Thomson’s collection of three churches; Queen’s Park (1868 – 1943), Caledonia Road (1855 – ruined ), and St Vincent Street (1857), are among his most well known works, and deservedly so. Each is a wholly unique approach to a typology that meant more to Thomson than any other, and one to which he could most readily apply his architectural philosophies.
“They remain the grandest achievement in church architecture since the Middle Ages.” John Jeffrey Waddell, 1925
However, what few are aware of is that there was in fact a fourth Thomson church, the Chalmers Memorial Free Church on Ballater Street in the Gorbals. Constructed in 1859 and demolished in 1971, the church went through a number of alterations and uses throughout its life; Thomson returned to the building to add a hall and enlarge the church in the 1870’s, the east aisle and entrance were demolished to make way for the widening of the adjacent railway in the 1890’s, and the congregation left the building at the turn of the century to move into the newly constructed Cunninghame Memorial Church also on Balloter Street. Subsequently the building was repurposed as a paper merchants, then a cork factory, before finally succumbing to fire in 1971 and being demolished.
The architectural style is intriguing when one first considers the building’s scale and form, as well as the constituent elements utilised in the composition of its primary facade. Despite following on four years after the construction of Caledonia Road, and two years after St Vincent Street, this building is quite apart from that family of buildings and instead seems to share more commonality with some of Thomson’s villa designs.
In particular the arrangement of elements on the main body of the church bears a distinct resemblance to the upper story of the bay at the Double Villa, which preceded this design, where projecting eaves are surmounted by a pinnacle, whilst below a five-bay colonnade runs in front of a continuous glazed timber screen. A similar arrangement can also be found at Holmwood, and notably the cast iron roof brackets utilised here appear comparable to those that can still be seen at Holmwood.
However, we also know that the composition captured in these archive photographs does not represent the church as originally constructed. The below illustration by McFadzean provides a particularly useful representation of the main facade prior to the construction of the hall and demolition of the east aisle.
The symmetry of the design continues to set it apart from Thomson’s other churches, which all exhibit symmetrical elements in an asymmetric composition, as do his villas. It was in fact presumed for a while that this church may have originally been constructed with a tower, however research by McFadzean and Stamp has found no evidence of this. But in this elevation we begin to notice elements which impart some Thomsonian ‘churchiness’ into the design, most evidently we see the creation of a heavier plinth-like ground floor, punctured only by dwarf columns and differentiated in its more random masonry pattern, echoing the earlier St Vincent Street Church. Meanwhile Thomson’s church designs always see the entrances projected out beyond the main building line, whereas the villas invariably see the doors either integrated into the primary elevation or set back within the overall mass.
And the similarities to Thomson’s other churches continue in the interior, with light provided by clerestories above the galleries, floral cast iron and stencilled decoration. At this point I feel it is appropriate to defer to Ronald McFadzean’s description of the building, which was written having bravely inspected the building two days after it was burnt out, during the process of its demolition and despite hinderances such as sections of roof collapsing whilst his survey was underway:
“The church building was constructed of large rectangular ashlar sandstone blocks to the front facade with Wilson’s bricks to side and rear walls. There were 5″ diameter cast-iron columns with small cast-iron floral capitals supporting the gallery and clearstorey. There were patera
motifs on the main beam above the gallery-i.e. under the clearstorey. This clearstorey and its partner along the top of the east wall were most interesting as, unexpectedly, they had been constructed entirely of timber. There had been a timber and slate roof with wide overhanging eaves supported on cast iron brackets.
Internally, the walls had been lined with yellow pine vertical ‘V’-jointed boarding finished with a clear varnish and stencilled decorations. A pseudo-Greek idiom had been adopted for the cast iron railings to the staircase. At the front gable the upper five windows were clear of the
stone columns and formed a detached timber screen. The range of windows at ground floor level had 1/4″ obscured plate glass.
The decoration over the main entrance to the church was slightly different from that on the adjacent hall entrance and clearly indicated that the hall was a later addition. The Hall staircase did not have balusters but a solid brick or masonry wall on the stair well side. The tenement on the west side of the Hall had been built at a later date so the upper gable partially rested on the outer wall of the Hall.”
This church represents an important part of Thomson’s legacy, bringing together key elements of both his church and villa designs to form a uniquely cohesive whole, that is rarely considered alongside his other church designs. Presented with a challenging site, enclosed on all sides and without the opportunity to design the adjoining residential blocks as he had at his two previous churches, Thomson responded with an elegant building which stood alone. The building’s success and the satisfaction of the congregation are evidenced in Thomson being invited back to increase the capacity of the building and add a hall a decade later. However, the encroachment of the railway and the demolition of the east aisle and gallery meant that the congregation sadly had to commission a new building just 30 years after the original had opened. That it’s use as a church was unfortunately curtailed so early on sadly means that no photographs of its original interior survive, however as evidenced by Ronald’s description there were still plenty of original details extant at the time of the fire, and we can only hope that some photographs may emerge in the future.
The content for this post relied heavily on Ronald McFadzean’s comprehensive and excellent original research, as originally published in The Alexander Thomson Society newsletter, available here. Whilst for the images which illustrate it, a debt of gratitude is owed to Zoë Herbert of the Society who sought them out from the archives.
by Scott Abercrombie