Letchworth Garden City - St Hugh of Lincoln

Broadway Gardens, Letchworth Garden City, Herts SG6

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A substantial and well-detailed church in modern stripped Romanesque style, designed in 1938 but not built until the early 1960s.The church contains a number of furnishings associated with Dr Adrian Fortescue, the noted Catholic scholar and liturgist, who built the first church of 1908 (which survives today as the parish hall) and presbytery. In some ways the design of the church fails to capitalise on the opportunities presented by its site, but these three buildings form a prominent ensemble at the top end of the Pixmore Way, near the junction with the main civic square of the garden city.

Developed in the opening years of the twentieth century, Letchworth was the world’s first garden city. Inspired by the principles of Ebenezer Howard and laid out by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, the Master Plan including a central Town Square with grand civic buildings, from which residential streets radiated. However, while the residential development proceeded apace in line with the Master Plan, development of the town square was delayed and piecemeal.  

In November 1907 Dr Adrian Fortescue was appointed Missionary Rector of Letchworth. Born in 1874, Fortescue came from an old Midland Catholic family. He studied for the priesthood at the Scots College in Rome and in 1905 became a Doctor of Divinity. The rectorship at Letchworth was his first permanent appointment; he was a somewhat reluctant pastor, inclining more to the academic life, but he nevertheless threw all his energies into building the parish, as well as establishing an international reputation as a scholar, liturgist and calligrapher. He remained at Letchworth until his early death in 1923.

At first Mass was said in some sheds near the railway line. However, a site for a church was soon obtained, at the top of Pixmore Way near Town Square (now Broadway Gardens). The church, built from designs by C. S. Spooner (husband of Fortescue’s cousin, Mrs M. D. Spooner), was blessed by the Bishop of Amycla on 6 September 1908. The church was designed in a simple Byzantine style (Dr Fortescue had travelled in the east and he and his architect would also of course have been familiar with Bentley’s Byzantine Westminster Cathedral, then only recently completed). The church and adjoining presbytery (1909) were built largely at Dr Fortescue’s expense. At that time, the surrounding area was largely undeveloped. Early fitting out of the first church included an organ (in 1910) and a ciborium over the high altar (in 1911, the gift of Anne Wedd, designed by Spooner). Other furnishings included the font (designed by Spooner) and a statue of Our Lady (carved by Mrs Phoebe Stabler, sister of Spooner, possibly that placed in the current Lady Chapel).

This was always intended as a temporary church, pending funds for a larger and more worthy replacement.  Dr Fortescue himself prepared some designs before his premature death at the age of 49 (after which a carved stone tabled - see photo bottom left - and four stained glass windows designed by Mrs Spooner were erected in the church in his memory). It was not until 1938 that Fr J. Lionel Dove asked Colonel John E. Dixon-Spain to prepare plans for a new church. Work on this would have started in September 1939, but for the outbreak of war. As it was, it was not until May 1961 that work started on the present church, still more or less following Dixon-Spain’s designs, with F. L. Woodhouse LRIBA the job architect and John Willmott & Sons of Hitchin the contractors. The foundation stone was blessed by Cardinal Godfrey on 7 April 1962, and the first Mass in the completed church was held on 21 February 1963.  The new church seated 350 people. Furnishings from the old church incorporated in the new included the ciborium (visible in figure 3), the font and the four stained glass windows and stone tablet in memory of Dr Fortescue.

The church was originally designed with a flat roof (figure 2). However, following problems with rainwater penetration, a pitched roof was added in the 1980s by Chris Fanning, Diocesan Surveyor.

In 2007 the sanctuary was reordered, with the ciborium from Fortescue’s church removed and a new forward altar introduced. The altar and the new sanctuary paving were by James Keegan (information from Chris Fanning). A large new carved and gilded roundel with the Crucified Christ and Our Lady and St John, designed by Stephen Foster, became the new visual focus of the east end (photo bottom right). At the same time the baptistery and Lady Chapel were refurbished. These works were carried out under the direction of George Mathers RIBA.    

A large church in a stripped modern Romanesque style, designed in 1938 and built in 1962. The church has a frame of reinforced concrete and steel, externally clad with pale brick, with Clipsham stone window and door surrounds and concrete copings. The church consists of a broad, long nave with narrow circulation aisles, a western narthex and baptistery, and sanctuary with Lady Chapel to the south and priest’s and servers’ sacristies with organ gallery over to the north. Originally flat roofed, the nave, aisles and projection to the north now have shallow-pitched hipped concrete pantile roofs. 

There are two main public entrances, at the west front facing towards the car park and Broadway Gardens, and on the south side, towards Pixmore Way. The west front has a projecting flat-roofed narthex with a stone surround to the oak entrance doors incorporating gilded star motifs and arched windows on either side. These and all the windows have rectangular leaded quarries with Cathedral glass.  The recessed main elevation of the west front has a tall central window, over which is an arched niche containing a stone statue of St Hugh of Lincoln, by Michael Clark.  On either side, toothed brickwork accentuates the verticality of the design. The parapet is slightly raised at the centre, and topped by a gilded ball and spike. The entrance on Pixmore Way is carved with the arms of the archdiocese and surmounted by a gilded ball and cross. The windows of the flank elevations are all tall and leaded, with stone keystones. The quality of the brickwork detailing is very high throughout. The east end is blind and similarly articulated with toothed brickwork.

In the entrance vestibule is a marble holy water stoup, brought here from the old church. Paired timber doors with nicely-detailed finger plates and oval visibility windows lead into the main body of the church. Here the walls are faced in brick, except for those of the sanctuary, which are plastered and painted. The seven trabeated arcades of the nave are of concrete, rising up to a flat ceiling, subdivided by clad steel tie-beams. The sanctuary has a coffered ceiling.

At the west end, there is a tall plastered panel running up the centre of the wall, incorporating the doors, window above, and the inner face of the statue recess, with Art Deco-style jazzy detailing. In an arcade to the right behind iron railings (reached from gates in the south aisle) is the baptistery. This contains the font from the old church, designed by Spooner; a square alabaster piece on stone columns, with the inscription ORATE PRO ANIMA EDMONDI FAVRIEL TREVELYAN (d.1911). It also contains a window of the Baptism of Christ, 1923, by Mrs Minnie Spooner, one of four windows originally installed in the old church in memory of Dr Fortescue.   The nave, side chapel and sacristies are paved with African hardwood block flooring, and the nave seating consists of African walnut benches.

The sanctuary has three arches off the south side connecting with the Lady Chapel, with corresponding tall arched windows above. On the north side there is a single arched recess to the east with a door to the sacristy area and two flat-topped openings, each with tall arched openings to the gallery above, with latticework frontals of eastern character. The sanctuary furnishings are of c2007, or modified at that time, with much use of polished marble. The centrepiece is Stephen Foster’s large (sixteen foot diameter) carved and gilded low-relief roundel on the east wall, with the figures of Christ, Our Lady and St John set against a shimmering background of gold and silver leaf.   Below this, a marble gradine with central semi-circular projection carries the brass domed tabernacle and six candlesticks; below this the polished marble frontal has a carved panel of fishes at its centre.

The Lady Chapel has a marble altar, with inset carved panels with loaves and fishes.   It also contains three stained glass panels of the Virgin and Child, St Hugh and St Lawrence by Minnie Spooner, 1923, re-set here from the old church, and the memorial to Dr Fortescue (photo bottom left) in Latin, also brought here from the old church, with a translation on an adjoining board.

There is a further stained glass panel in the church, placed against a window in the north aisle, depicting St Francis, its provenance not established.

The Stations of the Cross from Dr Fortescue’s church were installed in the new church, but were replaced as part of the 2007 works with Stations from the Sacred Heart convent in Spanish Place (information from Fr Murphy).  

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: F. L. Woolhouse of Nicholas & Dixon-Spain & Partners

Original Date: 1962

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not listed