St Albans - St Alban and St Stephen

Beaconsfield Road, St Albans, Hertfordshire AL1

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A large Italian Basilican design of the early twentieth-century, completed broadly along the lines of the original architect’s design in the 1960s. The brick campanile is a local landmark in the St Albans Conservation Area. The hall-like interior has lost most of its historic furnishings of note, but includes a Gothic font, assumed to have come from the predecessor church.

In 1840, the Revd William Crook, priest of St Edmund’s College at Ware, established a St Albans mission, hiring a room at the White Hart Inn on Holywell Hill.

In 1847, Alexander Raphael was elected Member of Parliament for St Albans. A Catholic and a political Liberal, Raphael was a man of private wealth, who had built an Italianate church dedicated to St Raphael near his home in Surbiton, Surrey. His architect was Charles Parker, a pupil of Sir Jeffry Wyatville and the author of an influential publication Villa Rustica, containing over ninety plates of buildings near Rome, which first appeared in the 1830s and was one of the principal sources for the Italianate architecture of the early Victorian period in Britain. Seeing the inadequate accommodation over an inn endured by St Albans Catholics, Raphael acquired a site in Verulam Road, on which he started to build a church in 1848, also designed by Parker and a virtual replica of his church at Surbiton. Unfortunately, Raphael died in 1850, making no provision in his will for the completion of the church. All work stopped, and the incomplete church was sold in 1856 to Mrs Isabella Worley of Sopwell House, St Albans, who paid for its completion as an Anglican church (Christ Church). This was consecrated in 1859; the St Albans Times and Herts Advertiser reported ‘thus the dark cloud of threatened Popery which lowered over this locality eleven years since has been dispersed by an over-ruling Providence’. The building is now offices.

With the failed venture of the church in Verulam Road, the St Albans mission ceased.  It was revived in the 1860s by the Anglican convert, the Revd George Bampfield, at that time based at Barnet, who travelled to St Albans to say Mass in a cottage in London Road.  In 1877, with funding from Major James Gape (also a convert), work started on the building of a new church in the Gothic style, next door to the London Road cottage, from designs by the London architects T.J. Willson and S.J. Nicholl (according to Corbett, Celebration, although it is understood by the author that the partnership of Nicholl and Willson lasted only from 1859-69). The foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Manning on the feast of St Alban, 1877 and the completed church, seating eighty and costing £1100, was opened by Manning on 22 June 1878.

Within twenty years the congregation had outgrown the small London Road church, and there was no room for expansion on the site.  In 1901, the Revd Michael Tierney MSC (the mission and subsequent parish have been served by priests from the Society of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart since 1899) obtained Cardinal Vaughan’s permission to build a church on a new site in Beaconsfield Road, where an existing house would serve as the presbytery. The London Road site was sold and the foundation stone for the present church laid by Mgr Algernon Stanley, Auxiliary Bishop, on 22 July 1903. The architect was John Kelly of John Kelly & Sons, Oxford Street, and the builders Christopher Miskin & Sons of St Albans. The style was Kelly’s favoured Roman basilican style, with a wide nave and aisles, apsidal sanctuary and western campanile. The proposed interior is shown at figure 2. However, funds did not allow either for the building of the aisles (the arcades were left blind) and campanile. The church was opened on 1 January 1905 by Archbishop Bourne.

An early photograph of the interior at figure 3 shows an elaborate Classical high altar and reredos in the apsidal sanctuary, pedimented side altars in the shallow-arched recesses on either side and mural paintings above. All these were swept away in the 1960s, when the church was extended and completed in the more simplified, de-cluttered style of the times.  This work took place in 1966-67, at an estimated cost of £70,000, under the direction of Broadbent, Hastings, Reid & Todd (builders Bickerton of St Albans). It involved the demolition of Kelly’s apsidal sanctuary, the extension of the nave by one bay to the east, a new square-ended sanctuary with side chapels and the addition of side aisles and a bell tower at the west end. Reconstruction at the west end included a new choir gallery and enlarged narthex. The old school building behind the church (built in 1910) had been largely demolished in 1965; what remained was adapted to serve as sacristies and a parish room. As rebuilt, the church was capable of seating 600 (200 more than previously).

A new presbytery was built in 1974, replacing that acquired at the beginning of the twentieth century. On 4 May 1977 the church was consecrated, its debt having been repaid. In c1990 the sanctuary was extended forwards, and the altar with it (plans dated January 1990 by D.S. Fernbank RIBA in the Diocesan Property Services archive). At the time of writing (2012), plans have been prepared by Kyle Smart Associates for the remodelling and extension of the parish hall.

 

A large Italian basilican design, the nave built in 1903-04 and extended in 1966-67 in the spirit of the original design. The church is faced in red brick laid in English bond, with slate roofs. On plan it consists of a wide aisled nave with western narthex, and square-ended sanctuary with flanking chapels. A tall brick campanile is placed at the northwest corner.  The pedimented west front (photo top left) has two round-arched doorways with mosaic decoration in the tympana (the Greek letters alpha and omega) set within a larger round arch frame, with a circular mosaic in the spandrels (chi rho symbol). Above this, a central brick niche contains a Portland stone statue of St Alban, by Elspeth M.G. Reid, installed as part of the 1966-67 work. There are round- arched windows on either side, and in the pediment above a circular window. Horizontal brick courses at the level of the springing of the outer arch of the main entrance, at sill level and arch springing above, and in the base of the pediment (broken with an arch in the middle, over the niche). The tall brick campanile alongside, built in 1866-67, is of three stages, with an entrance in the lower stage and louvred belfry windows in the top stage. At the sides (photo top right), the original clerestory windows and the 1960s aisles windows straight headed with brick soldier courses. At the east end, a change in the brickwork colour denotes the otherwise seamless addition of a further nave bay in the 1960s.

The church is entered via a flight of steps at the west front (with side ramp), into a narthex area which was remodelled and enlarged in the 1960s. The nave is of eight bays (not including the western gallery bay), with the arcades supported on square piers with moulded capitals. There is a moulded cornice at clerestory sill level and another moulded band at the level of the springing of the clerestory arches.  The square-ended sanctuary is a 1960s rebuilding of the original apsidal sanctuary, and is lit from the sides by straight-headed clerestory windows. The nave and sanctuary have a flat coffered ceiling, the panels painted red and the subdivisions cream. The aisles have pent rafter roofs.

The furnishings generally date from the 1960s remodelling or later, are plain in character and do not call for special comment. The only older furnishing is a Gothic font at the west end of the nave, presumably brought over from the Willson and Nicholl church. 

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: John Kelly; Broadbent, Hastings, Reid & Todd

Original Date: 1903

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1968

Listed Grade: Not listed