The Pinecone

The second book in his 'Donating my night shelf' series. Stephen Town explains what women's rights, pinecones and a small church in the North of Cumbria have in common.


Uglow, J. The Pinecone, in the University Library at G 1.761 LOS

The Pinecone book image
Image courtesy of
Uglow, Jenny, The Pinecone,
2012. ISBN: 0374232873
In the period of the feminist t-shirt debate, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Remembrance-tide, this week I have chosen a book with some of these contemporary resonances. Now on the Library shelves, nestled (in our curious home grown classification scheme) between tomes on coal miners and dockers, is a small volume on the romantic architect Sarah Losh (1785-1853).

Women’s rights and what makes a feminist has been a debate since my student days. Forty years ago I was part of a campaign to change my Cambridge college’s policy so that women could be admitted. Shocking as it may seem now,
my University at that time had eight times as many male students as female, and the Master of our College suggested that female education might be a passing fad (perhaps an odd position to take in a College founded by a woman!). When I started on my chosen career as a librarian, a profession dominated by a female workforce, it was not much better at the top. The first national University Librarians conference I attended in 1992 had around a hundred men present, and only a handful of women. Thankfully a more proportionate demographic now exists among library leaders, and also in my College.

In her time, Sarah Losh could not attend University, directly manage the family businesses or enter a profession or politics, unlike her male cousins and uncles. She could however, growing up in a radical and reformist family where women were expected to know their own mind, benefit from an excellent education. She developed a deep knowledge of mathematics, science and the arts, and built her own library by subscribing to the publication of a wide range of books. Sarah is variously described as a heroine and a pioneer by reviewers of The Pinecone, but Uglow avoids any stereotyping of her subject.

The Pinecone is a mix of biography, social history and architectural study. Sarah chose to rebuild her local parish church at Wreay, near Carlisle, into what Pevsner later described as the finest Victorian church in Cumbria.

Photo: Wreay, St Mary's Church by Bramhall.
Reproduced under a Creative Commons license
This University has a course of study devoted to the English Parish Church: I don’t know if Sarah’s architecture is featured, but Pevsner was dumbfounded by its originality; influenced as it was by her Grand Tours to Italy and by her intimate sense of connection to place and history. The style of architecture defies simple categorisation, but was described by Sarah herself as ‘modified Lombard’ or ‘Early Saxon’. Funding for the project came from her family’s alkali business, so there were no objections to her method or choices, which included much nature-inspired decoration.

Photo: Wreay, St Mary's Church
by Bramhall. Reproduced under
a Creative Commons license
So finally to pinecones, to Afghanistan and to Uglow’s penultimate chapter entitled ‘Remembering’. Sarah’s friend since childhood, William Thain, of the West Riding Regiment, was one of the sixteen thousand British men, women and children who were killed or died in the passes near Kabul in 1842, just as Sarah’s church neared completion. The mysterious arrow in the baptistery was said by villagers to represent this violent end. Before his death William sent back a pine cone; the seed was planted in the Wreay churchyard, and Sarah placed a sculpted pinecone beside it. But to understand the full significance of the pinecone of the title, I encourage you to read the book.

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