History

The 12th-Century Old Tower, the 1830s Rigg Memorial, and the new church built 1881-3 (the stained glass on the right was made c.1870 and originally installed in the old church).

A little history...

St Lawrence has a rich history, with reminders of all kinds of periods and events from across the last 900 years to be found in church and churchyard, and which we hope to be able to share more of with you as this website is further developed. Here is a little summary for now.

The old church of St Lawrence viewed from the south (ie toward Lawrence Street), painted in the 18th Century, with post-Civil War dormer windows.
St Lawrence is believed to have been founded in the early 12th Century - the first written reference to the church is in 1194 but the design of the beautifully carved Norman doorway suggests that the first stone church was built at least 50 years earlier. The dedication may have been chosen in emulation of the church of St Lawrence extra Muros in Rome, where St Lawrence's bones lie to this day. The site may have been a graveyard even earlier still, although Lamel Hill was the main Bronze Age and Saxon burial site in the area and the Roman stone coffin to be seen next to the Old Tower may have come from elsewhere (the coffin was reused as a horse trough by Lawrence Street for very many years, until the RSPCA replaced it with the iron one now used as a municipal flowerpot in the 1890s).
A 900-year-old dragon carving on the Old Tower.
The parish of St Lawrence stretched out into Heslington,  and included the site of what became Heslington Hall and the common land now divided between the Tilmire and Fulford Golf Club. On the other hand, some parts of the present parish were then  served by other churches, most importantly All Saints Fishergate (where the Barbican now stands, united to St Lawrence in the late 16th Century) and St Nicholas (associated with a major hospital which stood near today's Hull Road Shell garage, and legally a separate parish for some purposes until the late 19th Century).
A doorway from the old Hospital church of St Nicholas, now reset into St Margaret's (the National Centre for Early Music).
Both of these parishes were only merged into St Lawrence after the Reformation, but the parish of St Michael the Archangel - whose church stood to the rear of today's Rook and Gaskill pub - was merged with St Lawrence in the early 14th-Century, possibly as part of a deal which saw that church's former patrons, the Augustinian Friars, send Fr Nicholas de Wartre (possibly a friar of Warter Priory) to become priest of St Lawrence. He is a significant figure in St Lawrence's history because he endowed a chantry chapel to say masses for his soul and, thereby, to provide the ministry of a priest in the parish and support the maintenance of the church fabric. This donation became the origin of the parish Feoffee Estate.
The earliest known surviving deed of appointment of trustees of the old Feoffee estate, dating to 1702, whose funds originated in Fr Nicholas de Wartre's chantry endowment, augmented in 1431 by another Vicar, Fr Robert or Richard Haukesworth. The trust still exists in a form, although it has not owned land since the early 1990s. Its much-reduced remaining cash fund formed the core funding for the recent heating project.
Fr Nicholas also built a Vicarage, where today's Garden of Remembrance lies in the churchyard.
The site of the 14th Century vicarage - the Garden of Remembrance.
St Lawrence seems to have been created by the Dean and Chapter of York, with its rectorial tithes reserved from its earliest days, and as such the churchyard was part of the Liberty of St Peter, which put it outside the jurisdiction of the City authorities in various areas. This made the cottages built on the edge of the churchyard an attractive base for weavers who thereby avoided having to comply with gild regulations. At some early point the churchyard cottages were alienated to the Vicars Choral of York Minster. The cottages, much rebuilt, survived until 1912. The 1935 Church Hall stands on their site.
The old churchyard cottages, site of today's Church Hall. (c) CYC
The shields on the front of the Hall allude to this historic relationship with the Minster. One shield is the modern arms of the Minster; the other is the blue ancient arms (confusingly difficult to distinguish from those used by Canterbury to this day). St Lawrence was always the centre of a strong community, and its parish guild - dedicated in honour of St Agnes - was one of the city's most thriving local fraternities.
One of the two remaining parts of the medieval churchyard cross.
The church was comparatively little altered after its original construction, although there were additions - including the c.1400 font, still in use in the new church today, carved with fighting men, mermaids, and curiously rude figures whose function is quite obscure to us today. The remains of the old churchyard cross - apparently of a type whose Marian entablature was related to the Sarum Use liturgy for Palm Sunday - can be seen either side of the doorway to the Old Tower. Only one pre-Reformation gravestone has survived - that of Richard Imyn, probably dating to the 14th Century and laid on the site of the entrance from the nave to the chancel of the old church.
Detail of the c.1400 font, still in use today.
The memorial of Richard Imyn.
There is little remaining at St Lawrence to directly remind us of the Reformation's 16th Century beginnings, but there are plenty of echoes of the continued religious and social conflicts as they boiled into warfare in the 17th Century. The tower of St Lawrence was a royalist lookout point during the Siege of York in 1644, and there was fighting in the churchyard as Fairfax's Parliamentarians tried to storm Walmgate Bar. St Lawrence was ruined. If any medieval stained glass had survived to the 1640s, it was probably wrecked in the fighting, before Fairfax's famous agreement with the City that his men would leave the City's famous glass intact after its capitulation.
Hacked by Puritans - a 17th Century chair.
St Lawrence was left in an unusable state until the Restoration, when the church was re-roofed and new furnishings were purchased. These swiftly included green hangings and cushions for the priest and his pulpit, a large chest for parish documents (badly restored in perhaps the mid-20th Century it is now used for storing spare bellropes), and a new chalice for the administration of Holy Communion, dated 1684 and still used at times (about 2,000 of its type remain, though many never see use). Two high-backed chairs from this period were restored by the Friends of St Lawrence in 2013. A story runs that the savagely damaged tops to each chair used to feature angelic figures which were lopped off by some Puritan aggressor at some distant time in the past.
"Church Wardens 1684 E Weteman and T Horner".
The Lawrence Street area was left a smouldering ruin after the Civil War. The street was gradually rebuilt (two late 17th Century brick houses survive just outside the Bar, as well as several fine 18th Century buildings, all much altered since). However, the area was not so prosperous as it had been as York's economic significance declined. The old Vicarage built at the charge of Nicholas de Wartre was not rebuilt and Vicars mostly lived outside the parish for the next 200 years. Parish life had a strongly rural flavour, with the Lawrence Street horse market, the nearby cattle market, sheep and horse grazing, and farming activity in Heslington providing much local employment. St Lawrence became, in a way, a sleepy village church, presided over by the de facto lords of the manor at Heslington Hall.
Heslington Hall - part of the parish of St Lawrence until the late 19th Century despite being opposite the church of St Paul, Heslington. You can hear the hymn tune 'Heslington' written by quondam Vicar of Heslington the Reverend Frederick Peel played on St Lawrence's old pipe organ here.
Heslington Hall was built in the reign of Elizabeth I. It came into the Hesketh family in the 17th Century, whose motto - C'est la seul vertu- qui donne Ia' Noblesse (Virtue alone gives nobility) - was painted by Henry Gyles in St Lawrence's new east window. In 1708 Heslington passed from the Hesketh name to the Yarburghs, via the marriage of James Yarburgh, a godson of James II & VII, to Anne Hesketh. Various tombs of the Hesketh and Yarburgh families still lie on the site of the old chancel from across the 18th Century, and the fine tomb of Ann Yarburgh can be seen on the wall inside the Old Tower. The church holds a silver plate given by her, once used for distributing bread to the people at Holy Communion. Sadly the other monuments which were moved to the Tower have fallen prey to theft and vandalism.
The interesting 1653 epitaph of Thomas Hesketh - sadly the stone is lost, but antiquarian James Torre recorded this and others for posterity in around 1690 - this is Torre's own handwriting.
In 1719, St Lawrence hosted a great society occasion - the marriage of Sir John Vanbrugh (dramatist and architect of, amongst other buildings, Castle Howard) and Henrietta Maria Yarburgh on a snowy January day.
Sir John Vanbrugh and Henrietta Maria Yarburgh, married at St Lawrence in 1719. Henrietta's brother Charles was lord of Heslington Hall, and served as churchwarden of St Lawrence, and his monument can still be read on the site of the old chancel.
Before the Civil War St Lawrence's tower had contained 3 bells. After the Civil War, a new single bell was cast. Dated 1739 and marked 'Deo Gloria', it hangs today on display on the wall of the ringing room in the tower of the new church.
The 1739 bell.
St Lawrence's School was one of three founded by a legacy from John Dodsworth to build schools in York. Opened in about 1790, the old schoolhouse still stands, near the Rose & Crown.
The battered plaque on the 18th Century schoolhouse.
As the 19th Century dawned, so to did some faint wind of Britain's growing industrialisation reach the parish of St Lawrence. A large flax mill was built to the west of the church in about 1800 - large parts of this remain as part of The Tannery flats. In 1817-19, the church was repaired and the roof somewhat raised.
The c.1800 Flax Mill, with its chimney stump on the left, can be seen next to the new church. It was later used as a tannery, hence the building's name today.
There are many gravestones laid around the churchyard dating from about 1780 to the late 19th Century, of all kinds and ranks of people. Two of the most interesting monuments are the 1820 Allen Memorial and the 1830s Rigg Memorial. The Allen Memorial is shaped like a medicine pot and stands near the churchyard railings. It was made in memory of Frances Allen, wife of Dr Oswald Allen, whose name was added when he passed away in due course. Oswald, from a Sandemanian background, was the second Apothecary of the York Dispensary and a major figure in public healthcare in York. He wrote a history of the Dispensary which you can read here.
The Allen Memorial.
The Rigg Memorial was built by public subscription, mostly in the 1830s, in memory of 6 children of the Rigg family who died in a boating accident on the River Ouse. Their grandfather was a seedsman who was actively involved in church affairs. The tragic accident provoked a wave of public sympathy and was reported nationally. Charles Lamb wrote a poem about it. So did James Montgomery, the liberal newspaper editor, poet, and hymnodist, who was a friend of the Quaker Tuke family whose large house opposite St Lawrence is now being repaired and turned into student accommodation. Montgomery's epitaph graces the memorial, which is based on an ancient Greek tomb. The monument was built onto the churchyard wall and has thereby preserved a small piece of this 18th-Century wall. The monument was restored by public subscription with the great assistance of York Civic Trust in 2016-17, and at time of writing this work is due to be dedicated by the Archbishop of York on 11 March. The death of all the Rigg heirs led to the sale of their nursery, enabling part to become the site of the new York Cemetery.
The Rigg Memorial just after conservation work in 2017.
Until the late 19th Century, ecclesiastical parishes played important functions in local government fields as diverse as road-mending and policing. An interesting relic of this latter role is the glass box in the Vestry containing the 1840s parish constables' staves of office.
The old parish constables' staves.
The church also has a set of replica 1930s stocks - regrettably the original stocks, of which a few photos survive, were taken into the church for "safe-keeping" but subsequently lost.
The old stocks - the gate and railings were replaced by the present brick wall when the Council seized the end of the churchyard for pavement widening in the 1950s.
As the 19th Century advanced, the population of York was booming, and in no area more than in the parish of St Lawrence. The small village-esque church was left to serve a rapidly changing urban community and arguably some change was necessary to serve effectively.
The tomb of the Reverend John Robinson, Vicar of St Lawrence 1843-1867, buried within his former parish in the new and fashionable York Cemetery in 1879. In his time, there was a morning service at 10:30 (usually Matins) and Evensong at 2:30pm or 3pm, with little singing but one or perhaps two psalms, which were accompanied by musicians on a gallery at the west end of the old church.
Canon James Raine, Vicar for a few months in 1867, wrote that in his assessment the size of the church was "lamentably insufficient" and that if a new, larger church were built attendance could easily be trebled within a year. His proposal was to retain the old church as a 'chapel of ease', with a new church being built nearer to York Cemetery. A similar course of action to this was followed in the neighbouring parish of St Oswald, Fulford, but a different course was taken at St Lawrence by his successor.
St Lawrence in 1843.
Following Raine, later in 1867 St Lawrence received a Vicar whose name - George Frederick Wade - evokes the previous era but who was thoroughly a man of his time in his interest in the evangelistic possibilities of the Oxford Movement and his hankering after a strong and somewhat medievalistic response to the challenges laid down by the age.
The only known depiction of the interior of the Old Church - as it was in the late 1870s. Note that the 17th Century east window had already been replaced, possibly when the church was renovated in the early 19th Century although there may have been a plain glass window in between.
It seems to have been he who persuaded the authorities to build a Vicarage in Lawrence Street in 1871-2 (regrettably since sold by the Diocese and demolished to be replaced with flats). Perhaps he had some involvement in the rebuilding of St Lawrence's School on a large scale next to the church in 1870. He was the last Vicar of St Lawrence to be concerned with Heslington, finally separated out in 1869, making St Lawrence for the first time a mainly urban parish.
The Reverend George Frederick Wade.
Wade busied himself in the old church so far as he could, introducing what was probably the first organ to be seen at St Lawrence since the Reformation (a very small six-stop instrument purchased from a shop in Colliergate) in 1860, new stained glass, and a surpliced choir in 1870. But Wade's main aim was to have the old St Lawrence, with its west gallery on Tuscan columns and its small and simple layout, replaced with a grand statement of modern Anglican ambition.
Wade's covering letter applying for a faculty (permission under ecclesiastical law) to replace the old church with the new.
Archbishop Thompson said that he did "not know any place where a Church [was] more urgently required" in terms of the needs of the parish. He donated £20 to the project - rather less than the £300 provided by the Dean of York, but not a negligible sum at the time.
Archbishop William Thompson, carved in stone in St Lawrence's chancel. He later promoted Wade's successor, the Reverend Robert Crosthwaite, to be his only suffragan as Bishop of Beverley.
Perhaps the project's appeal was in part a desire to compete with the local Roman Catholics (who had just built the churches of St Wilfrid and St George) and the dissenters (who had a large chapel, whose successor closed in 2016, in Melbourne Terrace). Perhaps it was also in part to assert the Church's continuing strength, authority, and ambition in an era of increasing religious pluralism, the abolition of tithe support, and higher expectations on the clergy.
The Yarburgh possessions passed to a line of the family who were raised to the Barony of Deramore. Their arms can be seen over the porch door. Although by the time the new church was built they were mainly connected to St Paul, Heslington, the second Baron Deramore donated the handsome sum of £400 to the building project. A descendant of the family, the present Lord Mowbray, kindly made a donation towards the recent heating installation.
Wade died in 1882 (on the Feast of St Thomas) before he could lead worship in the new church, but not before he had seen the churchyard expanded, the support of the Archbishop and the Dean of York secured, and the foundation stone laid for the new church of St Lawrence. He and his brothers donated £350 between them to the project. The old church tower and doorway, recognised for their exceptional historic and symbolic significance, were preserved, whilst the fabric of the old walls was used in the foundations of the new church. A few pieces left aside or since dug up can be seen around the churchyard. Other pieces were used to repair Walmgate Bar and the church of St Nicholas, Dunnington.
The 1872 Vicarage, site of 'Tradewinds' by Bull Lane, where vicars from Wade to Richard Jones lived.
Built 1881-3 by J B Hall of Canterbury in what was even in its time a slightly old-fashioned type of Gothic and with a very constrained budget, the new St Lawrence instantly became York's largest parish church. The capitals inside the church are beautifully carved, but many stone cubes intended to be carved on the church exterior had to be left perpetually unworked for want of funds.
The original elaborate design for St Lawrence's west end, as drawn in 1879.
There was not enough money to build the spire at first - this had to wait until 1893 to be finished, with the design amended to incorporate a clock commissioned by Alderman Fawcett in memory of his parents (you can read about the clock and the tower bells here).
1892 - the building of the spire.
The church was built to seat perhaps as many as 1,000, although this was probably a device to secure grant funding from the Incorporated Church Building Society rather than a realistic target for the ordinary Sunday morning congregation, with large numbers of supposed children's pews packed into every available space. This arrangement has gradually been adapted over the years to free up space for choir vestries, chapels, and a pipe organ.
An interesting early view - perhaps around 1910 - showing the original location of the organ at the end of the south aisle. Under the Reverend Francis Whaley Harper, an organ being sold by the church of St Olave was installed. It was later rebuilt in the north transept, and its place was taken by a Lady Chapel, in a scheme overseen  by architect  T A Lyons. The Lady Chapel is used for Morning Prayer every weekday today.
Four stained glass windows only put into the old church late in its life (probably around 1870) were moved into the new church. Newly commissioned glass soon followed. In the north aisle, the windows given by Dr Sykes of Doncaster are notable because he also founded the adjacent almshouses, the Ellen Wilson Hospital, in 1894 (the almshouses are still run by charitable trust separate from though connected with the church, merged in very recent times with the Dorothy Wilson Charity which was a founded a century earlier). In the south aisle, the Alcuin window is particularly interesting not only as a rare depiction of one of York's most famous sons, as a particularly vivid piece of arts and crafts design, and as a memorial of a distinguished former headteacher of St Lawrence's School, but because the face was based by the craftsman on his father, J W Knowles.
The Alcuin window.
J W Knowles senior was a noted scholar of York stained glass, and from his workshop in Stonegate (where the family still lived until the 1990s) he oversaw the production of much of St Lawrence's glass, including the 3 panel east window Crucifixion. This window was paid for by the famous James Melrose (after whom Melrosegate is named) in memory of his brother Richard, who lived in Heslington. James Melrose was christened in the old church and attended a Sunday service in St Lawrence's new church building on his 100th birthday.
Part of a display celebrating the restoration of the east window in 2014
Other windows of note include the Busey Lady Chapel window, the north transept window given by the Barstow family, and the 1970s Lady Chapel window incorporating portraits of then choirmen and choristers.
Lady Chapel Window by Stammers
In the south transept is an especially fine First World War memorial window paid for by the wife of former Vicar the Reverend Thomas Ableson Harpley whose husband died young in 1909 and whose son Robert left school for the trenches in 1915 and was killed on 5th July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme (hence the depiction of the Somme battlefield in the window - it is a very rare example of a depiction of a specific battlefield in British war memorial glass). This window was designed by Joan Fulleylove, an outstanding female artist of the 1920s-30s whose most significant commission was to produce the windows for the Anglican Cathedral at Khartoum.
The First World War memorial window
Both World Wars had a major impact on the parish. In the First World War, 21 choristers departed for service in the armed forces. The parish suffered a high casualty rate, mainly because so many of its men joined regiments like the West Yorkshire Regiment which featured heavily in the Somme offensive. The marble parish war memorial lists more than 120 names. There are display boards on St Lawrence and the First World War in the church, and a special page on the website will follow on this subject.
Detail of the window showing the Somme battlefield
York may be the only British city to have been bombed more heavily in the First World War than the Second. Certainly St Lawrence sustained its war damage in the 1914-1918 conflict, when a bomb fell on Low Moor and damaged the east window.
Gifford Hutchings' reflections on the Armistice in the 1919 Vestry minutes, including his report on the bomb damage suffered by the church - the church's insurers paid for the repairs.
Different Vicars left different marks on the church and its community. Egmont Gifford Hutchings (Vicar 1910-23) organised its first reordering which included the creation of the Lady Chapel, along with introducing some more Ritualistic elements to services. He further developed St Lawrence's well-thought-of choir and sang bass solo in Stainer's "Crucifixion". He is buried under the High Altar - the only interment in the new church.
Stainer's devotional 'The Crucifixion' has a long history at St Lawrence and was sung about every other year by the time of this 1938 poster. You can listen to the Crucifixion as sung in St Lawrence in 2016 here. Note the spelling of "St Laurence" - this form seems to have been adopted in the 1930s as being nearer the Latin 'Laurentius'. The alternative spelling had no legal recognition and was abandoned again in the 2000s.
Canon Egbert Claud Hudson, a former army chaplain and a formidable character by all accounts, published the old parish registers from 1606 onwards, ensured that the new Church Hall frontage was of a style and quality in keeping with the adjacent almshouses, and ran the parish very successfully on High Church lines.
St Lawrence in about 1930 after T A Lyon's work.
Canon Ernest Marsh had the misfortune to become Vicar immediately before the War, but nevertheless achieved a great deal, continuing to build up the successful parish community, organising St Lawrence's second re-ordering (including all the Mousey Thompson woodwork) assisted by Temple Moore's son, Leslie Moore, and introducing the English Hymnal (still used at some services today) along with other improvements to music at the church. He was not an enthusiast for incense or altar bells, but generally continued the church's Anglo-Catholic developmental trajectory, wearing a biretta and a cape and developing the church's musical tradition. You can read one his sermons here.
St Lawrence was an important point of continuity in a period of great change in the parish in the postwar years - the only buildings still standing from this early 1960s photo of the railway which once brought cattle to market via Foss Islands depot are the church and the old flax mill. (c) CYC
He was followed by Harwood, who founded the Friends of St Lawrence, Cummings, who with some controversy in the choir introduced a regular Sung Eucharist in place of Mattins, and by Richard Jones, who took St Lawrence in quite a Roman direction. The statue of the Blessed Virgin at the entrance to the Lady Chapel was made by the Poor Clares Collettine of Lawrence Street and was given by Richard Jones. During his time St Lawrence's school moved to a new site further up the hill on Heslington Road.
The foundations of the Victorian school exposed during construction work for the new student flats in 2013. The influx of students to the area in recent decades has brought both new life and new challenges to the area.
Richard Jones was succeeded in 1985 by St Lawrence's last Vicar to date (as opposed to 'priest-in-charge'), Peter Thornton, who remained at St Lawrence until the millennium. In 1999, he christened the new bells of the church, each named after one of the historic churches within the modern parish - you can watch an interesting video of this here. St Lawrence's travails and tribulations since then do not belong in this history, but suffice to say that (thanks to a roof repair grant from English Heritage and the efforts of former Walmgate Post Office sub-postmaster and long-time churchwarden the late Mr Brian Fletcher) the threat of closure which briefly loomed over the church in the early 2000s is a receding memory. You can read about the challenges the building has presented and the huge progress since made with the building as well as the projects now being undertaken here. There have been many positive developments in church life and there are many hopeful signs for the future, including a renewed embrace of many of the church's traditional strengths - its role in the community, its choral tradition, and its formal liturgy - by a younger generation. We look forward to what God will provide the parish with in future years.  

An active Church of England church in York, between the busy University of York campus and the ancient city walls – serving the Parish of St Lawrence -with-St Nicholas with Christian prayer, worship, fellowship, hospitality, and charity.