Balsall Heath - St John and St Martin

George Street, Balsall Heath, Birmingham B12

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A neo-Romanesque design of the 1890s, greatly altered in the 1960s. The chief architectural and historical significance of the building lies in the townscape contribution of its main frontage, although there are some internal furnishings of note. 

A mission was begun by the Rev. P. J. Dowling from St Anne, Alcester Street, in 1859, serving a mainly Irish Catholic population. The present church, originally dedicated to St John the Evangelist, was built in 1896, from designs by Albert Vicars. Vicars, who had been joint architect of St Anne’s, died before the completion of St John’s, and construction was seen through by Ernest Avern of London. The builders were Messrs Harley of Southwark, with Boulton & Sons of Cheltenham designing the altars. There were chapels on either side of the sanctuary but no aisle on the north side, although provision was made for later expansion. The mission became independent in 1903, and a school was built in 1911.

The church was radically altered in 1962-3 under the direction of architects Jennings, Homer & Lynch; a full north aisle was added (connecting with the baptistery to the west and the Lady Chapel to the east) and the arcade of the south aisle rebuilt, with slender steel columns supporting steel girders, opening up views towards the sanctuary from the aisles and increasing the seating capacity from about 350 to 500 (see figures 2 and 3). The presbytery was also rebuilt. This expansion was not sufficient to accommodate the growing Catholic population in the parish, and in 1966 a new parish of St Martin de Porres was created and a multi-purpose church centre built in Forrest Road, Moseley. In 1977 the parish of St Martin de Porres was suppressed and merged again with Balsall Heath, whereupon the dedication of the latter church was changed to St John and St Martin. Today the church is served by Sacred Heart Fathers of Betharram.

A Romanesque design of 1896 by Albert Vicars, remodelled and extended by Jennings, Homer & Lynch in 1962-3. The church is built of red brick with blue engineering brick and (on the front elevation) Doulton stone dressings and slate roofs. On plan it consists of an aisled nave (the north aisle an addition of 1962-3), with a canted apsidal sanctuary with side chapels. An octagonal bell tower with conical top is placed at the southwest corner. Two pairs of entrance doors each have mosaic tympanums bearing sacred monograms. Above are five alternating small and larger openings, the outer ones blind and the central three glazed, with stone surrounds and attached colonettes with scallop capitals.  At the northwest corner, asymmetrically balancing the larger bell tower, a corner turret has had its top truncated to accommodate a statue of St John the Evangelist (previously placed under a canopy in the main gable, now removed).

The internal character is largely as created in 1962-3, with slender steel columns supporting steel girders in place of the original neo-Romanesque arcading. The columns have been given a marbled treatment. Otherwise the wall surfaces are plain plastered, and there is a flat panelled ceiling. The nave seating is of 1962-3. There is a modern gallery at the west end. However, an original altar survives in the Lady Chapel, and at the west end of the north aisle (now a piety shop, originally the baptistery) is a brass memorial to the Rev. John Dowling, founder of the mission (died 1904); he is shown kneeling and offering a model of the church to St John. There is also early stained glass in the sanctuary and side chapels and a good set of painted panel Stations of the Cross.  

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: A. Vicars; Jennings, Homer & Lynch

Original Date: 1896

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed