William Butterfield (1814 - 1900) by Joy Heywood


William Butterfield was born on 7th September, 1814, probably in the area of the Strand, London, where his father had a chemist’s shop. His parents were Non-Conformists and there is little evidence to explain why, coming from a Non-Conformist background, he himself became an unwavering High Churchman of the Church of England. He was the eldest son of a large family but had an elder sister, Anne, of whom he was very fond, and remaining as he did a lifelong bachelor, it was her family who provided him with a stable family environment and the continuity of the next generation. Anne married Benjamin Starey in 1838, and his family had connections with High Churchmen which may have been an influence on Butterfield as he was drawn more closely into the Starey family and social circle.

In 1831, William was apprenticed to a builder in Pimlico by the name of Thomas Arber, but he went bankrupt before William’s apprenticeship had run its course and after only two years his indentures were cancelled. It is at this point that William Butterfield seems to have decided for himself that he wanted to train as an architect - a profession rather than a trade. For the next four years, he became a pupil of E.L. Blackburne and a student member of the Architectural Society. From 1838 to 1839, he was an assistant to a Worcester architect, Harvey Eginton. A lot of Butterfield’s free time was spent in exploring the countryside around Worcester and, in particular, drawing mediaeval buildings, intact or ruined, which he found there, encouraged by his mentor.

After the year in Worcester, he set up in practice in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. His first independent work came through family connections, a Congregationalist chapel in Bristol. He entered one or two architectural competitions unsuccessfully, but was soon to be drawn into the movement with which his name became almost synonymous - the Ecclesiological Movement of the newly formed Cambridge Camden Society. Butterfield’s interest in this Society stemmed from and was fuelled by his intense sympathy with the ideas of the Oxford Movement. His biographer, Paul Thompson, writes:

“The Oxford Movement .. was the revival from which Butterfield drew his own religious inspiration. It began at just the moment when he decided to become an architect rather than a builder.”

Butterfield was in at the beginning of the Victorian Gothic movement, but unlike others, for whom colour, decoration and soaring architecture was, perhaps, the end of rather than the means for worship, Butterfield stuck rigidly to his Protestant Non-Conformist roots and for him, the colour and decoration was focussed on the Chancel, leading the eye and the soul of the worshipper to the heart of the church and the central point of its worship - the celebration of the Eucharist.

It was Alexander Beresford-Hope who commissioned Butterfield to design All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London, which is acknowledged as Butterfield’s masterpiece and the blueprint for Victorian Gothic churches. William Butterfield worked on All Saints from 1849 to 1851; the church was consecrated in 1859 but Butterfield continued to work on this church for the rest of his life.

The next quarter of a century was the busiest of Butterfield’s life. He worked on an amazing range and number of buildings - workhouses, chapels, schools and school chapels, parsonages, estate houses and the new country house of his in-laws, the upwardly-mobile Starey family, at Milton Earnest, Buckinghamshire - as well as on churches and church-restorations. When he worked on a project, he wanted, like Isombard Kingdom Brunel, to design everything down to the last detail including door-hinges and light-fittings. In today’s terms, he wanted complete artistic control, and he would continue to design church plate and other ornaments for his churches years after their original construction.

“We are living in an age most terribly subjective and sensational ... Creeds and definite principles are out of fashion. Our feelings take their place …” Butterfield wrote in 1873. He was suspicious of anything which encouraged feeling rather than belief. His own beliefs were in the Bible and in the Church unified with Christ at the centre. He believed that there should be no social distinctions within the Church and supported the Church of England's attempts to include the working-class and poverty-stricken. He designed churches for areas of urban deprivation as well as rural affluence.

1876 saw the completion of Keble College, Oxford and its Chapel, the highpoint of Butterfield’s career, drawing to a close the period of his work later termed “essential Butterfield”.

Not that he stopped working; his last church was St.Augustin’s, Bournemouth, consecrated in 1892, only eight years before Butterfield’s death. St.Mary Magdalene’s was consecrated in 1883 and in the following year, William Butterfield was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal. He would not attend the Presentation Banquet but sent a representative to collect the medal, which he was only persuaded to accept because it was in the Queen’s gift. Butterfield disliked and shunned publicity.

As a man, he was immensely reserved with few friends but a devoted family. His life revolved around his faith and his work. His beliefs centred on the Church unified with Christ at its centre as expressed through the Eucharist, and on the teaching of the Bible. He was wary of any kind of emotionalism in worship and distrusted the very Catholic ritual of some very High Church practices of the time, probably because of his Non-Conformist background. He was an egalitarian and believed there should be no social distinctions within the Church and campaigned to get rid of the system of rented pews then prevalent in the Church of England. He had very strong views on the role of women as educators, particularly religious educators, of their families and believed that women should be modest, quiet and pious. For these reasons he approved of mixed congregations, believing women to be a good influence on men. His own niece, however, had more than one difference of opinion with her uncle over these views about the quiet little woman!

He was a master of his materials and delighted in using brick, that most modern of mass-produced materials, showing that it could be used artistically, but he also had a great feeling for wood which went back to the work of the mediaeval church craftsmen, and he was a skilled metal-worker. He designed stained-glass windows and wall-paintings of glowing colours, tiled floors of intricate patterns and unexpectedly humorous individual design, exquisite sacred vessels and candlesticks, crosses and altar-frontals so that all was in harmony within his churches.

But he was a very practical architect, too, paying equally close attention to the design of light-fittings and heating arrangements.

Pursuing his belief that nothing should detract from worship and that all should be included in the church, he wrote that hassocks and carpets represented “the rich man's tradition, and they usually mean appropriation. A hassock is a stumbling block, even to the youngest and most agile …” His preferred design was a low-backed, straight pew which provided good support but not too much comfort, and a kneeling board about three and a half inches wide, to concentrate the mind.

When Butterfield died, architectural critics acknowledged that he was one of the great Victorian Gothic architects, summing up his genius as the ability to create Gothic forms and adapt them to modern worship, not just copy mediaeval models as some of his contemporaries were accused of doing.

St. Mary Magdalene’s is an unusually complete Butterfield church - the design is still essentially his and so are the fixtures and fittings. Its importance in the career of Butterfield and in Victorian Gothic architecture is that it is a work of maturity, consolidating the place of Victorian Gothic architecture and the re-establishment of worship focused on the altar and the Eucharist.

William Butterfield lived a long and professionally fulfilling life but was a very reserved man with few close friends. Acquaintances, colleagues and patrons described him as unfailingly mild-mannered and courteous, but from his surviving correspondence there is evidence of sometimes volcanic outbursts of anger, usually directed at incompetent builders or irregularities in Church practices or the steadily declining moral standards which he saw around him.

However, correspondence with various members of his family shows an entirely different side to his personality. He had had a warm relationship with his uncle, who helped him financially when he was training as an architect and in his turn, Butterfield was generous and caring towards his own nephews and nieces. One niece’s diary describes how much they all enjoyed a seaside holiday with him when they were children. Later, as they reached adulthood, Uncle William was very generous with both advice and money, and they continued to enjoy holidays together, sometimes abroad.

Butterfield was a tall man of spare build with grey hair and side-whiskers, who wore steel-rimmed spectacles. There is only one known drawing of him, probably because he disliked publicity so much or any hint of personal vanity. He always wore a black frock coat, grey waistcoat and trousers, a white shirt with a high collar and loosely-tied, black bow and well-polished black shoes. By the end of his life, this way of dress had become very old-fashioned.

Butterfield lived most of his life in his chambers in the Adelphi, off The Strand, where he also had his office. His personal rooms were, apparently, very classical in their appearance, being of Adam design, and he was looked after there by an elderly couple. As an employer, he demanded high standards of his draughtsmen in both work and character. One remembered in later years that they had not had a lunch-break, as Mr. Butterfield himself did not take one.

William Butterfield died on February 23rd, 1900 and was buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Tottenham, where a close friend of his was the incumbent, and where his beloved sister, Ann, had been buried some nine years before. His obituarists universally praised his genius and originality and his skill as a craftsman. He was the acknowledged master of Victorian Gothic church architecture, although by 1900, there was a fin-de-siecle feeling that Victorian Gothic was already old-fashioned. It would be another 70 years before the work of William Butterfield and his contemporaries would be fully appreciated again.

To understand, therefore, the importance of Victorian Gothic church architecture and Butterfield’s work, one has to know what went before, both architecturally and liturgically in the Church of England. The eighteenth century saw a huge emphasis placed on the word of God as expounded by the preacher each Sunday. Church decoration was kept to the minimum and all the attention was focused on the pulpit. In older churches this led to the rest of the building being neglected and falling into disrepair. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, great thinkers such as Cardinal John Newman and John Keble, began to put forward the idea that in rejecting entirely its Catholic roots, the Church of England was missing something vital in its worship and they advocated a return to ceremony and placing the emphasis of worship on a personal spiritual relationship with God, expressed through the Eucharist. For them, churches should be full of colour, a celebration of God’s creation as expressed through Man. Architects therefore began to look back to the colourful Mediaeval churches and cathedrals for inspiration and so Victorian Gothic was born.


All Saints Margaret Street London W1


Keble College Oxford Chapel


St Mary, Ottery, Devon font


A William Butterfield Chalice

St Mary Magdalene, Enfield


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