Watford - Holy Rood

Market Street, Watford, Hertfordshire WD18

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Long-recognised has one of the finest churches of the late nineteenth century. The Gothic Revival design was prepared by J. F. Bentley about the same time as he was working on the drawings for the very different Westminster Cathedral. It is a very little altered and wonderfully harmonious building, with fixtures and fittings of the highest quality; this is the only church by Bentley which he was able fully to furnish and decorate as he intended.  

From 1863, thanks to the efforts of Fr George Bampfield, Mass came to be said at a hired room in Carey Place, Watford. In the same year he bought a plot and built a hut with a corrugated iron roof in Upper Paddock Road. The chapel no longer exists and on the site there are now two maisonettes. Because of the rapid increase in the number of Catholics in Watford, Fr Bampfield in 1882 again sought a suitable site nearer the centre of the town and found a place in Water Lane near the High Street where he built a chapel. This centre, commenced in 1883, continued to be used until Holy Rood church was opened in 1890.

The present church was paid for by Stephen Taprell Holland (1843-1922) of the building firm of Holland & Sons, and a Catholic convert. J. F. Bentley (1839-1902) had been apprenticed to the precursor firm of Winslow & Holland in 1855 and his talent had been recognised by Richard Holland. Bentley himself became a Catholic in 1862. The foundation stone was laid on 29 August 1889 and the church opened for worship on 16 September 1890, when the sanctuary, nave, transepts and south aisle had been completed. Bentley then started work on the tower, baptistery, chapel of the Holy Ghost (set aside as the chantry of the benefactor) and the north aisle; the foundation stone for the tower was laid on 7 May 1894 by Cardinal Vaughan, and all had been completed by 1900. Throughout, the church was being furnished from Bentley’s designs. Six candlesticks and the cross over the tabernacle were added in 1893 (four of the candlesticks were later stolen and the other two are now displayed in the Watford Museum). The pulpit was also added in 1893 and the two canopied shrines with alabaster statues in 1893-94. In 1899 a temporary high altar which had been installed for the opening was replaced by the present altar and tabernacle (a large winged pelican originally surmounting the tabernacle was stolen about 1978 and replaced with a smaller pelican of inferior design). Electric lighting replaced the original gas lights in 1899, using the gilded bronze pendants designed by Bentley. The completed church was consecrated by Auxiliary Bishop Brindle on 5 July 1900. Bentley also designed the presbytery and school buildings.

In 1966 major repairs were carried out to the church under Denny & Bryan of Watford, including repair of the decayed Bath stone dressings, and internal decoration and cleaning. At the same time, oil-fired heating replaced the solid fuel system. There was a further scheme of refurbishment in 1990 to mark the centenary; this included flint and stonework and roof repairs (stonemason Martin Jones).  In the 1990s, the internal painted surfaces were cleaned and conserved by IFACS, the church redecorated, and a new lighting scheme installed by Austin Winkley. More recent work has included the conservation of the sanctuary ceilings, rood beam and cross by Howell & Bellion, and conservation of the sanctuary reredos and spandrels, and of the Lady Chapel altar and paintings, by IFACS. The altar rails and baptistery railings were restored to their original colour scheme by Brian Wood of Leyton (information from C. Fanning, Diocesan Surveyor, who directed much of the work).

The materials, style and plan of the church are described in some detail in the list entry (below) and repetition is unnecessary. Here it can be commented that the building occupies a very tight site corner site. It is an exceptional example of what the best church architects at the end of the nineteenth century were striving to achieve, namely a return to a refined, pure Gothic architecture in contrast to the showy products of the High Victorian years, but at the same time providing them with beautiful furnishings and decoration. Bentley here uses late medieval architecture as the basis for his work but it is freely treated and is by no means copyist. It can be noted that the arcades are quite low and that he employs a favourite device of his in the way the arches are continued across the openings to the transepts (instead of there being large, obtrusive voids there). There is no conventional chancel arch: instead there is an arch set as high as the roof will permit and a rood loft with a large rood is placed in the opening between the nave and chancel. Below it there is no chancel screen – again a favourite idea of Bentley’s to open up the view of the chancel from the nave.

Howell and Sutton comment that this was the only chance Bentley had to build and furnish a church without stint. All the fittings and stained glass were designed by Bentley, the exceptions being the west window by Burlison & Grylls (1904) and the Stations of the Cross by his friend N. H. J. Westlake. Over the southwest door is a memorial to Bentley, erected by a grateful Taprell Holland. The other principal items are recorded in the list description.

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: J. F. Bentley

Original Date: 1989

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade I