Erdington Abbey - St Thomas and St Edmund

Sutton Road, Erdington, Birmingham B23

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An elaborate and richly decorated mid-nineteenth century church in fourteenth century Gothic style, funded entirely by the Rev. Daniel Haigh, a wealthy convert who was one of the first incumbents.  The church was designed by Charles Hansom, a well-known Catholic architect, and has fine furnishings, including an elaborate oak reredos of 1897. The stone rood screen did not survive post-Vatican II reordering. With its tall broach spite and associated former abbey buildings, the church is an important local landmark. 

In 1820 George Wells fitted up a Catholic chapel in his residence at Short Heath House in Erdington, served from the Catholic College at Old Oscott. By 1839, when the College moved to New Oscott, there were several Catholic families in Erdington and a mission was established which was served by a succession of wealthy converts, culminating in the Rev. Daniel Henry Haigh, an antiquary and the son of a Lancashire industrialist.  He was appointed to Erdington in 1848 and immediately decided to use his inheritance to build a handsome and elaborate new church. The architect Charles Hansom was commissioned to design the building, which was consecrated by Bishop Ullathorne, Vicar Apostolic, on 11 June 1850. Haigh also commissioned a rich collection of plate, purchased relics and established a regular choir.

In 1876 Fr Haigh retired to Oscott and the parish was given to the care of Benedictine monks from Beuron in Germany who had fled Bismarck’s Kulturkampf persecution. About this time the church became known as Erdington Priory. In 1878 the church was given a ring of eight bells cast by Messrs W. Blews & Sons of Birmingham (actually illegal in Catholic churches until 1926). Fr Haigh died in 1879 and was buried in his church with a commemorative brass. 

The Benedictine community expanded rapidly and in 1879 the first of a range of monastic buildings next to the church was built from designs by A. E. Dempster.  In 1896 the priory was raised to the rank of an abbey (the first abbot enthroned in 1899) and work began on additional monastery buildings including a tower, designed by Harry Haigh, the founder’s nephew. It may have been at this time that a new main entrance was formed in the north side of the tower and the original south porch converted into an oratory. 

In 1897, to mark the thirteenth centenary of the conversion of England, the church was enriched by an elaborate reredos behind the high altar, by Pippett of Solihull, carved with scenes depicting the Benedictine Apostleship in England (described in greater detail below). By this time the building had become too small for both the monastic and parish congregations and designs for a new and larger abbey church were prepared by Thomas Garner, but not proceeded with.

During the First World War some of the German Benedictines were interned. In 1919 over half of them returned to Germany and the rest followed in 1922.  The parish and the monastic buildings were then given into the care of the Redemptorists. The buildings served at first as a school and later as a centre for training and mission.  The church was repaired in 1922-4 and the spire partly rebuilt.  Soon afterwards, Brinscall House, close to the church, was acquired and enlarged in 1928 by the addition of a parish hall at the rear. In 1933 a new sacristy was built linking the church with the monastery and the old sacristy was converted into the chapel of St Alphonsus, re-using woodwork from the abbot’s chapel in the monastery. 

Following the Second Vatican Council, a desire for greater visibility and active participation for the congregation led to the removal of the stone rood screen in the early 1980s. A new organ was installed a few years later.

In 1994 the monastery buildings were sold to Highclare School and the Redemptorists moved to smaller accommodation nearby.  The order continues to serve the church and parish.

The church is in the English Gothic style of the fourteenth century, and does indeed have a great deal of elaboration and ornament. The external walls are faced with red sandstone; the coverings of the many steeply-pitched roofs are of Welsh slate. The plan comprises a nave with aisles, partial outer aisles, a long chancel with a former sacristy on the north side and a new sacristy on the south side, a northwest tower with a stone broach spire and a southwest porch (converted into an oratory in 1932) with a southwest turret.

The west end of the nave has a pointed entrance doorway with a cusped moulded head.  Above is a large pointed window of six lights with elaborate tracery in the head, and in the gable is a small window in the shape of a spherical triangle. The northern buttress of the west wall forms part of the corner buttresses of the northwest tower, which is of four stages, with the buttresses carried to full height. In the lowest stage is a three-light traceried window, in the second stage two single lights, in the third stage a small rose window, and in the bell stage two paired traceried lights. This pattern recurs on all sides of the tower. A new entrance to the church has been formed on the north side with a four-centred head. The tower is capped by a stone broach spire with three tiers of lucarnes.

Eastwards of the tower is a lean-to north aisle of two bays, continued under a pitched roof and extending part-way along the chancel. There is an outer aisle of three bays under its own pitched roof with two-light traceried windows in each bay. East of this outer aisle is a small transeptal projection from the aisle which was the original sacristy.

On the south side of the church is a continuous lean-to aisle with a former south porch which is of two storeys with an elaborately decorated south doorway (now blocked) and a three-light window above with an image in the central light. On the west side of the porch is a small octagonal stone tower with an eight-gabled bell stage and a crocketted spirelet. Two bays east of the porch is an outer aisle similar to that on the north side under its own pitched roof. 

The chancel is four bays long with two-light windows in each bay and a large pointed five-light window in the east wall with a rose in the tracery. Two bays on the north side are obscured by the continuation of the north aisle. On the south side is the single-storey sacristy built in the 1930s, which is also a link to the former abbey buildings.

The interior wall surfaces, described in Pevsner and the statutory list as cream-coloured limestone, have been painted. There is a great deal of ornamental carving throughout the interior in the form of head-stops, corbels and plinths for devotional statues. The nave has north and south arcades of chamfered pointed arches on octagonal stone columns with moulded capitals and bases. The south arcade is of six bays, the north arcade of five bays plus the base of the tower, which now forms the entrance porch. The nave roof is boarded, with two tiers of cusped wind-braces, and has principal trusses with cusped arch braces brought down onto wall posts resting on stone corbel heads.

The lean-to south aisle roof also has cusped timbers but the taller north aisle roof has plain rafters. There are low arched openings to confessionals in both aisles, and triple moulded arches to the outer aisles. A cusped archway at the east end of the inner north aisle leads to the small chapel of St Alphonsus, formed in the 1930s from the original sacristy and lined with panelling re-used from the abbot’s chapel. The tall chancel arch is moulded and pointed with octagonal responds.  The chancel itself is raised above the nave and has an even more elaborate open timber roof. The carved oak reredos in the chancel was introduced in 1897 and is by Pippett of Solihull.  In the centre is a pinnacled throne for the Blessed Sacrament surrounded by four painted images of angels. On either side are four panels alternating with niches containing images. The theme is the Benedictine Apostleship of England, the panels showing an enthroned St Benedict with his first two disciples, St Maurus and St Placid kneeling before him. Beside him stand St Thomas of Canterbury (bearing a model of the abbey) and St Martin (with a model of the abbey at Beuron). The next panel shows St Gregory sending St Augustine and his monks to England, the third the baptism of St Ethelbert by St Benedict, the fourth panel seven recently beatified Benedictine martyrs. The statues carry on the theme: St Bede and St Anselm, Doctors of the Church, St Chad and St Bonita, respectively missionary monks of the Midlands and Germany.

The outer south aisle has a particularly elaborate carved stone tabernacle which may be original. The stone altar, now brought forward, and the stone pulpit have figurative carving, probably by the same hand. The Stations of the Cross are of carved and painted wood and are now mounted along the outer walls on heavy stone brackets, though they previously hung on the nave piers. The east and west windows and several of the outer aisle windows are filled with Victorian stained glass of good quality. The chancel has carved wooden figures of saints along the walls on both sides.

LIST DESCRIPTION:

List entry Number: 1076125

Grade: II

Date first listed: 21-Jan-1970

Date of most recent amendment: 08-Jul-1982

 

SUTTON ROAD 1. 5104 Erdington B23 Church of St Thomas and St Edmund, Erdington Abbey [formerly listed as Erdington Abbey (S. S. Thomas and Edmund of Canterbury) under Slitton Road]

 

SP 19 SW 4/15 21.1.70

 

II GV

 

2. 1848-50 a large parish size church in a C14 style by Charles Hansom with advice from the founder Father Daniel Haigh. Red sandstone with ashlar dressings. Nave, aisles, transepts and chancel. Prominent north-west tower with good broach spire. Ornately crocketed gables and finials. Richly reticulated tracery to the windows. The south-west oratory was originally the porch. The interior is dressed with creamy limestone and has an over-elaboration of detail. Transepts as double aisles. Ornate reredos.

 

Listing NGR: SP1121092295

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Charles Hansom

Original Date: 1850

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II