Handsworth - St Francis

Hunters Road, Handsworth, Birmingham B19

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A late nineteenth century church by A. J. C. Scoles in his favoured thirteenth century Gothic style. The exterior is plain if not dour in character, but the interior is filled with colour and retains furnishings of note, including the original high altar and reredos and an extensive set of stained glass by the Hardman firm.  The church was built on land given by the Hardman family, and the former home of John Hardman is now the presbytery. Nearby is A. W. Pugin’s Convent of Mercy. Together these buildings constitute a group of strong Catholic interest in the Lozells and Soho Hill Conservation Area.   

In 1840-1 John Hardman founded the convent of Our Lady of Mercy in Hunter’s Road (designed by A. W. Pugin, figure 1). His daughter Juliana became the first superior. In 1846-7 Pugin built a church (St Mary’s) at the convent for public as well as convent use; this was damaged during the Second World War and later rebuilt on a larger scale.

In 1882 The Rev. Francis Hopkins became mission rector and opened a parish school. In 1884 land was obtained for a larger church from the Hardman family, the family villa (figure 7) becoming the presbytery. The church of St Francis, of red brick in thirteenth century Gothic style, was built from designs by the architect-priest A. J. C. Scoles. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Ilsley in May 1893 and the church was opened by Cardinal Vaughan on 2 February 1894. 

In 1896 the church interior was enriched with painted decoration, described in The Tablet (18 July 1896):

For more than three months decorators have been at work on this church, and on Sunday last, July 12th, there were special services on the completion of the work as far as it is at present contemplated to carry it out. This consists of the decoration of the chancel, the Lady Chapel, the chancel arch, and the Lady Chapel arch. The tone of colouring in in the chancel is brown pink, harmonizing with the woodwork of the roof, which is left the natural colour of the wood and decorated with monograms and emblems in green, gold, and white. The main feature, however, of the chancel decoration are the six oblong panels above the dado and below the lancet windows. In these are subjects on gold grounds: on the north side, the Crucifixion, the Last Supper, and the Supper at Emmaus; opposite, the sacrifices of Melchisedech and Abraham and the Paschal Lamb. Above, in the spandrels of the arches, are the prophets. On the east wall, forming wings to the fine stone and marble reredos, are painted under canopies St Peter and St Gregory, both represented as Popes. Above these, on either side of the three light stained glass windows are angels with censers. Over the chancel arch is represented a Crucifixion with the Blessed Virgin and St John on either side of the cross, and below are canopies over the statues. The prevailing colouring of the Lady Chapel is pale cobalt blue harmonized with green and white. Over the altar is a representation of the coronation of the Blessed Virgin attended by St Francis and St Mary Magdalene, after Fra Angelico's famous fresco, and in the side walls  an Annunciation, which, when we saw it, was still unfinished. The roof is divided into twelve panels, in each of which is an angel in gold ground with a censer. The whole of the work is done in spirit fresco, and coated with wax, so that it will bear scrubbing and washing like a piece of marble. The artist, R. Jeffries Hopkins, considers this the only really permanent process of church decoration in our climate. The church, which was designed internally for decoration, now calls for the completion of the work, and the rector hopes to do it at no distant date. 

A church of 1893-4, in a plain version of A. J. C. Scoles’s favoured thirteenth century Gothic style.  It is built of red brick with stone dressings, under a roof of double Roman pantiles. On plan it consists of an aisled nave and square-ended sanctuary, flanked by a Lady Chapel (north) and organ chamber (south). An octagonal baptistery (disused) gives off the west end of the south aisle and a modern narthex has been added at the west end, replacing the original porch. To the east of the sanctuary is an adoration chapel, possibly formed from a sacristy. At the west end two pairs of tall lancets are surmounted by a septfoil, with a figure (of St Francis?) placed in a niche under the gable. The west walls of the aisles have two-light windows with plate tracery. The nave and sanctuary roofs are under one long ridge, the only external demarcation of the two spaces a shallow attached buttress. There are fourteen short lancets to the nave clerestory, three longer high level lancets to the north wall of the sanctuary, stepped triple lancets to the east wall of the sanctuary and paired lancets in the aisles. 

The modern narthex extends into the church with an oak and glass entrance vestibule, possibly replacing an original gallery. The western two bays of the south aisle have also been enclosed with oak and glass screens to form a weekday chapel and confessionals. The nave is of six bays, with octagonal piers and chamfered arcades, from which hang good modern brass light fittings. The panels of the canted timber ceiling of the nave are painted with Marian and other monograms, the rich stencil decoration (which appears to be restored) extending to the nave arcades. The walls and ceiling of the sanctuary are particularly enriched with stencil decoration. The high altar and reredos of 1893-4 is by A. B. Wall of Cheltenham, from designs by A. J. C. Scoles, of marble and alabaster with a central monstrance throne and canopied niches bearing statues of St Mary Magdalene, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Charles Borromeo and St Anne with Our Lady as a child. At the entrance to the sanctuary, and in front of the Lady Chapel, the marble communion rails were installed as a war memorial in 1928. So too was the altar in the Lady Chapel, although it has lost its original reredos. The elaborate stone canopy over the statue of Our Lady outside the Lady Chapel has also been lost. However, the nave pulpit remains, with coloured marble shafts and carved stonework figures, possibly also the work of Wall of Cheltenham. A portable font is placed in the sanctuary. The original octagonal baptistery, the external design loosely based on the Abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey, has a vaulted interior. It was undergoing redecoration at the time of the visit. 

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: A. J. C. Scoles

Original Date: 1894

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not listed