Hidden History of Malvern College
Article by James Ferguson, a volunteer.
After Great Malvern Priory, three of the most important stone buildings in Malvern are to be found in Malvern College: The first, the Main Building, is the work of the architect, Charles Hansom, in 1862; the second is the Chapel, by Arthur Blomfield in 1896; and the third, the Memorial Library, by Aston Webb in 1922. Documentary sources from the College’s archives give us a valuable insight into the sources of the stone and the discussions leading to a choice of one stone over another.
The Main Building (1862) A letter from the architect, Charles Hansom, specifies local rubble stone from Cradley with Bath Stone dressings. This was the era before bulk transport of stone by rail, so a local stone for the bulk of the building was the obvious choice. The same materials were used for School House and the Porters Lodge nearby, as well as the walls bordering the site. Cradley Stone, quarried from the Ridgeway cross area, is common in and around Malvern and is a Lower Devonian green St Maughan’s formation sandstone.
The Chapel (1896) For Blomfield’s chapel, we have more archive material, though what is lacking are copies of letters sent by the school to the architect, so we have to deduce what went on from half the correspondence. The plan of Nov 5th 1895 was for the stone to be similar to that of the main building with Cradley sandstone for general exteriors and Jurassic oolitic limestone from Corsham for dressings and wall linings.
April 1896 sees the builders, Collins & Godfrey of Tewkesbury, submit a tender suggesting using Milton limestone (from Milton under Wychwood, Oxfordshire) for Corsham and either Bromsgrove sandstone or Hanborough Stone (also from Oxfordshire) for Cradley. In May the architect agrees that while Cradley Stone is basically cheaper, it is ultimately more expensive because of the problems in working it; he prefers Bromsgrove Stone to Hanborough. He also rejects Milton Stone on cost grounds at this stage. In August the contract is signed between the College and Collins & Godfrey, and Blomfield produces nineteen detailed handwritten pages for them. He specifies grey Bromsgrove sandstone for the exterior with Bath Stone where shown on the plan (since lost) and asks to be sent samples. There is also a reference to the external/internal stonework which will use Corsham Stone (presumably for ease of carving). Also, all the steps are to be of Portland Stone.
In Oct 1896, Blomfield writes that he does not like the Guiting Stone he has been sent (from Guiting Power, Oxfordshire) and now insists on Milton Stone because of the colour. The College seems to have been prepared to meet the extra cost, though it may be that the proximity of the Milton quarry to the railway line meant it was less expensive than they had first thought. There are no further references to stone types in the archive.
The Builder Magazine of April 30th 1898, 2 years after construction was completed, refers to Milton Stone with Bath Stone dressings. This, together with inspection of the building, suggests it is indeed of Milton Stone with Bath dressings and the steps are Portland Stone. There doesn’t appear to be any Bromsgrove Stone used. There is some Malvernian Stone in the wall to the west. The building was extended in 1908, to the south, using the same stone types.
The building was constructed at the height of the Arts and Crafts period, and there is much variety in the stone tracery of the windows. Inside, the nineteen-figure stone reredos (using Corsham Stone) is probably the best of its date anywhere. Sadly the intricate exterior pinnacles suffered severe crystallization damage and have been replaced by a composite, so that they are now all the same and have lost their former variety.
The Memorial Library (1922) By 1922, road transport was available so even more options were open to Aston Webb. He seems to have used a mixture of oolitic Cotswold stones that are browner than those from the Bath area; the building work was supervised by his son, Maurice, and he apparently paid less attention to detail than his father would have done. Even so the building was rated highly by Pevsner.
Another of the College’s First World War memorials is a bronze statue of St George which stands on a majestic plinth of Portland Stone. Unlike the other buildings this is not visible from College Road.
Altogether, the archives have given us a fascinating glimpse of the competing pressures on an architect in making a choice of stone. These clearly included locality, cost, durability and personal aesthetic preference. It is clear from this that a single archival source, particularly a specification, may not be representative of the final decisions taken. Furthermore, a wide range of stone, from near and far, could be available for a given building project by the late 19th century. It is no surprise then that the intricacies of stones’ origins take time and effort to unravel.