Bedford - The Holy Child and St Joseph

Midland Road, Bedford, Bedfordshire

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An impressive stone built church, begun in the 1870s and completed in 1911,  by  which  time  its  High  Victorian  Gothic  style  was  very  old- fashioned. Disappointingly, the intended spire was never built, and the impact of the external design suffers as a result. The building does nevertheless occupy a prominent corner site and makes a positive contribution to the local scene. The interior is notable for the richness and quality of its stone furnishings, including three altars with their reredoses, vaulted sanctuary and side chapels, western gallery, pulpit, font etc. The building was fairly sensitively reordered in the 1980s, at which time some good new etched glass internal doors and partitions were added. The slightly earlier presbytery and schoolroom are brick- built Gothic designs in the Pugin-Butterfield mould and greatly add to the interest and variety of the group.

Fr John Priestley Warmoll arrived in Bedford on Christmas Eve in 1863 and established a mission at 48 Offa Street (now 60 Tavistock Street). A site for a permanent church in Midland Road was acquired in 1865. A dual purpose school/ chapel and presbytery were built soon afterwards from designs by the Catholic architect Gilbert Blount.  The first Mass in the new chapel was on 31 March 1867, and on 6 May in the same year Fr Warmoll started a day school in his dining room.

The new church of the Holy Child, later known as St Joseph and the Holy Child or more commonly St Joseph's, was opened on 30 April 1874. The architect was Gilbert Blount.  At this time, the church consisted only of the chancel and the three eastern bays of the nave and aisles. The building was described in Kelly’s Directory: Bedfordshire in 1898 as follows:

The Catholic church, in Midland and Brereton roads, and dedicated to The Holy Child and St Joseph, is a lofty building of stone in the Early Decorated style, consisting of chancel, clerestoried nave and aisles: provision has been made for extending one end of the church, and when complete it will have a fine tower with broach spire: the altar, erected in 1864, by subscriptions collected by the children of the congregation, is of Bath stone, with the figures, in canopied niches, of King David, St Gregory the Great, St Andrew and  St  Nicholas: over the high altar is  a  stained window, also the gift  of children, and exhibiting incidents in the life of Our Lord: in 1887 a bede altar (sic) of Bath stone and marbles was erected from designs by Mr. A. E. Purdie, and is adorned with figures of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin and various saints: in1864 a fine stained window was erected in the chapel as a memorial: both these additions were the gift of a member of the congregation: there are 250 sittings : the Rev. Robert O. Middleton is priest in charge: attached to the church is a presbytery.

A  new Catholic school in Priory Street, designed  by A.E.  Purdie (an assistant to Blount), was opened in 1877. Purdie prepared plans for the completion of the church in 1877. A ground plan and elevation in the Bedfordshire archives signed by Purdie and dated 13 October 1877 shows the additional three bays to the nave and aisles, a new chapel and confessional beyond the ‘north’ aisle, and a baptistery, organ gallery, and tower with a 146 ft spire on the ‘west’ or main street elevation. However, this work was delayed by some years, only being completed in 1911 (minus the spire). Improvements to the presbytery were carried out at the same time. Papers in the Bedfordshire archives indicate that the work was carried out by Samuel Foster Ltd of Kempston, between January and December 1911.

In 1986-87 there was a major scheme of alteration and adaptation, carried out under the direction of Anthony New FRIBA, involving the reordering of the sanctuary, new engraved glass doors and partitions at the west end of the church, and a new entrance and porch to Brereton Road. At the time of the dismantling of the high altar a name book was found recording the names of those people (mainly children) who had contributed to the cost of the high altar and sanctuary furnishings. The book was conserved and reset in the new forward altar (which was adapted from the former high  altar),  but  a  copy  was  made  and  is  lodged  in  the  Bedfordshire  and  Luton archives.

The church is orientated north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar faced east.

Large church in Decorated Gothic style, faced in rock-faced course stonework and with a banded tile roof. The eastern part was built in 1874 from designs by Gilbert Blount, and the three western bays completed in 1911 from slightly amended designs by A.E. Purdie, Blount’s assistant. The church consists of a nave and aisles of six bays, a tower at the south-west corner (the intended spire was never built), a chapel off the north aisle, a porch off the south aisle (1986), and an apsidal sanctuary flanked by chapels on either side.

The front elevation dates from 1911. The entrance is at the south west corner, via the tower, while the west wall of the nave is dominated by a large 4-light window with Decorated   tracery.   Below   this   are   three   smaller   quatrefoil   windows   under hoodmoulds. There is a further Dec window to the west wall of the north aisle and narrow trefoil-headed lancets to the former baptistery beyond. The tower is of three stages, with stepped buttresses at the angles. In the centre stage over the main entrance is a carved figure of St Joseph carrying the Holy Child, under an elaborate Gothic canopy. There are narrow lancet windows to the upper belfry stage, and the tower is now capped by a simple shallow pyramidal roof.  The south elevation faces onto a side street; there are paired lancet windows to the aisle and shorter triple lancets to the clerestory. Over these is a banded tile roof, with cresting on the main ridge. Purdie’s work joins onto the original church quite seamlessly, the only visible indication of the 27 year hiatus being the different shading in the colour of the roof tiles. A stone porch gives off the south aisle, a respectful addition of 1986, with a more recent ramped approach to the entrance on its eastern side elevation. The east end of the south aisle joins onto a two storey stone addition to the earlier brick presbytery.  The  north  elevation  of  the  church  is  hemmed  in  by  neighbouring buildings and has not been externally inspected.   The apsidal sanctuary has a slightly lower roof ridge than that of the nave; stone gables rise up on each side, each containing a high window with Decorated tracery.

Inside, the nave arcade is of six bays, with moulded and chamfered arcading rising from circular columns on octagonal bases. The open timber roof of the nave has principals rising from corbels, and arch-braced collars, while the aisles have simpler lean-to roofs of principles and rafters. The sanctuary and side chapels are rib vaulted, with polychrome decoration. At the west end of the nave is a stone built gallery with Gothic arcaded panels on the front; its underside was glazed in as part of the 1986 reordering to form a chapel, incorporating etched glass designs designed by the architect Anthony New and made by Alfred Fisher of Chapel Studio.

In 1968 Pevsner wrote ‘there is nothing to recommend in the interior’. However, the interior has many notable features, not least in its extensive use of richly carved stone detail. This includes carved corbels and capitals with marble shafts around the sanctuary, and in the columns at the entrance to the side chapels, and in the three altars. The high altar was designed by Blount (drawings deposited at the University of Philadelphia)  and  has  figures  of  saints  under  elaborate  Gothic  canopies,  and  a panelled front. Its mensa has been cut down and reused in the forward altar of 1986, and a pair of ceramic panels formerly incorporated in the high altar has been reset on the wall either side of the sanctuary apse. The front of the forward altar incorporates parts of the former marble and alabaster communion rail, removed in 1986. There are  similarly  richly-carved  altars  in  the  vaulted  south  (Lady)  and  north  (Sacred Heart)  chapels,  at  least  one  of  them  by  A.E.  Purdie  (1887).  According  to  an inscription on its south wall, the Lady Chapel altar was given in memory of Edward de Verdun Corcoran, who died in 1894. Over the inscription is a large mural painting of Our Lady and the Christ Child enthroned. The octagonal stone font, with marble columns in the base was moved from the baptistery to the sanctuary area in 1986, when a new wooden cover for it was designed by Anthony New (the former baptistery was made into a reconciliation room). At the same time the former pulpit was cut down and made into an ambo.  Most of the internal stonework had been painted at some point, but this was removed during the 1986 restoration, unfortunately at first by an inappropriate method, resulting in some loss of detail (most notably in the altar of the Lady chapel).

Other features of note:

•     Original stained glass in the sanctuary, designer and maker not established;

•     A good First World War memorial window at the west end of the church depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, by Jones and Willis;

•     Further glass of the 1920s in the aisles, maker/designer not established;

•     Moveable pine benches, early or original, with round shouldered ends in the manner of William Butterfield;

•     A small wall monument to Fr Warmoll towards the west end of the south aisle;

•     Pendant lights in the nave from the 1986 restoration, said to be based on a design by Sir Ninian Comper;

•     Pipe organ in the gallery made by Robert Shaftoe of Pavenham.

The ceramic tile floor of the nave dates from 1986, and more recently the chancel has been similarly tiled. The effect is not terribly sympathetic.

The presbytery is attached to the east end of the south aisle. The original part was designed by Blount and is an attractive red brick Gothic design with blue brick detail, stone window surrounds, very much in the Pugin-Butterfield mould. The similarly detailed school building (later the Guildroom) is attached to the rear.

Diocese: Northampton

Architect: Gilbert Blount and A.E. Purdie

Original Date: 1874

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1911

Listed Grade: Not listed