West Heath - St John Fisher

Cofton Road, West Heath, Birmingham B31

A monumental traditional design, dominating the suburban setting it serves. The church is a late (1963-4) design by Ernest Bower Norris and was described by him as ‘a modern interpretation of the Romanesque style’. It is little altered, and retains good quality furnishings and dalle de verre glass by Norris’s collaborator Jonah Jones, more modern in character than the architecture, yet both work together to produce a harmonious effect. 

The church was built in response to the twentieth century expansion of south Birmingham, in suburbs developed close to the nearby Longbridge car factory, founded by Herbert Austin in 1906. The parish was created in 1956 from Our Lady and St Brigid, Northfield. Mass was first celebrated at Turves Green Girls School and then at Archbishop Mastersen School for Girls, before the Catholic primary school opened in 1961.

The present church is a monumental traditional design by E. Bower Norris, assisted by E. Roestenburg. It cost £75,500 and was built to accommodate 500 people. The church opened in 1964. Norris described it as ‘a modern interpretation of the Romanesque style’, its Greek cross plan devised to allow for later extension of the nave (never implemented). The church is notable for its fittings by the artist Jonah Jones, in particular the dalle de verre (glass slab in resin) windows, described by the artist as ‘a sort of compound of Byzantine, Romanesque, and possibly early French mediaeval influences [reviving] the spirit, if not the actual style, of Byzantine Christianity’ (quoted in Proctor, p. 22).

 The church was consecrated in 1972.

The church is aligned with the sanctuary to the west and the entrance elevation facing the roundabout to the east; in this description liturgical compass points will be used.

The solid brick walls are faced in a buff drag-wire brick above a darker brick plinth, with a copper roof to the central tower and tiled or flat roofs to projections,
behind plain parapets. The church was designed in a modern Romanesque style, with a cruciform plan and a tall octagonal central nave expressed as a low tower. The sanctuary in the eastern arm has a blind convex east wall and is lit from the north and south by high level arched windows. A plain bellcote on the north wall expresses the sanctuary. The west arm contains the narthex and has a gabled west wall with a semi-circular arched central doorway and triple lancets above, with no string courses. A concrete statue of St John Fisher by Jonah Jones was originally set into the wall above the door, but has been replaced with flat red brickwork in the form of a cross. The west end is flanked by flat-roofed projections for confessionals, lit by paired lancets. The central tower has canted corners each with an arched lancet, and rows of clerestory windows to the other four walls, and is surmounted by a bronze cross. The projecting north and south chapels have triple lancets to the gabled walls, and clerestory lancets to side walls

Inside, the cruciform plan creates a lofty, striking interior similar to other churches by this architect. From the central octagonal nave, semi-circular arches lead into each arm of the cruciform with smaller arches in the canted corner walls serving side chapels and confessionals. The narthex is separated from the nave by a hardwood-faced screen wall with arched openings, and above this the pipe organ is a prominent feature in the large choir gallery. Walls are finished with a self-coloured cream render, above a brick plinth.  The nave floor is hardwood parquet to seating areas with concrete tiles to aisles. The ceiling over the nave is panelled fibrous plaster, with ribbed panels. A forward altar and ambo have also been introduced. Two bay arcades with coloured mosaic plinths flank the sanctuary. The Lady Chapel to the south, and other side chapels have original Portland stone altars and carved wooden sculptures by Jonah Jones. Other fittings include engraved Stations of the Cross, a cylindrical font set on a blue and green tiled floor (figure 4), and dalle de verre windows in the clerestory all designed by Jonah Jones. 

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Sandy & Norris & Partners

Original Date: 1964

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed