaster (made using a traditional mixture of lime, sand, water and goat hair)  is just being applied.

The final scratch coat of plaster being applied in the gallery.

The final scratch coat of plaster being applied in the gallery.


Outside, the front path leading to the church’s entrance has been laid and work continues on landscaping the churchyard.

The newly laid front path.

The newly laid front path.


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Work for St Helen’s Church steps up (again)

DSCN2489Shaun, Dan and Jack have just completed the beautiful oak staircase that will lead to the gallery at St Helen’s Church.

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Work steps up at St Helen’s

As the plasters and paver continue work inside St Helen’s Church, outside Paul and Cos are beginning work on the churchyard. They have just installed the beautifully worn steps that will led up to church. Shaun and Dan are also working to finish the interior joinery, this includes the stairs up to the gallery and the louvres for the tower.

Dan working on the church louvres.

Dan working on the church louvres.

John and Clara trying out the new church yard steps at St Helen's

John and Clara trying out the new church yard steps at St Helen’s

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Work continues at St Helen’s Church

St Helen's in the frost

St Helen’s in the frost

Even in these chilly mornings, the Buildings Team are busy at work! The church chimneys for the vestry fireplace and nave stove are nearly complete – one of the handmade chimney pots is already in place.

The glazing in the nave is now also complete and work has begun on the foundations for the church yard wall.


Work has begun on the church yard foundations.


The nave chimney pot is now in place.

The nave chimney pot is now in place.

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