Christians have worshipped on this site for at least the last 700 years during which time the parish church has dominated the view of the High Street and the town.
The Church is first mentioned in 1200 although the Crypt contains a bricked-up Norman doorway and Early English lancet windows c1150. In 1258 the patronage of the living was granted to the Abbey of Halesowen which the Abbot exercised until the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1538.
Although dedicated to All Saints as early as 1391, the Church has been known as St. Matthew’s since the 18th century. This may have been linked to the Annual Fair Day which operated from the 12th century.
The best known view of St. Matthew’s is probably the West front with the 170 foot soaring spire as seen from the market in the High Street. When approaching the main entrance in the south porch you can see the contrast between the sandstone of the fifteenth century chancel and the Bath stone which now encases the nave and tower.
Rebuilding and extending the chancel began in 1462. Stone for the new work was hauled from quarries at Brewood and Sutton Coldfield while timber came from the Prior of Sandwell’s woods. The parapet and the tracery of the chancel windows were restored in 1879-80. Apart from the great East window the chancel windows were modelled on the one remaining perpendicular-style window which had been bricked up in the wall by the organ.
The curious open archway under the East end forms a porch to the entrance to the crypt and, like that at the magnificent church of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, was probably built to allow footpath access to both north and south sides of the churchyard since the chancel had been extended to the then eastern limit of the churchyard. This is clear from the view of the church published in 1798. Three niches on the East side of the arch may represent openings since an examination of the outside of the wall reveals traces of bricking-up.
The crypt includes the earliest recognizable part of the church. It consists of two rooms and the inner or Western room has a fine roof with sandstone ribs. The Eastern wall of this inner room contains two very good examples of 12 th century lancet windows and traces of what may be a bricked- up Norman doorway. In the back wall of this room there are the remains of an aumbry (a small cupboard, usually near an altar where the reserved sacrament is kept for administering to the sick) and a doorway leading to a blocked staircase connecting with the chancel above. The outer room is part of the 15th century extension and has a barrel-vaulted roof and a small blocked perpendicular-style doorway leading by a spiral staircase to the north side of the chancel. There is also a cast-iron plaque detailing the increased seating resulting from Goodwin’s restoration.
The Exterior of the Nave and Tower
During the restoration of 1819-21 carried out by Francis Goodwin the exterior of the nave and tower was given a two-inch thick cladding of Bath stone. All the old windows were bricked up to be replaced by larger, perpendicular-style windows with cast-iron tracery.
The spire was restored in 1951 although the earliest restoration was effected by a John Browne in 1669. This had developed such a twist that it was replaced in 1779. The tower clock erected in 1865 is the latest in a series beginning with a chiming clock in 1446. When the present clock faces were fitted, that on the western side was given opal glass so that it could be lit at night. At the time the centre of the dial was the largest sheet of such glass to be manufactured. The west door in gothic style replaces a Tuscan portico which had been built in the late 18th century.
The peal of twelve bells includes four dating from before 1553, another before 1656 and another cast in 1674, Joseph Smith of Edgbaston recast the ‘great bell’ in 1731. By 1775 there were eight bells and they were all recast by Thomas Rudhall of Gloucester. Number 5 is inscribed, “When you us ring, we’ll sweetly sing. Thomas Rudhall, Gloucester, 1775”. In 1863 the treble and second bell were added and when all ten were recast by Taylor and Co. of Loughborough in 1928 the present Numbers 1 and 2 were added. In 1981 a new 5.25 cwt. sharp second bell in memory of Miss Nellis Homer was cast by Taylor’s to make the front eight bells into a complete octave.
Across the road from the south porch stand the memorial gardens designed as part of a general scheme for the area around the church by G. A. Jellicoe, FRIBA. They stand on the site of the original parish hall and the memorial stone was unveiled by H.R.H. Princess Margaret in 1951.
The lychgate with the text above “I am the Resurrection and the Life” was built in 1927 as a memorial to George and Catherine S. Gill and replaces wrought-iron gates which had had a lamp in the overthrow. The churchyard railings were taken away for scrap to help the war effort during the Second World War. (Another view of the Lychgate )
The churchyard contains graves bearing the names of many famous Walsall families. To the east of the South Porch stands one of the most interesting inscriptions on a headstone to a former beadle and bellringer. In 1756 this church yard was full so the Bath Street cemetery was consecrated.
The large South Porch is the main entrance to the church and contains a small marble tablet commemorating the restoration of 1819-21, as well as two boards containing an impressive list of incumbents and patrons back to 1211.
The nave: Francis Goodwin designed the slender cast-iron columns as well as the iron window tracery. A three decker pulpit was also installed but removed in 1880. He reorganized the seating with new pews which were largely replaced with chairs in 1880. The ceiling is moulded plaster resembling fan-vaulting.
The octagonal font: This belongs to the 15th century although the alabaster rim and lead lining are 18th century, the lead lining being inscribed with C. Ward and the initials SC, RB, NS, a Tudor Rose and a mask with the date 1712. The limestone bowl carries the coats of arms of the Beauchamps, other families and on the western face the symbols of the Passion: the Cross and Crown of Thorns, the Sop, the Spear and the Scourges . . .Prior to 1879 the font was hidden behind the three decker pulpit.
The side chapels: in 1920 St. Clement’s chapel was refurnished as a war memorial. In 1975 St. Catherine’s chapel was fitted with a screen and the stained glass-window and acts as the children’s chapel. The memorial to Sergeant Major Purvis, one of the 600 who charged with the Light Brigade, is on the West Wall.
The Chancel Screen: Set up in 1915 as the result of a bequest by Mrs Smyth nee Wiseman. It was designed by C. E. Bateman, FRIBA, of Birmingham and was carved by the Mr Phillips who was responsible for woodcarving in the new Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. Along the screen are five shields which carry emblems of the Passion similar to those on the font. From left to right they are:
- (a) the Pillar, Rope and Scourges,
- (b) the Tunic,
- (c) the Cross, Ladder, Reed and sponge,
- (d) the Crown of Thorns and the Nails
- (e) the Cock and Money-bag.
The Chancel, rebuilt in the late 15th century, was restored in 1879-80 by Euan Christian, architect of London. The tracery of all the windows was replaced and the model for those on the north and south sides was that immediately on the north as you pass through the screen from the nave. It was discovered bricked-up and in pristine condition, a fine example of perpendicular. The east window had been a round-headed Queen Anne style for a century and a half. This was replaced by the present perpendicular-style tracery and glazed in memory of Sister Dora who had died on Christmas Eve 1878. The reredos represents the Supper of Emmaus, with supporting angels on either side. The piscina, sedilia and stone gospel lectern were rediscovered and restored in 1880. Three 15th century doorways were found at the 1880 restoration. Two on the north side lead to the crypt, that on the south leads through the thickness of the wall to the churchyard.
The choir stalls contain the finest medieval woodcarving in the old county of Staffordshire. The arm rests and bench ends contain well-preserved 15th century figures and poppyheads. The misericords in the back rows of the stalls comprise one of the great treasures of the church for they probably belong to the period of re-building and re-furnishing of the late 15th century when the town was already thriving.
There are no two identical designs, as can be seen from the following list:
|South side, from west to east||North side, from west to east|
|· 1: Foliage||· 1: Angel (restored)|
|· 2: Three foliage with bird||· 2: Miller carrying sack|
|· 3: Mask with protuding tongue||· 3: Pelican pecking breast|
|· 4: Grinning mask||· 4: Angel holding shield|
|· 5: Mask with peculiar ears||· 5: Leaf|
|· 6: A recumbent hart||· 6: Man in cloak and hood|
|· 7: Archer – half man, half beast||· 7: Double-headed spread-eagled bird|
|· 8: Archer – half man, half beast (damaged)||· 8: Clean-shaven man in belted tunic|
|· 9: Oak leaf and acorns||· 9: Running beast with lion’s feet and horse’s tail|
There is a tradition that the seats came from Halesowen Abbey at the Dissolution in 1538 but there is no written evidence for this.
The organ was rebuilt and enlarged in 1952-3 although it was originally built in 1773 by Samuel Green of London, who was the outstanding organ builder of the time. There are more Cathedral and Collegiate organs of Green’s construction than any other. Among his Cathedral organs are those of Canterbury, Wells, Salisbury, Rochester and Lichfield and those of New College Oxford and Trinity College Dublin. The hymn tune ‘Darwall’s 148th’ set to ‘Ye Holy Angels Bright’ was probably given its first public performance on this organ for the tune had been composed by the Vicar of Walsall, Rev. J. Darwall.
Walsall is very fortunate in that the parish registers go back to 1570 and provide a complete run to the present day. In the small Elizabethan town burial records include descriptive names such as 1574 ‘Old Mother Webbe’ and 1576 ‘Old Mort’s wyfe’. A visitation of the plague in 1604 resulted in the death and burial of ‘John Hodgett’s sone Thomas’ (March 10th). Seven others died of plague that year and as a result of this experience the town authorities refused entry to strangers during times of plague. In 1665 there is an entry, ‘So few were the burials here in these months (31) so many thousands dyed of ye Plague in London’.
The Churchwarden’s Accounts
These also produced many items of interest. For example, the full details of the tenders for the work as well as the agreement with the architect Francis Goodwin show that the lowest tender was accepted (to include Bath stone facing rather than cement) for £6,096 and carried out 1819-21.
Between World War II and 1980 over £35,000 was spent on the restoration of this church including the complete restoration of the chancel, a new lighting scheme, redecoration, the rebuilding of the spire, the restoration of much of the stonework of the nave and new central heating. Then, in 1980, following the 5-yearly inspection by the Diocesan Architect, Charles Brown, a programme to restore the Bath stone stonework on the walls, buttresses, pinnacles, the red sandstone window sills of the east end and rust-proofing glazing bars as well as roof repairs roved necessary. Consequently a Committee was formed, chaired by local accountant, John Baker JP to launch an Appeal for £400,000. This was achieved and the work carried out to the highest standard and rectified Goodwin’s rather penny-pinching work of 150 years earlier.
David F. Vodden