Brighton - St Mary Magdalen

55 Upper North Street, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 3FH

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A stately and lavish town church, of considerable townscape significance grouped with school and presbytery.  

Roman Catholic church. 1861-2. By Gilbert Robert Blount. Red brick set in English bond with dressings of stone, black brick and blue-glazed brick, spire of stone. 2-bay chancel, nave of 5 bays with north and south aisles, north tower and north-east vestry. EXTERIOR: all openings have stone hoodmoulds with voussoirs above of black and blue-glazed brick, linked to springing bands of the same materials. Window tracery a mixture of geometrical and flamboyant. East window in the form of a spherical triangle with flamboyant tracery. South-east chapel under a pitched roof with angle buttresses, pointed-arched east window--.with quatrefoil over 3 cusped lancets; 2 south windows with stilted arches and quasi-quatrefoil over 2 cusped lancets. South aisle of 5 bays, the windows pointed-arched with a quatrefoil over 2 cusped lancets, buttresses between the second, third and 4 bays from the west and between the aisle and the south chapel; clerestory of 10 stilted segmental-pointed arches with 2 cusped lancets each. Entrance in western bay of south aisle, shoulder-arched under a pointed arch with multi-moulded arch dying into deep chamfered jambs. The north side is treated in the same way, except that the tower abuts the second bay of the north aisle: tower of 3 stages with angle buttresses; pointed-arched entrance flanked by engaged columns with foliage capitals supporting 2 orders of moulded arches; gabled buttresses to either side with gabled niches for statues; 2 lancets to second stage; paired cusped lancets under a stilted pointed arch to belfry; corbel table; broach spire with 2-light lucarnes: Single-storey vestry partly under a pitched roof with two 3-light cusped windows under a segmental arch flush with the wall, lower parapeted part to west with pointed-arched entrance; low wall to Upper North Street of brick with stone chamfered coping; piers and railings survive west of the tower, but not to the east. (Builder: 3 August 1861, 8 March-1862).

The church was built at the instigation of Father George Oldham, to serve what was then the West Brighton Missionary District.  The sanctuary and side chapels opened in July 1861; the nave was opened in February 1862.  The Builder in 1862 reported ‘The nave…has been opened.  The chancel was finished in July last.  The edifice is in the Modern Florid Gothic style…’  The nave was extended by 33 feet and the spire added and the church formally opened on 16th August 1864.  The list description does not mention the interior.  The walls are plastered with stone dressings.  The corbels supporting the roof trusses for a band of angels.  The arcade columns have big stiff-leaf capitals, whilst the sanctuary and side chapels have richly carved and painted altars and reredos.  These contain scenes from scripture, interspersed with statues in canopied niches, with columns of coloured marbles. Also stone and marble font and ambo.  The quality of the carving is high and it appears that Blount intended the richness to be achieved through the quality of the carving and the contrast between the stone and coloured marbles rather than through the use of any applied colour.  By 1924 much of the stonework had been lime washed, perhaps in response to staining.   The church was redecorated in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and this has eroded the quality of the interior.   Good stained glass. The 1913 organ was replaced in 1962.  To celebrate the centenary, in 1962, statues of St Joseph and St Heorge by Joseph Cribb of Ditchling, were inserted into the niches over the main door.  A major re-ordering and redecoration scheme was implemented in 1973-4, the work carried out by Messrs. Jimmy and Kevin Frame.  The roof timbers were painted for the first time and gold stencil-work applied.  The altar rails were removed in the early 1990s.  Gilbert Blount (1818-1876) is one of the lesser-known 19th century Roman Catholic architects, perhaps because he was not very prolific.  He began his professional training as a civil engineer with I K Brunel and worked on the construction of the Thames tunnel., nearly loosing his life in one of the floods that occurred during construction.  He worked for a time with Sydney Smirke before setting up on his own and specialising in work for the Roman Catholic community.  Blount’s churches are always well crafted but sometimes lack personality, being faithful essays in C13 gothic.   In the Arundel & Brighton diocese Blount also designed St Anthony & St George’s church in Duncton (1869)

Diocese: Arundel and Brighton

Architect: Gilbert Robert Blount

Original Date: 1861

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II