Holy Trinity Church, Cloudesley Square

A personal appreciation of its historic fabric and condition.
By John Scholes ( j.scholes@gmail. com )


1. Prologue

To declare my credentials, I come to this topic as an amateur. I'm a retired academic living round the corner, with a private interest in the place of architecture in social history and some practical knowledge of building practices.

I believe that Holy Trinity is a London church of quite exceptional architectural interest and potential for restoration. My interest was awakened by the historical material on the Cloudesley Association's excellent website.

I will write firstly about the church's dilapidated exterior and then turn to the neglected vision that is hidden away within it.

2. The exterior shell; is it more than a pile of bricks?

Martin van der Weyer, a markets analyst, recently, remarked that the Government's worthy sounding target to build 300,000 new homes in its remaining 5 year term is "simply unachievable". How so? Britain, he declared, no longer has the clay pits and the kilns to manufacture the vast numbers of bricks needed to fulfil this pledge, such as were excavated, cut and fired in truly astronomical numbers during the great Georgian building spree that unrolled the street plan of London today, the Cloudesley Estate included. This prompted me to take a walk round Cloudesley Square and survey the dilapidated masonry of Holy Trinity to consider what is it built of, and what are its prospects.

This tour convinced me that the church was built from a unique kind of precious creamy white bricks called white Gault bricks (AKA Suffolk Whites).


Yellow gaults russell hotel maidstone 01 Apr 14 a 600x600


Here, then, is a personal view of what I see as the architectural magic of Holy Trinity. It looks pretty derelict now, but its masonry has an underlying romance of its own that I'll try to convey, notwithstanding the grim black neglected appearance of its soot-engrained and weather-streaked exterior.

To get a glimpse of how the church could look again if properly restored as it surely deserves, you need only to stroll down the hill to be dazzled by the white elevations of another Gault building, the brilliantly restored Watch Tower Building on the corner of the Gray's Inn Road at Kings Cross. This restoration was accomplished by an innovative young Practice called Latitude architects. They look to me young, lively and hungry; Google them when you've a moment.


Lighthouse Building



2.1 Returning to Holy Trinity itself.

When the church was completed in the early 19th century, I imagine that its white Gault masonry would have stood out like an apparition in Cloudesley Square, with the luminous whiteness of a priestly surplice. It must have contrasted brightly with the warm honey colour of the traditional London stock brick masonry of the surrounding dwellings, such as in Stonefield St, and around the Square itself. This contrast could, I suppose, (but who can know now?) have been the express intention of its busy young architect, Charles Barry (1795-1860), in order to enhance the holy aspect of his new church, set in place amidst a pre-existing congregation of earlier Georgian buildings, in Stonefield St, Cloudesley Rd, as well as in Cloudesley Square itself, whose facades, unlike the church, have been providently maintained and restored in recent times.

But what exactly are Gault bricks and whence comes their Whiteness? Among the colours of the spectrum, Isaac Newton's White is the strangest of all, with a quality of its own, to which holiness and godliness seem to have got attached in our minds. It seemed unbelievable to Newton's contemporaries that White, being the mixture of all colours, is somehow not mud coloured.

The term Gault refers to the clay from which these bricks were made, that was laid down about 100 million years ago as an important geological horizon, the Albian stage of the Cretaceous Era, in whose warm seas thrived the rich calcareous microfauna whose remains sedimented down to deposit the chalky white cliffs of SE England on top of this thick (30m) layer of stiff, solid, blueish Gault clay that you can still view today, peeping out towards the sea from beneath the overlying white cliffs at Beachy Head.

This thick layer of clay came to line the sea bed before the Cretaceous was kicked in by whatever the climate changes were that favoured all that calcareous fauna deposited on top of the gault. I wonder if the Gault was an immense estuarine deposit but I haven't yet found any hard science bearing on this.
The earth's continuing crustal movements have thrust this clay up to the surface in all sorts of different places in SE England, where clay pits were dug to make the stuff into bricks.

One of the major sites for manufacturing gault brick was near Huntingdon but, as Van Der Weyer noted, times move on in unexpected ways. I have read somewhere that its former claypits have now been submerged to provide the local amenity of a waterfowl reserve.

2.2. The colour of the bricks develops when they are fired.

The unlikely magic of the Gault clay is that it turns from muddy-blue to white during the firing process. By way of illustration, consider how the iron content of the clay used for traditional London stock bricks can streak them delicately with attractive red or purple hues when they are fired, thus conferring the charm for which they are so valued architecturally. By a similar sort of magic, Gault clay turns radiant white as it hardens in the kiln.

Clay, then, is very strange stuff.  Some scientists think it may have been the substrate which catalysed the origin of life on earth.  When clay was first baked into bricks perhaps 5-10 thousand years ago to build proto-cities like Harappa in the Indus Delta, it seeded civilisation as we know it. Bricks, then, are in the bones of our species, but I'm afraid they have lapsed into a pretty sorry state in the masonry of Holy Trinity, Cloudesley Square.  This seems to have come about through what I can only call Neglect by Proxy. The proxy here was the Celestial Church of Christ, an important world-status body of great benign influence in Africa, to whose North London Parish the Diocese granted the lease of Holy Trinity many years ago, with repair obligations that the Celestial Church was unable to fulfill, despite their best intentions and resourceful efforts (such as raising significant but wasted Lottery funding).

In this light, I reckon the Diocese will need much support and encouragement now that it has resolved to close the book on this flawed partnership of its own making.

But what next? This is a matter for the Diocese and the Cloudesley Association, in which the interests of the residents of the Square should be paramount.
It's none of my business but I can't resist turning the pages back to consider the fearsomely mixed legacy left by that busy young architect Charles Barry (he who went on to design the Palace of Westminster, no less). Let's ask where he got it right and got it wrong in Cloudesley Square. I will put this like a balance sheet headed Assets and liabilities.

3.1 Assets.

Gault bricks were characteristically cut rather longer than other bricks, so, subject to a proper structural survey, they may have lasted these two centuries as well bonded load-bearing masonry worth restoring and cleaning to the lovely effect achieved for the Watchtower Building at Kings Cross mentioned above.

3.2 Liabilities.

Barry adorned the church with contrasting sandstone features like the west turrets flanking the porch. Beautiful as this contrast with the Gault white will have seemed at the time, Barry could not have foreseen the damage that would be wrought by the acid rain from London's coal-burning sulphurous skies. Had silicone impregnation been in his tool kit, those turrets might have looked much happier bunnies than they do today.

From the ground it looks to me as if the soft sandstone that Barry used to ornament the turrets and other features was simply dissolved and crumbled by this unforeseeable acid attack. No doubt the blue scaffold bandages used to wrap the turrets some years ago have contained the rubble that might have been blown off by Autumn gales, but that was just sticking plaster and I wonder if water will have continued to seep into the masonry beneath and freeze during some quite severe winters since that safety measure was taken.

Returning again to Martin Van der Weyer, let's consider, just for fun, the worth of Holy Trinity considered as a recyclable stockpile of the interesting bricks that I've described. Each will have a value and there are countless numbers of them. This may sound crazy, but their worth could be appreciable besides the £5-10 million that the Diocese estimates may be needed just to make the structure safe enough for people to enter it.

My point here is not, not, not, absolutely not, to recommend flogging the pile as a job lot to some reclaimed brick merchant. My impertinent valuation is simply to calibrate the task of making good what has been lost by wishful thinking and neglect over the best part of two centuries since the church was no more than a glint in the eager young Charles Barry's eye.

Forgive me, but it is as if everyone has crossed their fingers in the hope that the Lord will somehow provide.

4. The secrets within

It is a rewarding pursuit to admire fine church architecture from the outside, but the true theatre lies within.

Access to Holy Trinity is now barred so I speak only from dim memories and some photos I've found on the net. I suspect that the interior of Holy Trinity was once exceptionally beautiful and here are three features of its design that I think may have made it so.

First, the great East window which seems to me a Victorian classic of its kind.

Second, the galleries that face each other across the nave and flank this splendid window.

Third, the possibility of instating/re-instating a West Choir inside and above the porch. I gather this is an auspicious layout for fine ecclesiastical choristry. A related point is that the design of the church, which is said to be modelled on Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, is likely to be acoustically perfect for choral Services or performances.


Church Interior

 A fairly recent image on the church interior - Ed


Church Interior Old

An earlier image, and possible vision for the future? - Ed


[To be continued]