Abingdon - Our Lady and St Edmund

Radley Road, Abingdon, Oxfordshire

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A fine example of a Catholic church of the 1850s and 60s built on Puginian principles. The architects, William Wardell and George Goldie, are significant figures in 19th century Catholic church architecture. The church was built at the behest of, and the cost underwritten by Sir George Bowyer, a significant figure in mid-nineteenth century ecclesiastical politics. The quality of Wardell’s work in particular is high; there is an abundance of richly carved stonework, and a good east window, possibly by Hardman.

The church is dedicated to Our Lady and St Edmund of Abingdon. Edmund was born in the town in about 1175. He taught for many years in Oxford, and as Canon-Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral presided over the opening of the Cathedral in 1225. He died at Pontigny, where his body is enshrined above the high altar of the abbey. He was the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be canonised.

A Benedictine Abbey had been established at Abingdon in the seventh century. After its surrender in 1538 the abbey church became the Anglican parish church of St Helen. In 1783 the incumbent of St Helen’s was asked by the Bishop of Salisbury how many Catholics there were in the parish and received the answer ‘only one, old and poor’.

The first part of the present church was built at the sole expense of Sir George Bowyer (1811-1883), a writer on constitutional matters and jurisprudence, and a significant figure in mid-nineteenth century ecclesiastical politics. Born at Radley House, Berkshire, he was called to the Bar in 1839. In 1850 he converted to Catholicism. At the same time Pope Pius IX re-established the hierarchy, and the hostility aroused by this ‘Papal Aggression’ led Bowyer to prepare a pamphlet in defence of the Pope. From this time on he was the foremost lay champion in England of the Catholic Church. In the same year Bowyer was appointed Reader in Law at the Middle Temple. From 1852 to 1868 he was a Member of Parliament, representing the Irish borough of Dundalk. He succeeded to the Baronetcy in 1860.

Cardinal Wiseman depended greatly on Bowyer’s advice and support, as indeed did the Pope (Norman, p.141), the latter in matters relating to his temporal powers and the movement towards Italian Unification. However, Cardinal Manning came to distrust Bowyer, who in turn was ‘loud-mouthed in his denunciation of Manning; and carried his abuse even into the smoking-room of the Reform Club’ (Purcell’s Life of Manning, quoted in Norman, 141). Bowyer was a Knight Commander of the Order of Pius IX, a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and a Knight of Justice of the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem (in which costume he appears in the east window at Abingdon). He was a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire. He never married.

In addition to paying for the new church at Abingdon, Bowyer built at his own expense the Catholic chapel of St John of Jerusalem adjoining the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in Great Ormond Street, London. The architect was George Goldie, who was also employed by Bowyer at Abingdon, but whereas the latter was Gothic, the London chapel was Italianate, with a façade of the Gésu type. When the hospital relocated to St John’s Wood the chapel was rebuilt in the new location (1898-1902 by Edward Goldie).

The first parts of the church at Abingdon to be built were the chancel, south chapel, the covered way or cloister and the presbytery. These were built to the designs of William Wardell, a protégé of Pugin’s. The purpose of the cloister has not been established, but it has been suggested that the original intention was to house a small community of Benedictine monks in the presbytery (anecdotal information from the parish priest). These buildings were completed in 1857 and blessed by Bishop Grant of Southwark.

In the same year Wardell emigrated to Australia, where he was to build two Catholic Cathedrals, at Melbourne and Sydney. The church at Abingdon was completed to the designs of George Goldie, and solemnly opened on 25 October 1865.

The church is Decorated Gothic in style, built of regularly coursed Marcham stone under steeply pitched tile roofs. Wardell’s east end was built first and shall be described first.

The external wall of the chancel has a large 5-light east window with curvilinear tracery and below this a stone carved panel of the Crucifixion. Stepped buttresses at the corners and at the junction of the chancel and south chapel. The south elevation of the south chapel consists of two bays separated by buttresses, with paired trefoil headed lights in each bay with tear-shaped quatrefoils in the arches. Hood moulds with carved foliated stops. A lower sacristy gives off the north side of the chancel, and this is connected at right angles to a yet lower covered walkway, or cloister, that connects the church and presbytery. These elements are built in the same materials with similar detailing.

Wardell’s presbytery is a fine piece of Puginian domestic Gothic, an asymmetrical design with a corbelled first floor bay on the left, a ground floor bay on the right, and much decorative and carved stone detail of high quality.

Goldie’s nave is higher than Wardell’s chancel, and built in the same materials. However, the detailing is simpler and there is none of the profusion of carved stonework. The nave and south aisle consist of four bays, with the main entrance to the church in the western bay of the south aisle, slightly projecting. Aisle windows are an enlarged and simplified version of Wardell’s; circular openings with quatrefoils in the clerestorey. Two paired windows to west elevation, separated by stepped buttresses, and stone bell cote above (added in 1884 but shown on the depiction in the church in the east window). There are two north aisles, each two bays shorter than the south aisle (possibly to avoid burials); the inner aisle is now the Lady Chapel, and the outer aisle, four steps up from this, connects to the sacristy and cloister.

The interior is surprisingly intimate in scale and character, given the imposing external bulk of the church. The columns of the nave are plain circular piers with chamfered arches, contrasting with the richly carved capitals, label stops and moulded arcades of the chancel and south chapel.

At the time of the author’s visit, the church interior had been largely cleared for building works, and so an assessment of the furnishings was difficult. There is a fine east window a showing in the centre panel Sir George Bowyer presenting the church to Our Lady and St Edmund of Abingdon. This is possibly by Hardman and Co, who worked for Wardell elsewhere (including Sydney Cathedral). There is evidence of a polychrome decorative scheme in the chancel, but any surviving scheme beneath the east and north walls has been lost by the removal of the plaster in association with the repairs being carried out at the time of writing. An original or early stone altar appears to survive in the south chapel of St Edmund, but this is concealed at the time of writing.

The church was reordered in the 1970s and at that time a new door was formed leading off the north side of the chancel connecting to an existing porch attached to the sacristy. There is an organ chamber giving off the main arcade on the north chancel wall.

Above the altar in the Lady Chapel in the north aisle is a painted medieval statue of Our Lady from the medieval shrine at Sunningwell.

The parish hall lies to the southwest of the church, and was built as a schoolroom. It is built of similar materials to the church and consisted originally of one large and one smaller room with Gothic windows in the gable ends facing the street (two and three lancets and plate tracery with inset cusped circular openings). Timber framed porch/entrance to left. The building was converted to a parish hall in 1982, with an extension at the rear (now the main entrance) and in inserted upper floor with rooflights.

This is a fine example of a Catholic church of the 1850s and 60s built on Puginian principles. The architects, William Wardell and George Goldie, are significant figures in nineteenth century Catholic church architecture. The church was built at the behest of, and the cost underwritten by Sir George Bowyer, a significant figure in mid-nineteenth century ecclesiastical politics. The quality of Wardell’s work in particular is high; there is an abundance of richly carved stonework, and there is a good east window, possibly by Hardman. The church was reordered by Austin Winkley in the 1970s.

In 1858 the cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop of Southwark.

The adjoining school in Oxford Road was opened in 1873. Sisters from the Convent of Mercy taught at the school, and a large section of the churchyard is the nuns’ cemetery. The school moved to a new site in Radley Road in 1961.

In 1974 the sanctuary was reordered by Austin Winkley, and the new altar consecrated on 16 November of that year.

In 1982 St Edmund’s Lodge, a former school house near the southwest corner of the churchyard, was converted to a Parish Hall.

In the churchyard there is a monument by Eric Gill to the 7th Earl of Abingdon (d.1928), with a high-relief Crucifixion in the headstone.  

Diocese: Portsmouth

Architect: William Wardell and George Goldie

Original Date: 1857

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1865

Listed Grade: Not listed