The Faces of Christ Church

I visited Christ Church on a numbingly cold and drab January afternoon, and I welcomed the sight of the first crocuses and snowdrops beginning to appear amongst the stones erected as memorials to those who once lived here in the parish.

Of course, memorials can take different forms and the blue clock on the tower is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Worthington, of Maple Hayes, presented by her husband Albert Octavius of the Burton brewing company. (1)

As you look at the clock face, on either side of the window below you notice faces of a different kind. On closer inspection, more of these faces can be found all around the church and I’ve included a few examples below.

The church was built in 1847, in the Gothic Revival style, and so I imagine the architect Thomas Johnson (of Davidson House, St John St) included them to emulate the corbel heads found in medieval churches (a good example and explanation can be seen on the V&A website here). This might explain what they are, and why they are here, but not necessarily who they are! (3)

As I stood thinking about the faces, someone arrived to unlock the church door. I explained that I’d been looking at the stone heads and was told that there are more inside and was invited in. Apparently, despite being the subject of much debate, no-one quite knows the story behind them. One suggestion that has been put forward is that they are benefactors of the church. Two of the chest tombs behind the church belong to Ellen Jane Hinckley, the founder of the church and her husband Richard Hinckley, who gave land in the corner of their Beacon Place estate on which to build the church. (2) Are they also here at their church in stone form? Is the portrait of Thomas Johnson the architect or the church’s first curate Thomas Alfred Bangham to be found here? Do they depict people who used to live in the parish or are these heads in fact creations from inside the head of the stonemason?!

Inside, the majority of corbel heads are in and around the chancel, which has the most stunning ceiling. Although this is not my first time inside the church, it is the first time I’ve been in and concentrated solely on the building, rather than what is going on within it.  It hardly needs pointing out that my photos do it no justice whatsoever, but they do at least give some idea of the beautiful murals painted for the church’s Golden Jubilee by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Dixon Batten in 1897,  and the reredos, designed by GF Bodley and carved by the sculptors Bridgemans of Lichfield (a discovery of both a new word and a new example of Bridgemans’ work for me!). (4)

I made my way back outside down the aisle, laid with original Minton tiles (5).

The day should have seemed even greyer after the rich, warm colours of the church but with a copy of the newly purchased and brilliantly researched ‘History of Christ Church’ in my bag and the knowledge that such treasures were to be found on my doorstep, it actually felt considerably brighter.

Edit 10/02/2013 Good news! There’s a sign outside Christ Church saying that there is an open day on 9th March – a great opportunity to go and visit this lovely church for yourself. By then, there may even be some spring flowers and wild garlic in the lane alongside which is a nice thought, when you’re sat typing with snow drifting down outside the window. More details here


(1) The clock was made by John Smith and Sons of Derby a business founded in 1856. Whilst the firm is still going strong, the original headquarters were at risk as these photos and a news story from February 2011 (read here) show. I’d be interested to know what the current state of the building is? Also, it’s not only the clock we have the county of Derbyshire to thank for! The church’s Millenium Gates were created by David Tucker, a master Blacksmith from Derbyshire, that I wrote about here

(2) The third of the Hinckley Tombs belongs to Mrs Hinckley’s son from her second marriage to Hugh Dyke Acland. Mrs Hinckley’s daughters from her first marriage, are the girls depicted in Francis Chantrey’s sculpture known as ‘The Sleeping Children’ as Lichfield Cathedral

Hinckley Tombs, Christ Church

(3) In a 1950s edition of Life magazine, I came across an interesting article about Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire. Their old carved heads had eroded badly, and so a stonemason was enlisted to restore them. However, rather than recreate the old images, he carved new images of people associated with the church at that time including a bell ringer, the clock winder, a dog whipper (actually in charge of the grounds) and the youngest member of the church choir (who would now be in his 60s). You can read the article and see the photos here 

(4) I believe that Bodley and Bridgemans also collaborated on the South African war monument in Duncombe Place, York, which is where the sailor on the wall of Lichfield Registry Office was originally destined for but was apparently rejected  for being too warlike.

(5) Between 1844 and 1858, Herbert Minton donated tiles to 46 Staffordshire churches & parsonages. More information can be found in the report ‘Minton Tiles in the Churches of Staffordshire’, carried out by Lynn Pearson for the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society. At the time of the report in the year 2000, amongst others, there were also examples at St Mary’s, Aldridge, possibly St James’ Church, Brownhills (though covered) and St Peter’s, Elford. An online version of the report with photographs can be found here 


Christ Church Lichfield – A History by Ursula Frances Turner, later revisions Robert Hazel, Julia Baker and Larry Ridout

Public Sculpture of Staffordshire and the Black Country – George Thomas Noszlopy and Fiona Waterhouse

11 thoughts on “The Faces of Christ Church

  1. It’s a magnificent church, with a fascinating history, and how nice to think those stone heads may be portraits of benefactors and other members of the congregation – but how sad it is that this church, like so many others, has to be kept locked.


  2. Well Kate this post certainly raises a lots of questions about the past. As you say ‘concentrated solely on the building, rather than what is going on within it’ can and does give you an opportunity to gain an insight from a different prospective.

    Looking at things in this way can see how objects embody unique information about the nature of man in society, which in turn raises the question of how does one extract information about culture and mind from mute objects?

    Traditionally we have been taught to retrieve information in abstract form, words, and numbers, however most of us are functionally illiterate when it comes to interpreting information encoded in objects such as these.

    I have often wondered if some of these corbels and carvings give off messages from their dead creators.

    Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could gain an understanding of what was going on inside the head of the stonemason, just as you did so here;

    For then we would see our world through their eyes, and for a moment or two, we could engage with the minds of the dead.


    • Yes it would! How funny that we would consider ourselves the literate ones yet as you say we have no idea how to read the information conveyed by these kind of objects. I did some reading about these kind of heads in medieval times and it seems no-one really knows why the stonemason chose to depict grotesque forms & lewd characters alongside religious figures and important people. What’s you’ve also made me think about with your comment is that Thomas Johnson or the stonemason would have looked at the corbel heads they saw in medieval architecture and maybe interpreted them according to their world. Then in 2013, I am looking at an 1840s interpretation of a medieval art form, and trying to apply my own 21st century interpretation!

      As you say it would be fantastic if we could ask the creators themselves. I wonder if this would at least in part be possible by looking to see if there are any records and plans relating to the building of the church. I know when I was looking at the story of a friend’s grandfather’s involvement in the restoration of the church spire by Bridgemans there were records from Bridgemans and J Oldrid Scott on the restoration work.

      Also, there are lots of records about Johnson’s restoration of St Michael’s in 1842/3, something that these days is criticised. As he got the contract for designing Christ Church very soon afterwards, perhaps it was better thought of at the time! I don’t know much about architecture but I think there might be an irony somewhere that he created a ‘new’ church with medieval details but that most of the original medieval church at St Michael’s was lost during his restoration!

      Also, we have some more old corbel heads in Lichfield whose meanings seem to have been lost…

      Thanks for making me think a bit more about the subject David!


  3. Thanks for the interesting piece on Christchurch. The corbels are structural and any `floating` corbels will be a leftover from alterations, left for decoration probably. Theres`s various ideas on why some are `grotesque`, one being that in mostly illiterate times, it was a way of showing you hellish images of what awaited the sinful!

    There`s also a theory that because early medieval churchs sold beer to supplement their incomes, the stonemasons incorporated a drunken impish face to say `don`t drink too much or you`ll end up like this`. The warding off of evil spirits is also suggested.

    I suspect that the christianisation of ancient head worship could play a part. The churches were often built on `pagan` sites and incorporated a christian take on some old ways. The celts revered the head as the vessel of life. perhaps the church incorporated heads but in a christian form?

    So thanks for inspiring me to go and look around Christchurch. It looks an interesting place.


    • Hi Pat, thanks so much for you comment. Your mention of head worship reminded me of St Chad’s Head Chapel at the Cathedral. When I first heard the name I didn’t really make the connection we were talking about a chapel for St Chad’s actual head! I’m just reading a book called ‘Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England’by Ben Nilson and it talks about the practice of having separate shrines to house the head of a saint as well as a ‘main’ shrine, as was the case at Lichfield. Really interesting. Also your comment about the drunken face made me think of the corbels on the front of the Oxfam shop in Market St, which was previously a pub.I wonder if these were added to the building to convey a similar message? Fascinating stuff – thanks for joining in with the discussion!


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