Knebworth church designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens marks centenary

How the church looked before its completion in the 1960s.

How the church looked before its completion in the 1960s. - Credit: Archant

From the outside, one could almost be forgiven for not realising St Martin’s Church in Knebworth is a place of worship – there is no church tower, no stained glass and just the one bell atop the building’s western end.

The original vision: what Lutyens intended the church to look like in 1911.

The original vision: what Lutyens intended the church to look like in 1911. - Credit: Archant

Inside that impression continues. Either side of the nave stand massive, round columns that do not support anything.

The organ’s pipes are arranged in a twin spirals rather than in a row.

And for most of the church’s history, the graves were not marked with stones.

Tomorrow marks a century since St Martin’s was consecrated by Dr Edgar Jacob, the Bishop of St Albans, on November 12, 1915.

Visitors look at the centenary display in the church.

Visitors look at the centenary display in the church. - Credit: Archant


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The present vicar, the Rev Jim Pye, is leading a special service of holy communion at 9.55am tomorrow, with the Knebworth school choir – and the children will mark the century by ringing the bell 100 times.

“The church is named after St Martin, so we will be using prayers, a hymn and readings associated with him,” said the Rev Pye.

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St Martin’s was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the distinguished architect noted for his work at New Delhi in India as well as iconic country homes and many other landmarks – including Devon’s famous Castle Drogo and the Cenotaph in Whitehall, which was seen by millions of people as yesterday’s Armistice Day commemoration was broadcast around the world.

Lutyens married Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton in Knebworth in 1897. It was Emily’s sister, the Earl of Lytton, who donated the land on which St Martin’s was built.

St Martin's today.

St Martin's today. - Credit: Archant

Plans for the church came after the construction of the railway and of Knebworth around it during the late 19th century.

The only existing church was in the grounds of Knebworth House in Old Knebworth – St Mary’s, parts of which date back to 1120.

The Church of England Society set up a mission room in Gun Lane in 1880, but the area would have to wait another three decades for its own parish church.

Lutyens’ original design, drawn up in 1911, called for a much longer nave than what we see today – it would have reached the end of what is now the car park – and a colonnade at the western end with steps leading down to the village.

Penny Patron, church secretary, with the Rev Jim Pye and Janet Hammond, organiser, at St Martin's.

Penny Patron, church secretary, with the Rev Jim Pye and Janet Hammond, organiser, at St Martin's. - Credit: Archant

William Darby – whose firm built many of the houses in Knebworth – won the building contract, and work on what the plans called Christchurch began in April 1914.

Mr Darby’s descendants still have the original plans he worked from, and have allowed the church to put them on display for the month as part of their commemorations.

The outbreak of war caused construction to slow as labourers were conscripted. Materials also became tougher to get hold of and this forced deviations from the plans, notably the shortening of the nave and its ‘temporary’ completion with a plain brick wall at the western end.

The name St Martin’s was chosen as the church’s consecration happened a day after feast day of St Martin of Tours’ festival on November 11.

“St Martin lived in the fourth century,” said the Rev Pye. “While a Roman soldier he cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar, saving him from dying from the cold.

“Martin left the army because he felt it conflicted with his faith and became a monk, founding a monastery in France. He eventually, and rather reluctantly, became Bishop of Tours and was renowned for his simple life, kindness and care for the poor.”

Lutyens, who also created designs for parts of Knebworth House, died in 1944.

As the church’s jubilee year approached, his friend and fellow architect Sir Albert Richardson drew up plans to extend the nave by 17 feet and add a cupola to the roof’s western end to house the church bell.

Following a public appeal for funds from the then-rector D. L. Howells, work was carried out during 1963 and 1964 to complete the church according to Richardson’s plans.

Visitors to the church can still clearly see where the original bricks end and the 1960s additions start.

So apart from the unusual architecture, what is it that makes St Martin’s special?

“I have been here since January 2004,” the Rev Pye said.

“The highlight has been to see the way God has transformed people through the years as they have come to trust in Jesus and grown in their relationship with Him.

“We look to help all ages, reaching out to young families and supporting our older members with pastoral care and fellowship.

“At St Martin’s we are seeking to live out and proclaim our historic faith in a rapidly changing world.”

For more information, visit www.knebworthparishchurch.co.uk.

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