Acocks Green - Sacred Heart and Holy Souls

Warwick Road, Acocks Green, Birmingham B27

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A fine and substantial interwar Gothic design by G. B. Cox, built in two stages, and intended from the outset as a war memorial. The exterior is notable for its terracotta decorative trim around the windows and doors. The timber vaulted interior is wide and aisleless, allowing for unimpeded views of the altar and pulpit. The church retains some furnishings of interest, but some of the most interesting have been lost. 

A mission was established at Acocks Green (then in rural Worcestershire) in 1905. A former coachman’s cottage became the presbytery of the first resident priest, the Rev. John Gibbons. At the same time, sisters of Our Lady of Compassion, exiled from France, arrived in the district and opened a convent and school at Wilton House (roughly on the site of the present church), where a temporary chapel was set up in the garden. In 1907 the foundation stone was laid for a school, with an upper chapel (architect T. H. Sandy). This chapel became the parish church, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the Deliverance of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The building survives, with additions of 1931 and 1935, alongside the present church.

The site of the present church, then occupied by a house called The Hollies, was purchased in 1913. To begin with, the nuns moved into The Hollies and Wilton House was sold, while funds were raised for a new church. In 1917, plans were drawn up by the soldier-architect G. B. Cox of Harrison & Cox for what, it had already been decided, would be a memorial church to the dead of the Great War. 

At this time, the growth of Acocks Green as a suburb of Birmingham had already begun, and the church was designed on an ambitious scale. The intention was to build it in stages, starting with the sanctuary, Lady Chapel and about half the nave. Work started in 1923, Archbishop McIntyre laying the foundation stone on 18 April. 

The architect’s description was as follows:

The style selected is an adaptation of Early English Gothic Architecture developed to suit modern needs and conditions. The design is a new departure from the traditional nave-and-aisles type of church plan and the building presents a successful solution of the problem of modern church design. It is so planned that every member of the congregation has a clear view of the High Altar and pulpit […] The roofing of the whole is in one span with a curved ceiling carried on moulded arches. [The external walls are relieved] by setting the nave walls alternately inside and outside the buttresses, providing thereby a series of lofty recesses greatly adding to the dignity of the interior’ (Quoted in Souvenir of the Consecration).      

A bell (inscribed DE PROFUNDIS CLAMAVI AD TE DOMINE) was cast by Messrs Charles Carr of Smethwick and hung in the gable of the unfinished church, which opened in 1924. 

In 1936 a presbytery was built behind the church, replacing the old coachman’s house. 

In 1938 a high altar by Hardman & Co and Lady altar were installed, and other sanctuary furnishings supplied. Then in 1939 Fr Gibbons embarked upon the completion of the church, with one nave bay extra to the original plan, narthex, baptistery and west gallery. The design of the west front as built was simpler than that shown in the original designs, with the narthex incorporated internally rather than expressed externally. At the east end, a new turret was built over the sacristy, providing a permanent home for the bell cast in 1923. A memorial tablet was set in the new entrance porch, as well as a large stone from the cathedral at Rheims, which had been almost destroyed in World War I. The completed church was opened on 6 June 1940 (the day of the Normandy landings) and was consecrated after the war, on 24 October 1945.  

Furnishings (high altar triptych and painted Stations of the Cross) were provided by Angela Gibbons (1894-1980, married name Latham), a niece of
Fr Gibbons. One of the Stations, which were painted in 1926, was exhibited at the Royal Academy. Despite wider critical acclaim, it appears that these were not popular in the parish (one priest is even said to have considered them blasphemous), and the Stations were later replaced by more conventional ones (albeit of good quality). The triptych – painted in 1926 and incorporated in the Hardman altar of 1938 – has also been lost, presumably in the reordering of 1969, when the present forward altar was installed and the pulpit (given in 1943, from the old church at Coleshill) removed.

In 1973 a new gallery was installed at the west end of the church, occupying three bays and providing seating for an additional 120 people (architects Ivor Day & O’Brien, Bristol).     

A large town church in Decorated Gothic style, built of thin purple and pale bricks lain in garden wall bond, on a dark brick plinth, with some areas of red brick diapering high on the side walls, terracotta dressings and green Westmorland slate roof coverings. The church was designed by G. B. Cox of Harrison & Cox, Birmingham, and built in two stages; the chancel, Lady Chapel, and eastern bays of the nave in 1923-4, and the western bays of the nave and bell turret over the sacristy in 1939-40. The plan consists of a wide aisleless nave, canted apsidal sanctuary, with a two bay Lady Chapel/sacristy to the north. The design was described by the architect as ‘a new departure from the traditional nave-and-aisles type of church plan’, and was designed with a view to giving every member of the congregation a clear view of the high altar and pulpit. The bays of the nave are set alternately inside and outside the buttresses, with paired traceried lancet windows in the projecting bays and single lights in the recessed ones. There is a high degree of terracotta enrichment around the external windows and doors, particularly in the earlier work, and within this particularly around the sanctuary. Here a frieze inscription runs below the windows and the windowless middle bay has an angel bearing a shield inscribed ‘1914 PAX 1918’ under a canopied niche and supporting a statue of the Sacred Heart (by Lockwood Boulton, of the Cheltenham family firm of ecclesiastical sculptors; according to Crichton, he later became a Benedictine monk of Buckfast Abbey, where he carved the nave capitals).

The west front has a large five-light window with Decorated tracery, and above this a canopied niche containing a statue of Christ the King (?). The slightly projecting porch is approached by steps and contains an inset Gothic table recording the parish dead of World War One, two plaques recording the army and navy dead of World War Two, and an inset stone from Rheims Cathedral. Big boarded oak doors with strapwork hinges lead into a small narthex below the extended west gallery (belonging to an internal remodelling of 1973). The nave is wide and aisleless, consisting of seven bays. The nave has a waggon roof with thick moulded transverse arches dying into stone ribs continuing down as wall posts/bay divisions, each with a corbel and canopy carrying a polychrome statue of a saint or martyr. Between the stone divisions, the walls are panelled in oak up to the height of eight feet. Confessionals are formed in the two projecting bays in the fourth bay from the west end, and a side door is formed on the north side of bay 6. The (north) Lady Chapel is entered from the nave through two lofty arches and is lit by two traceried windows, one of two lights and one a single lancet. Behind the chapel are the sacristies. The short canted sanctuary has an elaborate rib vaulted timber ceiling, its bosses carved with the emblems of the countries of the United Kingdom and the Dove in glory.  The lower sanctuary walls are also panelled in oak.  

Some of  the most important and interesting of the furnishings (the high altar by Hardman & Co. with triptych by Angela Latham and original painted Stations of the Cross, also by Latham), have been lost. The present sanctuary furnishings mainly belong to a post-Vatican II reordering, but the corpus of the large crucifix and accompanying figures of St John and Our Lady are earlier and worthy of note. The nave seating is modern (possibly 1973), given by members of the congregation. Surviving historic furnishings include the Lady Chapel altar, given in 1938 in memory of Clare Gibbons. This is of oak, and has a reredos with painted roundels inspired by the Litany of Our Lady. The wooden altar in front of this is similarly carved and decorated; long used as the main altar, this was given to the church by the Hardman family.  Stained glass includes four modern windows on the theme of the Passion of Our Lord, by the Hardman firm, date not determined. The Stations of the Cross are good-quality painted figurative pieces, of unknown provenance and replacing the painted Stations which did not find favour. The organ is of c.1935, by Olton of Sheffield, and is included in the BIOS Pipe Organ Register (http://www.npor.org.uk/NPORView.html?RI=E01151).

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Harrison & Cox

Original Date: 1924

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1940

Listed Grade: Not listed