Carvings of local heroes and global pioneers commissioned to replace damaged stonework

Clay models made to develop the designs for the carvings at the nearby workshop of Matthias Garn Master Mason & Partner

Crumbling stonework at the 900-year old St Mary’s Church in Beverley is set to be replaced by carvings of local heroes and global pioneers, including author Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived in Beverley as a child, and solo aviator Amy Johnson, who was born in Hull – as well as other trailblazers like scientist Marie Curie, and the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. 

The church is currently in the second phase of a major restoration project to repair and preserve the building’s stonework, which is in critical need of repair. Crumbling walls and pinnacles are already being made safe and window tracery has been painstakingly restored. However, external carvings on the South Nave Clerestory, which directs rainwater off the building, have become so badly eroded across the centuries that they are unrecognisable fragments.  There is no record of what these carvings originally were, from which to restore them, so the Parochial Church Council (PCC) sought permission to install newly designed carvings, celebrating the achievements of women across history in the fields of maths, the sciences, and engineering.

The proposed selection of women to be commemorated also includes Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer and Rosalind Franklin, a crucial contributor to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.

“We have chosen these women because of their contributions to science, technology and compassion – for the work they have done which has either inspired or enhanced the lives of others,” explains Vicar Becky Lumley. “Wherever we see the development of human society working to bring about the common good, we want to celebrate it and acknowledge that each person is made in the image of God, with the capacity to do great works which enhance the lives of others.”

“Church carvings have always reflected the lives and interests of the time in which they were created,” adds Roland Deller, Director of Development at St Mary’s. “The south side of St Mary’s is essentially the building’s feminine aspect. It is home to St Catherine’s Chapel, and it features the stained glass window of St Ethelburga, St Hilda and St Mary. In deciding how to replace the worn-away carvings, then, it felt interesting to draw on this, by adding nine pioneering women to this flank of the church.”

Scaffolding currently up inside the Tudor nave of St Mary’s with our famous Minstrels Pillar in the foreground

St Mary’s sculptures and carvings have always drawn visitors – including thousands of local school children – each year. As part of its repair and conservation work the church is also currently running a ‘Curious Carvings’ project, funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which explores and interprets the rich array of medieval and Tudor carvings on the ceilings throughout the building, and creates engaging education projects to explain them. Replicas have been made using 3D printers and drone photography; every roof boss has been photographed in high definition so viewers can see them in more detail than ever before; a book by Dr Jennie England has been published exploring the stories behind the carvings; and a popular series of video podcasts was released during lockdown. Amongst the 688 roof bosses are carvings of mythological creatures, historical figures, scenes from everyday life such as brewing ale, as well as allegorical and Biblical tales.

Work in progress on the model for the carving of pioneering aviator Amy Johnson

The new commission is being brought to life by the Yorkshire-based firm of artisan craftsmen, Matthias Garn Master Mason & Partner. Designer and sculptor Kibby Schaefer reflects, “It’s a wonderful project and an enormous privilege. I’ve been carving for a long time and this is probably the most interesting project I’ve ever worked on. Having the time to read about these women has been incredibly interesting and very humbling.”

In granting permission for the project, The Chancellor of the Consistory Court of the Diocese, the Worshipful Canon Peter Collier QC, noted that “careful thought has been given to the theological and missional rationale for using these persons as the subject of carvings. In my judgment there is… a real carte blanche with an opportunity to create something that is appropriate to this point in time for this church, this worshipping community and the community in which that is all set.”

The eroded carvings being replaced

The project also has support from heritage experts. Kerry Babbington of Historic England confirms, “Historic England supports the proposal on heritage grounds. The new additions to the Grade I listed building will enhance its aesthetic, historic and communal heritage values by drawing visitors to engage with the building. They also have the potential to enhance the sustainability of the church and its outreach mission, again by adding to the many stories attached to the building and the strong tradition of artistic carvings inside and outside this beautiful church.”

Work in progress at the workshop and in the church

In choosing to celebrate these nine extraordinary individuals, the church is not only reflecting their individual achievements in their respective fields, it is also helping to address a national imbalance. According to the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only one in five statues of people in the UK are of women – and of these, almost half are fictional characters.

Concludes Becky: “The project at St Mary’s therefore seeks to ensure Beverley plays its part in fully and fairly representing the contribution of real women to the nation, particularly in ways or fields where they have been traditionally overlooked.”