160 years ago…

The two photographs of our church on the back page are the oldest I have come across.  The exterior photo must have been taken not too long after the church was opened in 1860 judging by the fact that no trees have had time to grow around the building since its construction.  The interior photo is also difficult to date, but the fact that all the details of the original design are still in place suggests it too was taken not long after the church was opened.

Living as we do in an age when most people are carrying a camera as one of the functions of their mobile phone, they are constantly taking pictures of things they see or that happen.  This, of course, was not always the case and certainly in Victorian times photography was an expensive hobby and photographic equipment cumbersome and usually only owned and operated by professionals.  Even though it was a newsworthy event, no one, it would seem, was interested in taking any photographs of the opening of our church – which is a shame.    

Similarly relatively few photographs exist in the public domain of Yarm itself at that time.  Who needed a picture of the town when you could go outside and look at the real thing?  The concept of having a photographic record for historic purposes didn’t seem to occur to people.  Also most of photos of the High Street that do exist all seem to have been taken looking north so that the church doesn’t figure in any of them, and in any that were taken looking south it is so far away that you can’t see it.

One of the consequences of this is that it’s very difficult to picture our church in anything other than a modern times.  There are probably many photos in family albums of baptisms and first communions and weddings that may show the interior changes that have taken place in the last forty or fifty years but only by chance because obviously the photos were taken for other reasons.  It would be rare for anyone to have photographed the church itself (whether inside or out) for the sake of it and without that visual record over time we see it only as it is now and not how it was.

In May 2020 the church was 160 years old.  That’s a long spiritual history and one to be proud of, and I wonder if it might help to appreciate just how long 160 years is if we look at what was going on in this country and elsewhere when it first opened back in 1860.  And so, in no particular order…

  • Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had been published the year before and in 1860 a debate on his theories was held in Oxford.
  • The Suez Canal was one year into construction.
  • Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States. We think of him as being way back in history, but it was the year our church opened.
  • One of the worst storms ever experienced struck the east coast of England sinking more than 100 ships and claiming at least 40 lives.
  • Florence Nightingale founded a training school for nurses in London, the first to be based on her nursing principles.
  • Dickens was alive and writing, and in 1860 published the first instalment of Great Expectations.  
  • South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union becoming a founding member of the Confederacy (precipitating the start of the American Civil War).
  • Sheffield FC and Hallam FC played the first ever inter-club football match, the oldest fixture in the world.
  • The first recorded fish & chip shops opened – one in London and the other near Oldham.
  • William Gladstone was the first to use the familiar red box to deliver the government’s budget to the House of Commons.
  • The first tramway in Britain opened in Birkenhead.
  • Joseph Swan had developed the carbon filament incandescent bulb in 1859 and patented it in 1860.
  • The first garden party was held at Buckingham Palace.
  • A French typesetter made the earliest sound recording (a 10sec version of “Au Clare de la Lune” (but it wasn’t rediscovered until 2008).
  • John Speke and James Grant left Zanzibar to search for the source of the Nile.
  • In 1860 there were 4 million African slaves in the American South.
  • 142 coal miners were killed in an explosion in Monmouthsire.
  • The predecessor of what became the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home was established.
  • Anton Chekov was born in 1860, as were Will Kellogg founder of the Kellogg Company, murderess Lizzie Borden, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, children’s author JM Barrie, and composer Gustav Mahler.

(I didn’t know any of that – it was all gleaned from Wikipedia)

It’s hard to imagine St Romuald’s in 1860 with a congregation dressed in their Victorian finery, but this is what it might have looked like.