Burton-on-Trent - St Mary and St Modwen

Guild Street, Burton-on-Trent, West Midlands DE14

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A landmark brick building on the edge of the town centre, its tall tower topped by a short stone spire prominent along Guild Street. The interior is a noble space with good quality decoration and furnishings by local artists as well as more widely known practices such as Boulton of Cheltenham and Mayer of Munich.

Thomas Lord Paget (d.1590) was a celebrated recusant resident in Burton, who patronised the court musician William Byrd. He fled abroad after the Throckmorton plot and his son was brought up a Protestant. A small number of Burton recusants were fined over the next two centuries. Once the chapel of St Francis de Sales was established eight miles away at Woodlane, Yoxall in 1794, Burton Catholics probably travelled there. From the 1830s the priest from Yoxall, James Jeffries, travelled to Burton to celebrate Mass, first in a malthouse at the back of the Crown, High Street, and then in a cottage behind the Old White Lion on the corner of Lichfield Street and Fleet Street, both in the centre of town. Fr Jeffries twice tried to buy a plot for a school-chapel from the Marquess of Anglesey, claiming a congregation of 120 in 1843. His successor, Rev. Patrick O'Sullivan finally bought the present site, and a small Gothic brick school-chapel dedicated to St Modwen (the dedication of the medieval parish church) was opened in June 1852. It was orientated north-south parallel to the street, with a north porch and bellcote; a presbytery was built in front of it on Guild Street by Mr Telford in 1855.

Kelly’s centenary history attributes the design of the present church to Dunn & Hansom of Newcastle. An anonymous handwritten chronicle in the presbytery states that Fr C. McCabe asked those architects to design a new church, sending them an older sketch proposal by a Mr Young of London (possibly John Young Junior, architect for the restoration of the church of St Etheldreda, Ely Place in the 1870s). When Dunn presented his estimates, the client considered them excessive; Dunn responded by saying that if the size of the building was reduced, then he could meet their budget. Instead, the church returned to Young’s plans which ‘it was thought with some modification, could be carried out with the aid of a local architect at much less cost’. They then instructed J. Knight Morley ‘who had been ten years with Mr Pugin’ to prepare new drawings. Morley was chief superintendent of the South Eastern Works which manufactured stone and wood carvings and other items for E. W. Pugin, for projects in Ramsgate and elsewhere. He was described in the Kent Coast Times as ‘the highly intelligent and respected manager of the works’ (information from Catriona Blaker, pers. comm.) He was not an architect, and had no connection with Burton-on-Trent, so far as has been established. The builders were Messrs Lowe and Sons.

The foundation stone was laid on 16 May 1878 by Bishop Ullathorne, in torrents of rain’.  The work was delayed awaiting the arrival of ‘Connemara marble columns’, but the church was opened on 27 August 1879, with Cardinal Manning preaching. Construction was funded in part by F. M. Spilsbury of Willington (Derbyshire), a former Anglican priest and Catholic convert. His portrait can be seen in the bottom left hand corner of the east window. As the church is correctly orientated, it stands at right angles to Guild Street. It was flanked by houses, so there are no aisle windows. The final cost was about £4,000. The original school-chapel was retained until replacement by a new school (the present parish centre) in 1910. A presbytery was added to the southwest of the church in 1880.

Fitting out took place as and when funds allowed. The high altar was carved by John Roddis of Birmingham for £210 and he was responsible for the eight nave statues erected in 1882. The chancel dado was completed to the design of the priest at Yoxall, who painted it with Mr Alfred Emery and Monsieur Duhamel ‘a French priest who was the guest of Fr Flynn at the time.’ This must be the artist who signed the east window, ‘Duhamel-Marette, Peintre et Verrier, Evreux’, inserted in 1888 for £208 plus £23 for fixing. 

Black marble and alabaster altar rails and a pentagonal stone and marble pulpit were erected in 1883. In 1889 the sanctuary walls and the Assumption scene over the chancel arch were painted by Jeffries Hopkins for £215; he also coloured the aisle walls for £20.

In 1897 the tower was completed by the builder Mr Hodges to the design of the local architect Mr Mills, for £1,055. The following year Boultons of Cheltenham supplied the altar of the Sacred Heart chapel and in 1901 a new Lady Altar. The chapel windows were filled by Meyer of Munich in 1902 and they painted the plaster Stations of the Cross (purchased in 1883 from Union Rustique of Paris for £64 18s 10d) for £25. The roofs had originally been of local tiles, but the north aisle was re-tiled in 1891 and the main roof in 1905. All were replaced by slates after 1923.

The rood beam with figures was erected as a World War I memorial and a brass with thirty six names can be seen at ground level. The other War memorial, a large wooden Crucifix, stood outside at the west end until 1962, when a new west door was punched through, replacing two two-light windows. That same year the nave floor was relaid in concrete with electric underfloor heating and a Granwood floor finish. Unfortunately the floor cracked eleven years later, breaking the wiring. In 1963, the railed and gated southwest baptistery was dismantled as the congregations were so large that more seating space was needed. A stained glass window of Christ’s Baptism, by John Hardman & Sons, designed by R. Hickling AMGP and painted by D. Cowan, was put into the west window by parishioners as a centenary gift in 1979.

In 1975, reflecting the requirements of the Second Vatican Council, the high altar, font, pulpit and altar rails were removed and replaced by the present fittings ‘quite plain and nicely proportioned’ (Kelly, 1979) on a raised wooden floor that extended into the nave. The underside of the west gallery was glazed to form a narthex in about 2000 and the organ on it (by W. Hawkins and Son of Walsall Wood) was restored in 2003. The stencilled chancel has also been cleaned recently.

The church was built in 1878-9 under the direction of J. Knight Morley, possibly adapted from designs prepared by John Young of London. It is built of red brick with Stanton stone dressings and slate roofs. The northwest tower of brick and a stone spire is mainly of 1897, by another local architect, Mr Mills. The plan consists of a five-bay aisled nave and sanctuary with north and south sacristies, broadly in a Decorated Gothic style. The west facade to the street has a large round traceried window in the gable, over two canopied niches containing statues of St Mary and St Modwen. The northwest tower was the original west entrance, but in 1962 a large pointed west doorway of reconstructed stone replaced two windows. The tower has a door in the south face and two-light window to the west above a battered plinth (possibly added) between the clasping corner buttresses. The upper two stages of 1897 are in a ‘Free Gothic’ style, with the two levels of openings linked by a stone frame. The corner buttresses die into the top of the tower above the windows by chamfered and diminishing brick courses (what the Buildings of England calls a ‘tricky top’). The short stone spire (based on Perpendicular Gothic pinnacles such as those on Bell Harry tower at Canterbury Cathedral) resembles a stone thurible emerging from flat corner broaches.

When built, the church was flanked by houses and shops on Guild Street, so the nave aisles have no windows, except the two-light west window of the south aisle, which lit the baptistery behind. Both aisles are finished externally with render and slate roofs. The south aisle door is approached by a wooden porch that also serves the adjacent presbytery, enriched with French stained glass displaced from the east window because the heraldry colours were wrong.

Clearance to the east to create car park space enables the steep gables with apex crosses of the east end to be viewed. The large chancel east window has five lights below a central roundel with three foiled circles. The chancel has a two-light window to the north and similar windows exist in the east wall of each flanking chapel. The flat-roofed brick north sacristy was added in 1960. On the south the small original brick vestry with two windows and a transverse slate roof has been extended south. The priest’s sacristy overlapping the nave and chancel and linked to the presbytery to the west is of brick with a lean-to slate roof, with at least two flat-roofed twentieth century extensions into the presbytery garden (one is the presbytery kitchen).

The five-bay nave is in early Gothic style of c.1300; it is tall and spacious, with a large wooden west organ gallery (now glazed below for a narthex) and a steeply pitched roof divided into five bays by six arched trusses rising from short wooden wall posts sitting on gilded stone corbels just below the prominent clerestory string course. Each bay has two clerestory lancet windows with trefoil tracery above tall four-centred moulded arcade arches that rise from large round moulded capitals atop slender polished granite columns, said to be from Connemara but as they are mottled pink and not green, more likely from Aberdeen. In each spandrel of the arcades a short pink granite column rises from a gilded foliate corbel to a gilded foliate capital on which stands a large painted statue looking to the east; Evangelists to the east, Doctors of the Church to the west. The aisles have no windows, but the aisle wall is articulated by shouldered arched recesses and the lean-to roof is divided by triangular roof trusses rising from the arcade capitals and wall plate. The former baptistery in the southwest corner retains only a twentieth century tiled floor and stained glass; the northwest bay is the original west lobby entrance under the tower.

At the east end of each aisle is a small chapel; each with a Boulton of Cheltenham marble and stone altar and reredos (1898 Sacred Heart on the south, 1901 Lady Chapel to the north). The two-light windows were filled with glass in 1902 by Meyer of Munich and include portraits of the sons of the families who paid for them.

The tall chancel arch rises from moulded capitals on a corbelled pink marble shaft, its mouldings enriched with gilded square foliate paterae. The present wooden sanctuary platform is of 1975; it comes through the chancel arch and partly obscures the 1878 foundation stone at the base of the north chancel arch. The stencilled roof is divided into two bays by a pointed arched truss rising from a foliate stone corbel; there are two purlins and ridge with curved arch braces at each stage, twelve in all. The five-light east window originally had a large stone and marble reredos and high altar below it, replaced in 1975 by three reconstituted stone shelves, the central tabernacle shelf standing on a plinth on a wooden platform of three steps. The stencilling around them and in the side chapels is of c.2000. A small pointed arch door leads to the north sacristy; the equivalent on the south is now glazed. Taller moulded stone arches rise from marble columns giving access to the side chapels. There is a two-light north window and a stone piscina to the southeast corner.

The chancel stencilled dado was in place at the opening in 1879, completed to the design of the priest at Yoxall, who painted it with Mr Alfred Emery and Monsieur Duhamel ‘a French priest who was the guest of Fr Flynn at the time.’ This must be the artist of the signed east window, ‘Duhamel-Marette, Peintre et Verrier, Evreux’, inserted in 1888. In 1889 the sanctuary walls with their figures of saints and martyrs and the scene of the Assumption over the chancel arch were painted by Jeffries Hopkins.  The carved timber rood beam with painted figures is a World War I memorial and the names of the thirty six persons it commemorates are on a brass to the southwest.

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: J. K. Morley, from designs by a Mr Young of London

Original Date: 1879

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed