Aston - Sacred Heart and St Mary Margaret

Witton Road, Aston, Birmingham B6

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A notable Italo-Byzantine design by G. B. Cox, influenced no doubt by Westminster Cathedral, and lavishly fitted out with mosaics by
J. Linthout and Ludwig Oppenheimer & Co. The campanile is a slightly later addition, and is a local landmark.  

A mission was founded by Bishop Ilsley in Witton Road in 1897, with a corrugated iron chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart and St Thomas of Canterbury opening in that year. A school, designed by Canon A. J. C. Scoles, was opened in 1898 and enlarged in 1900. The Rev. George Price was appointed mission rector in 1905, and started fund-raising for a permanent church. Construction was delayed by the onset of the First World War, and it was not until 6 October 1920 that the foundation stone was laid by Archbishop Ilsley. The new church was dedicated to the Sacred Heart and St Margaret Mary Alacoque, the seventeenth century French nun and mystic who had done much to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart, and who was canonised by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. The architect was G. B. Cox of Harrison & Cox. The church was consecrated by Archbishop Williams on 23 June 1933. The eighty foot tower, containing two large bells cast by Taylors of Loughborough, was added in 1935, again from designs by Cox. A new school was built in Earlsbury Gardens in the 1960s. 

The building is described in detail in the list entry, below. Not mentioned is the use of concrete in the construction - in the flat roofs of the aisles, the ferro-concrete semi-dome of the apse, and in the floor construction of the sanctuary (raised over a crypt).

The interior is notable for the richness of its mosaic decoration by Linthout and Oppenheimer. It has not been inspected, on account of the parish priest not responding to requests from the writer. It is described in some detail in the list entry, and in a contemporary article in The Tablet (5 August 1933), in which it was described as ‘distinguished by a rare and fine harmony’.  

LIST DESCRIPTION:

Gd II

A Roman Catholic church, dating from 1922-1934, by George Bernard Cox of Harrison Cox Architects of Birmingham, with interior decoration by R L Boulton of Cheltenham, J Linthout of Bruges and Ludwig Oppenheimer and Co. of Manchester.

MATERIALS: The church is constructed from brindle brick, laid in Flemish bond with stone dressings, under a clay pantile roof. The interior has a wealth of decorative materials, including marbles, mosaic, coloured glass and stone.

PLAN: The church is oriented north east-south west, and is cruciform on plan, with nave and chancel, north and south transepts, a west tower and north and south aisles. The chancel has an apsidal end, as does the Lady Chapel in the east end of the north aisle. The vestry and sacristy are situated at the east end of the south aisle, projecting eastwards. 

EXTERIOR: The building is Italian Romanesque in style, with a five-stage campanile at the south west corner; this has tripartite blind arcading and dentillated string courses, and a good statue of Christ blessing by Gibbs and Canning of Tamworth; the arcades in the bell chamber are open. The high nave has a clerestory of four bays, with a blind arcade housing smaller, round arched windows with perpendicular tracery based on round arches, set under banded dressings of stone and brick. There are single storey aisles, each with small rectangular windows, articulated by brick pilasters with stone caps. There are half-domed ends to the chancel and Lady Chapel, which is situated at the east end of the north aisle. There are gabled transepts, that to the north having a tripartite window set in stone dressings with a banded arch above. The lean-to narthex at the west end houses the main entrance, which has a gabled doorway with a mosaic of the crucified Christ in the tympanum and a carved stone armorial above. The west window is tripartite, three round headed lancets with dressings of alternating brick and stone.

INTERIOR: The interior of the church is Byzantine in inspiration, with squat marble piers with crisply carved cushion capitals forming the five-bay, round-arched arcades. The roof is a continuous barrel vault, with timbers springing from carved stone corbels; a dentil string course runs above the arcade, broken by the high crossing arches and the chancel arch. The structure is of brick with stone dressings. The floor is parquet work beneath the pews, but with terrazzo set in a guilloche pattern to the centre of the nave and aisles. The sanctuary is dominated by the rainbow coloured half-dome, set with mosaic tiles in fish scale patterns; below this, all the surfaces are clad in marble and decorated with mosaic panels with gold grounds depicting saints, and a large and fine mosaic panel showing the risen Christ appearing to the Virgin Mary serving as the altarpiece. The marble altar is richly decorated, and set at the top of a flight of marble steps, which lead up from the marble and brass altar rail with uprights echoing the fish scale pattern in the half-dome. This theme continues in the glazing and doors throughout the church. The Lady Chapel, at the east end of the north aisle, has a similar half-domed sanctuary, with a deep blue mosaic ceiling, and inlaid marble below. The marble altar, which is topped by a good alabaster statue of the Virgin, is set on a platform of marble raised on a marble balustrade. A secondary chapel to Joseph is situated at the east end of the south aisle, near the entrance to the vestry. It has a well-carved alabaster altarpiece depicting the marriage of Mary and Joseph, and the Holy Family. There is an intricate inlaid marble pulpit. The aisles have arched topped mosaic panels with figures on gold grounds depicting the Stations of the Cross, and there are other mosaics showing episodes from the life of Christ around the church; above the west door is a Virgin and Child. There is extensive painted and inlaid decoration throughout the church. The baptistery, at the west end, has a plain hexagonal font set on a terrazzo floor echoing the decoration in the nave and aisles.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: The church forecourt is bounded to the north east and south west by gates, piers and railings; the piers are in brick and stone to match the church and have good quality carving to the caps. 

HISTORY: The mission at Sacred Heart was established in 1897, and an iron church dedicated to the Sacred Heart and St Thomas of Canterbury was opened in the same year, to serve the growing population of the suburb of Aston; it was prominently situated at the corner of the newly laid out Witton Road and Prestbury Road. The current building, designed by G B Cox of the Birmingham firm of Harrison and Cox was completed and opened in 1922, and formally consecrated in 1933. The imposing west tower was added in 1934, again designed by Cox; the attached rectory was added shortly afterwards. 

SOURCES: A History of the County of Warwick (Victoria County History): Volume 7: The City of Birmingham (1964), 405-410

 

National Grid Reference: SP 07306 89770

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Harrison & Cox

Original Date: 1922

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1934

Listed Grade: Grade II