Soho - St Patrick

Soho Square, London W1

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A red brick Italianate church built at the end of the nineteenth century from designs by John Kelly. It replaced, and incorporates furnishings from, a church which was one of the first to be built after the passing of the second Catholic Relief Act of 1791, and was the first church in England since the Reformation to be dedicated to St Patrick. It has recently (2011) undergone a major and costly refurbishment. The church has a long tradition of outreach to the poor and destitute of the Soho area. With its tall Italianate tower and arcaded north wall, and adjoining late eighteenth-century presbytery, it makes a noteworthy contribution to the Soho Conservation Area. 

The word Soho is an ancient hunting call, possibly relating to the park of Whitehall Palace created on these lands by Henry VIII. The area’s modern development started in the late seventeenth century, with Soho Square developed with smart new houses between 1677 and 1691. Amongst these, on the east side, was Carlisle House, the town house of Earl of Carlisle. In the eighteenth century this came into the possession of the colourful adventuress, opera singer and hostess Mrs Teresa Cornelys, whose lovers included Casanova, and whose child she bore.  In 1761 she built a large two-story structure, consisting of two great rooms, in the back garden of the property. Her lavish entertaining at Carlisle House, and the associated aggrandisement of the property, landed her in debtors’ prison, and in 1772 the house was seized and its contents auctioned off.   The house was demolished, to be replaced with two new houses facing towards the square, nos. 21A and 21B. However, the garden structure was not demolished.   

By 1791, when Parliament passed the second Catholic Relief Act, the area of what is now New Oxford Street, along with Seven Dials and Covent Garden, was known as ‘The Rookeries’, a district of poverty, drunkenness and criminality, as immortalised in Hogarth’s Gin Lane. The area included a great many poor Irish. In response to a pressing pastoral need, a group of notable Irish Catholics formed the Confraternity of St Patrick ‘to consider the most effectual means of establishing a chapel to be called St Patrick’s, on a liberal and permanent foundation’.  They were able to take a sixty-two year lease on the vacant garden building of Carlisle House from the then owner, a Mr Hoffmann. An Irish Franciscan priest, Fr Arthur O’Leary, raised the funds and directed the building of a chapel, which was opened by Bishop Douglass on 29 September, 1792. This was built within the shell of the garden building, the external change being limited to the addition of porches. This external reticence may be a reflection of limited means, or a desire to maintain a low profile (the Gordon Riots still being fresh in the memory) or probably a combination of both. Internally, the structure was opened up, and galleries provided. This was one of the first Catholic churches to be built with official sanction, and was the first post-Reformation church in England dedicated to St Patrick.  Fr O’Leary died in 1802, and is commemorated in a fine monument in the present church (figure 1).

In 1848, according to Rottmann, the then rector, the Revd Canon Long, collected funds for the purchase of land for the building of a new church, from designs by A. W. Pugin and William Wardell. The purchase of land did not prove possible, but in 1865, when the lease fell in, Canon Long’s successor Fr Barge was able to buy the houses at nos. 21A and 21B Soho Square. 21A was to become the presbytery and 22B would, in due course, make way for a new and larger church.

In the nineteenth century Soho continued to develop as a cosmopolitan centre, with large waves of immigrants, in particular Italians. Increasingly, the late eighteenth century chapel was considered too small and its external presence unworthy, and John Kelly of Kelly and Birchall (who had designed the church at Chiswick of 1886, qv) was invited by the rector Canon Langton George Vere to prepare a scheme for its replacement.  The foundation stone for his new church was laid on 18 June 1891 and the completed church was opened on 17 March 1893. The builder was W. H. Gaze of Kingston-upon Thames. The church was a large red brick design in Italianate style, with a tall northwestern campanile. Several furnishings from the old church were incorporated in the new building, including the monument to Fr O’Leary and the reredos of the high altar.

In 2010 the church was closed for fourteen months to allow for a major, £3.5m scheme of repair and improvement. The work included the re-flooring throughout of the church in marble, redecoration, and the installation of a lift down to new and improved facilities in the crypt. The church re-opened in May 2011, with Mass said by Archbishop Nichols (figure 2), and with music composed for the occasion by James MacMillan. The Spanish architect Javier Castañón oversaw the scheme

The building is fully described in the list entry, below. However, this needs to be amended to take account of recent alterations and to correct one or two errors:

  • The statue in the niche over the entrance is of St Patrick, not St Francis, and is by Boulton (Evinson);
  • The gold metal paint has been removed from the white marble Pietà and holy water stoup (no. 1 on plan at figure 3);
  • The probably eighteenth-century holy water stoup with gadrooned sides on a moulded octagonal plinth is no longer in the vestibule, but is now the font;
  • According to Evinson, the painted panels on the altar of St Anthony of Padua (5 on plan) are by G. Pownall;
  • The plaque at the back of the church records the names of rectors from 1792 to 2001, not to 1798 as stated in the list entry;
  • Also under the gallery, the two standing marble figures of life-size angels with holy water stoups are by Mayer, 1875. They were brought here from St Mary Moorfields in 1966 (Evinson);
  • A glass lift down the crypt has been installed in the former baptistery (23). The black and white tiled marble floor, stone font with wooden gilt top, marble altar with painting of St John the Baptist and stained glass window of the Baptism of Christ (Hardman, 1921), all mentioned in the list entry, have been removed or covered to make way for the lift; 
  • A new baptistery has been formed in the square, domed side chapel giving off the east end of the nave, south side (unnumbered on the plan). This has a large white marble font at its centre, the bowl with gadrooned sides (possibly the stoup previously in the vestibule), and a radiating pattern of coloured marble flooring. The space was formerly the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, and according to the list entry is said to have contained a Pietà by Theodore Phyffers, c1860. However this is that described in the list entry simply as ‘a plaster Pietà’, located in the westernmost recess on the north side of the nave (6). The altar from this chapel was removed in the 1970s; 
  • In the main body of the church there is a new, bright paint scheme, mainly stone colour, with a gilded frieze around the entablature and duck egg blue in the coffering of the barrel vault. The gold paint has been removed from the capitals in the nave, while those in the sanctuary have been gilded;   
  • The combination of terrazzo and wooden flooring in the nave mentioned in the list entry has been replaced by polished coloured marble throughout. There is also new marble paving in the sanctuary;
  • On the second bay on the north side (7) is the late eighteenth-century ‘bombe-shaped’ altar table with mahogany and gilt gradine and reredos, referred to in the list description as in the fourth bay (10). It has been moved from that position to allow for improved means of escape from bay four, via two panelled wooden doors.  The carved painted statue of the Virgin, with late nineteenth-century tester (mentioned in the list entry) has not been re-used in the new position;
  • The pulpit (11) is in memory of Catherine Hayes (d.1906), so the date of 1901 given in the list entry is too early;
  • The figures of St John Bosco and two boys (12) were carved by the Austrian woodcarver Anton Dapre, not Delapre;
  • The eighteenth century organ case in its loft on the north side of the sanctuary (13) is said to have come from Carlisle House. It was rebuilt in the late 1880s and has recently been restored.

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: John Kelly of Kelly & Birchall

Original Date: 1891

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*