Witham - The Holy Family and All Saints

Guithavon Street, Witham CM8

title= title= title= title=

A former Anglican church of the 1840s in lancet Gothic style, built as a chapel of ease to the medieval parish church. Converted to Catholic use in 1989, this is a notable example of how a redundant Gothic Revival Anglican church of the nineteenth century might be converted to serve the modern needs of the Roman Catholic Church.  

The design and fitting out, by Plater Inkpen architects, is of a high quality, with sympathetic new furnishings, and incorporating some furnishings from the previous Catholic church in Newland Street. Most of the  furnishings from the period of Anglican use were dispersed before acquisition by the Diocese of Brentwood. The church is a landmark building in the Witham Town Centre (Newland Street) Conservation Area.

Witham Place, home of the recusant Southcote family, and later the Stourton family, housed a Catholic chaplain from 1575 to 1800, serving the small number of local Catholics. The house was demolished in the mid-nineteenth century, although its substantial sixteenth-century brick boundary wall and barns survive, at Powers Hall End and Spring Lodge. Registers for a Catholic mission go back as far as 1774, and Mass was said at Chapel Beech from 1796 to 1851.

In April 1851 building started on a new church, dedicated to the Holy Family, on Newland Street (corner with Avenue Road). This was an Early English Gothic Ragstone-built  church  by  the  London  architect  Daniel  Cubitt  Nichols  (who  also designed churches at Romford and Ongar, qv). The church cost £665 and was solemnly opened by Cardinal Wiseman on 22 October 1851.

The  parish  of  Witham  was  canonically  erected  in  1918.  Later  twentieth  century growth necessitated the building of a chapel of ease at Silver End (qv) in 1966 but still Holy Family church was too small. In 1985 a Project Group was set up by the parish to investigate the possibility of acquiring the then-redundant Anglican church of All Saints in Guithavon Street, a project which came to fruition in 1989. The last Mass at Holy family church was held  on 30  December  1988. The  building  survives,  now converted to residential use.

All Saints had been built in 1840-42 as a chapel of ease to the medieval parish church of St Nicolas, from designs by John Brown of Norwich (1805-76). The original floor plan is shown at figure 2. It was a large brick church, in the lancet Gothic style, capable of seating 700.  It was opened by Bishop Blomfield of London on 1 November (the feast of All Saints), 1842. It cost £5000, and a separate parsonage was later built at a cost of £550. There was also a Church School, on the site of what is now Newland Street car park. In 1860 the chancel was extended by a further bay. In 1867 the churchyard was extended, with new cast iron railings by Davey, Paxman & Davey of Colchester.

In 1969 All Saints was declared redundant. It was acquired by Braintree District Council and turned into a youth club, but this venture did not succeed. The building lay empty and unused for several years, until it was purchased in 1987 by the Diocese of Brentwood for use as a Catholic church (to replace Holy Family church). Plater Inkpen of Tollesbury were appointed architects for the adaptation of the building, which in 1988 had been listed grade II as a building of special architectural and historical interest.

By the time of its acquisition by the Diocese, the church had largely lost its furnishings; the most notable survivals were the nineteenth-century mural over the chancel arch, the pulpit (the wood from which was used to make a new altar, ambo and wainscot in the weekday chapel) and some wall monuments in the porch area. Given  a  relatively  free  hand,  the  architects  undertook  a  bold  conversion  of  the interior (figure 3), involving the glazing in of the unusual triple chancel arch to create a separate Blessed Sacrament and weekday chapel at the east end and the creation of a trefoil-shaped dais for a new sanctuary in front of the chancel arch. A flat ceiling in the nave (presumably installed by the Council for the youth club) was removed and new accommodation with an inserted floor introduced.   Various furnishings were brought over from Holy Family church. A new presbytery was also built. The church was reopened and dedicated as a Catholic church on the feast of All Saints, 1989. 

The church is entered either via the main door, the porch in the south transept or the north side of the former chancel (now leading to the weekday chapel). Entering at the west end, the porch area contains a number of nineteenth-century wall monuments and memorials. Beyond this, the former west end of the nave is now an entrance area, with WCs and stairs to the upper room. The stone font from Holy Family church is located here, now serving as a holy water stoup.  The upper room is cantilevered over the main space of the nave, supported on cylindrical columns, and extending as far as one bay from the crossing. The upper room has a central blind apsidal projection, flanked by tall windows allowing a view to the sanctuary. Below, the flat soffit of the inserted floor is high enough to avoid feelings of oppressiveness for the congregation, whose seating takes the form of new limed oak benches. The space opens up to the full height of the nave one bay short of the crossing. Here and in the transepts the timber roof is exposed, with quadripartite ribs over the crossing. The unusual triple chancel arches have been glazed in, with narrow timber fins forming a semi- transparent screen or reredos to the new sanctuary area. The altar, font, seating and ambo are designed as a suite in stone, stainless steel and limed oak. A large bell from the old church is also placed here, for use as the sanctuary bell. Over the chancel arch the nineteenth century murals, depicting Christ in Majesty with attendant angels and text, have been restored.   Fittings from the old church include the Stations of the Cross in the nave, the statue of the Sacred Heart in the north transept and the statues of the Holy Family and crucifix in the south transept.

Behind  the  screened-off  chancel  arch  is  the  Blessed  Sacrament  chapel  and  the weekday chapel, dedicated to the Holy Family. Along the central bay of the east wall is Gothic arcading of 1860, originally the reredos for the altar, inscribed HOLY HOLY HOLY. Above this, in the lancet windows is reset stained glass from the old church. The triple lancet over the reredos depicts the Nativity flanked by the Adoration of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt. The side window to the south is to the Rev. John Wheble, who died at the Battle of Balaclava in 1856. The side window to the north is to the memory of the Talbot family and to Charles Thomas Talbot, son of the eighteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, who died in Lisbon in 1854 at the age of twenty two. The tabernacle is placed behind the screen, with a limed oak casing and plinth; there are limed oak settles on either side. Alongside hangs the sanctuary lamp, brought from the old church. In the southeast corner, the weekday chapel has an altar, ambo and wainscot made up from the old pulpit from All Saints, the only surviving item of original furnishing when the church was acquired in 1987.

Diocese: Brentwood

Architect: John Brown of Norwich; Plater Inkpen

Original Date: 1840

Conservation Area: Yes

Modifications: 1987

Listed Grade: Grade II