The slightly austere exterior of St Thomas’ church on Finch Road in Douglas offers little indication of the intricate murals that decorate its walls inside.
Completed in 1849, the church’s interior was decorated some years later with the paintings designed by renowned Manx artist John Miller Nicholson.
Construction costs of £4,400 included not just the church but the vicarage next door that has now been demolished.
The Victorian artist’s designs were commemorated three years ago by the Post Office with a set of stamps to mark the centenary of his death.
The murals took several employees some time to paint.
One, it’s said, recorded his dissatisfaction for posterity in the art work.
The message is not readily visible from ground level, but according to former church warden Doug Smith, it says something like: ‘Been on this job for three years and now fed up of it.’
But the prominent position of the church near to Douglas seafront puts it at the mercy of the more vicious weather coming in from the island’s east coast. The result is not just crumbling mortar but significant sections of the decorative stone work that have eroded, virtually to thin air in places.
Currently one of the church’s heavy stone Celtic crosses is on the ground near the church’s main entrance. Workmen will be fixing it back in place as part of the renovation project but it was removed when they discovered it would soon be in danger of toppling from its mounting on a gable above the main entrance. The north side of the church by Church Road Marina is now encased in scaffolding supporting a series of platforms going right up to the tower at the top of the roof.
The plan is to conserve the building, repairing stonework, and also preserve some of the later architectural features, such as the later metal drainage gulleys, inscribed ‘1937’ in decorative script.
A series of steeply-angled ladders carries workers to the successive levels. At the three-quarter point, we are looking across at the roof level of the tall boarding houses and offices nearby. From the top, we definitely have an aerial view over the top of the other buildings. We can see pigeons flying in and out of holes in the roof of the former Pitcairn Hotel some distance below.
On the other side of the building, we look down on the roof of St Thomas’s school and on the bridge that spans Finch Road between Chester Street multi-storey car park and the grounds of the Manx Museum.
Diocesan surveyor Guy Thompson (who is also the island’s scout commissioner) is overseeing the work, which involves some repointing of masonry using breathable lime mortar.
This is then tinted to blend in with the rest.
The church is built using lime stone from Pooil Vaaish, characterised by the multiple fossils clearly visible at close quarters in the stone, and slate probably from Dreemskerry, characterised by its reddish brown tints.
Building consultant David Norman is one of the team working on the scheme.
‘We are only doing what we have to,’ he said.
‘And there is similar work being done on St George’s church too.’
He points out some of the unusual features of the building such as the toothed quoins or corner stones that in places are badly weathered away. There are also holes, known as ‘putlog’ holes that need to be filled up where the original scaffolding planks fitted when the building was constructed. These were sealed with a facing of mortar but this has weathered away leaving a hollow which in most cases is now full of birds’ nests.
‘It’s all still work in progress at the moment,’ he said, pointing out corbels - stone supports standing proud of the surface just below the guttering and roof, many of which have been extensively rebuilt after exposure to the worst of the weather, using steel supports, mesh and stone substitute material, known as Keim, on top. The same material, he says, has been used extensively in the UK in the restoration of historic buildings like Canterbury Cathedral and York Minster and will probably also be used in the restoration of the Houses of Parliament.
Church warden John Walmsley said this initial phase of the work was initiated after damp threatened to damage the church’s interior murals. A survey then revealed various safety and restorative work required by the building.
This first phase, costing in the region of £50,000 will ensure the building is structurally safe and do essential restoration. But this could well be the tip of the iceberg: there is much more to do. The precise extent of the work needed to restore the church fully is as yet unclear - as is the full cost.
‘We also hope to do some restoration work on the murals which are a unique feature of the church. The plan is to raise more money to do additional work but we intend having the scaffolding removed from this initial stage by Christmas,’ he said.
Some of the initial funding has come from a legacy invested in a fund but more money will be needed.
‘Overall the work will extend into a good number of years because of funding constraints. What we really need is a kind and rich benefactor to help us out,’ he said.