Matthew Saunders

In March 2018 our Director Matthew Saunders retired after 27 years at the Friends, and 41 years as Secretary of our sister charity, the Ancient Monuments Society. There have been only two Directors of the Friends in 60 years - Matthew succeeded our founder, Ivor Bulmer Thomas, on his death in 1993.   At this time the Friends had just sixteen vestings; the total today is fifty two.  Matthew leaves the Friends in an enviable position - well-respected, in good financial health and a ‘serious player’ in church conservation - particularly in Wales where we are the only option for redundant Anglican churches listed Grade II* and I, buildings that are just too important to be destroyed or compromised by conversion.

Growth of the AMS and the Friends

Back in the late 70’s, the finances of both the AMS and the Friends were unsteady. The AMS had to skip publishing the Transactions in one year as it couldn’t afford to print them, whilst many a bill incurred by the Friends was met through the generosity of Joan Bulmer Thomas.

Now, besides a joint and hugely valued membership of 2,200, the AMS and the Friends have capital bases appropriate both to their size and responsibilities.  This financial solidity should allow both sets of Trustees the satisfaction of knowing that they are now decisively beyond the period when they need to worry about finding the financial wherewithal to employ key staff and afford an office.

Through the huge generosity of donations and legacies, particularly in the last decade, investment income to the Friends is now able to finance the new expanded role of Director and the running of the office. It is a good position to be in - to be able to tell donors and legators that gifts and legacies from now on will contribute disproportionately to the direct saving of beautiful and historic churches from loss, and listed buildings from demolition or harm.

The Newsletter

“the very best magazine in the business ... and I spend hours reading every word...”

Over the last forty years the joint newsletter of the AMS and The Friends has grown, under the editorship of Matthew, to be in the words of (Sir) Simon Jenkins, the most valued in the sector. Matthew estimates that the last newsletter that he will write, whilst still in post, that for Winter 2018 will be his 108th – quite a record.


Matthew’s Contribution to Conservation

"An accomplished, indefatigable public speaker, his missionary work in educating all involved with the effective operation of the statutory system for managing change to the historic environment of both sacred and secular buildings has had a major positive impact on the entire sector.”

Jill Channer


Through the indulgence of Trustees, Matthew has been able to take, largely unremunerated, posts outside the running of the AMS and the Friends.

  • He was appointed Secretary of the Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies in 1983 and served there until he had to stand down on becoming Trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund (2005-2011).

  • He was one of the founding trustees 1993-95 at the Historic Chapels Trust and joined the Church Buildings Council in June last year.

  • He is President of the Stamford-based “Men of the Stones” and for three years was on the Fabric Advisory Committee of St Paul’s Cathedral.

  • He is a Vice President of The Ecclesiological Society and of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) and a Trustee of the Francis Coales Charitable Foundation, which hands out grants for research, and for repairs to historic churches, mostly in Herts, Beds, Bucks and Northants.

“Matthew is a distinguished architectural historian....the longest serving Secretary of all the National Amenity Societies with an amazing photographic memory of the millions of buildings he has seen or experienced through thousands of applications...a veritable living search engine.”

Jill Channer

Matthew was awarded the MBE for services to architectural conservation in 1998.  He has recently been appointed by the Secretary of State to the Church Buildings Council of the Church of England and its Statutory Advisory Committee on Closed and Closing Churches where his experience and expertise will continue to help address the challenges facing historic places of worship today.

Thank you from Matthew

“Above all the past forty years involvement with the Friends and the AMS have given me huge pleasure and enjoyment. It has been the Ideal Job.  I have been extraordinarily lucky with my colleagues in the Vestry Hall, (the late) Susan Gold, Tess Powell, Andrew Martindale, Frank Kelsall, Caroline Welch, Alison Du Cane, Lucie Carayon and Rebecca Whewell. In forty years I have worked for a total of 56 trustees, with a tapestry of skills and temperament – their only common trait being that all of them have been, by definition, unpaid. I would like to convey my own particular thanks to my two present Chairman, Giles Quarme for the AMS and Roger Evans at The Friends. Both have been in post for some thirty years and have contributed so much through their commitment, wise counsel and sheer graft – there is, inevitably, a regular round of crises and periods of transition. The skill of a good Chairman is that clear-eyed pursuit of the correct path and at the same time, the winning and consolidation of consensus among trustees. Both possess those skills in abundance, together with a selflessness in devoting hours and hours of that precious commodity, time.

Indeed I have come to realise that the principal charm of working for the AMS and The Friends is that it’s not just about the buildings, important and vital as they are. The icing on the sugar is the people – all those many volunteers who, at the AMS, look at buildings for us, who lead activities and offer items for the newsletter – and those who, at The Friends, clear the gutters, put flowers on the altar, trim the churchyard, open and shut the doors at the end of the day, compile guidebooks – I sometimes nurse the illusion that the world is full of only the decent the caring and the altruistic. It is very perceptible how looking after beautiful evocative historic churches, full of a sense of tradition, craftsmanship and assurance, brings out the best in those who cherish them. Together we are a formidable team – staff and Trustees, operating through the Vestry Hall, and the hundreds of local people who confirm through their tlc that historic buildings are valued and appreciated. It is you, the member and the supporter, who provide that sprinkling with stardust that we can’t really do from central London.”

Roger Evans, Chairman of the Friends

“In 1983 my wife spotted a mention of “The Friends of Friendless Churches” in a legal journal. Not the first, or, happily, the last, to be intrigued by our splendidly exotic name, we got in touch. We were entertained, or perhaps rather interviewed, at St Andrew by the Wardrobe by Ivor Bulmer Thomas and a then young Matthew Saunders. I became a trustee. In 1998, Matthew, by then Director, asked me to become chairman.

Working with Matthew has been exhilarating and enormous fun. His scholarship on architectural and historical matters is immense, as well as his evident enthusiasm for old buildings, which is infectious. The Friends have benefitted enormously from his high professional reputation in the conservation world. As the scale of the Friends’ operations has expanded beyond recognition, Matthew has been an inspirational Director. He knows to get the best out of my trustee colleagues as a team, who are very serious experts in historic buildings themselves. Although our resources are now much greater, we still do operate on a ‘wing and a prayer’, as our responsibilities and ambitions to rescue abandoned churches are vast. Matthew’s practical sense at getting the very most for the last halfpenny of our limited resources serves us excellently.

Above all, Matthew’s greatest but quiet achievement has been the devising and managing of complex construction contracts. Restoration works are notoriously uncertain and financially difficult to predict. As a lawyer, I would add, that is a world notoriously infested with litigation, which the Friends have been spared. As a retired head of CADW said to me: “We love the Friends. They spend public money within budget, on time and achieve the highest conservation standards.” As chairman, it properly falls to me to stress that very considerable achievement, as it is absolutely nothing to do with myself, and all Matthew.

We wish Matthew a most happy retirement, but we shall miss him sorely.”

Text and excerpts taken from the AMS & FFC Summer 2017 Newsletter, and the 2018 edition of the Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society.