The nineteenth century saw a revival in St Helen's fortunes.

The nineteenth century

The first attempt to address the state of the building seems to have come in 1796, when a faculty was granted to rebuild the west end of the south aisle, probably to accommodate street improvements. Some restyling of the west end was planned at the same time, with the addition of the battlements we see today. This seems to have been the beginning of a series of works completed in about 1818, the most striking of which was the replacement of the unsafe sixteenth century tower with one modelled on the lantern tower of All Saints Pavement. There were internal improvements too - an 1818 guide described the interior as 'much modernised' and a newspaper report of 1819 claimed that it was 'one of the most complete and fitted up places of worship in the city'. These new fittings included an organ. Much remained to be done, however.

In 1815 the church got a new vicar, John Acaster. Doubtless this was connected with the award of £1,200 by lot from a Parliamentary fund that year which together with a Queen Anne's Bounty payment in 1804 went some way toward giving a viable living. The Reverend Acaster was from the evangelical wing of the church, and seems to have regarded his initial congregation of seven as a challenge rather than a discouragement. Having had the church repewed, he later claimed that within a short time every seat was occupied. He commenced a popular series of evening lectures. Things went well. But with a parish population of only 607 and other churches close by, John Acaster was in a competitive environment. About half his congregation had come from outside the parish, and as other churches also introduced morning services, in addition to afternoons, and as loss of voice curtailed his preaching, congregations declined from an average in the mid 1840s of 70 in the morning and 153 in the evening, to 45 and 110 by 1851. There was no escape from the underlying problems of a small parish, nor had the congregation addressed the outstanding need for repair, despite a plea by John Acaster in 1829.

The need for repair could not be put off for ever. Despite the work on the west end and the internal improvements earlier in the century it is unlikely that there had been any significant work on the fabric since the church was rebuilt in the 1550s. In early 1857 the congregation were told of plans, advised by the architect WH Dykes, to repair the walls and roof, to refloor and repew the church, to add a vestry, and to move the organ from the west window where it was blocking the light. In the event, the church was in a much worse condition than expected requiring it all, aside from the west end, to be rebuilt from the foundations. But the opportunity was also taken to add a chancel at the east end, entirely funded by one person and probably, as it transpired, planned and built in a hurry. The unexpected cost probably explains why the floor was not concreted as planned but covered with reused slabs and a wooden platform carrying the pews, which were of a quality much inferior to those of other York churches of the period. No doubt it was intended that the job might be done properly later, a task still outstanding a century and a half later.

The tower and west end were rebuilt in 1875-6 because of subsidence, so even the repairs of the beginning of the century proved inadequate.

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