Christchurch - Immaculate Conception

Purewell, Christchurch, Dorset

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Modest single-cell Gothic Revival structure of the 1860s, now no longer used for worship. The building makes a positive contribution to the local scene.

There has been a Catholic mission in the Avon valley since the early seventeenth century, but no church building was erected until the mid-nineteenth century. In the mid-1860s Fr. Van Reeth, who had taken over the Christchurch mission in 1864 was authorised to collect funds, ‘towards building a small church in the town’. By 1866 he had collected sufficient money to start work. Fr Van Reeth moved into the new presbytery on 18 December 1866 and the new church was opened two days later.

In the early 1890s the congregation was joined for a while by the Catholic novelist and fantasist Frederick Rolfe, author of Hadrian the Seventh, who called himself ‘Baron Corvo’. Rolfe apparently executed several paintings for the church, but was forced to leave Christchurch under a cloud of debt and fraud in 1892. 

The church is Gothic and built of red brick with stone dressings and a steeply-pitched tiled roof. The plan consists of an aisleless nave with a short lower chancel. The west end fronting the road has a central doorway flanked by image-niches, now empty, and with a tall, stepped five-light window in the gable above. There was originally a small bell-turret which was removed in the 1950s. The nave side walls have four bays of paired lancet lights, the bays divided by dwarf buttresses; the chancel side walls and end walls are rendered, with a single pair of lancets each side.

Internally the church has plastered walls and a handsome open timber roof. At the west end of the nave is a timber gallery on iron supports. At the east end of the nave is a tall pointed chancel arch on stone wall-shafts. The original plaster reredos survives but the plasterwork of the wall above has been removed (see below).

The original internal appearance of the church is not recorded, but it appears that the sanctuary wall may have had painted decoration originally. At the end of the nineteenth century three paintings were mounted above and to either side of the chancel arch, with a further large painting of Christ in the Heavenly Hierarchy on the east wall of the sanctuary above the altar. The large painting has been attributed (by Pevsner among others) to Frederick Rolfe, who is known to have executed some religious paintings during his stay at Christchurch, and was said to be in fresco. In 2002 all the paintings were removed from the walls by the conservator Peter Martindale. All were found to be on canvas, which had been marouflaged, or stuck, to the plaster behind. None were frescoes. Mr Martindale’s opinion was that the paintings were probably not by Fredrick Rolfe, but perhaps by Nathaniel Westlake, of the stained glass and decorative firm of Lavers, Barraud and Westlake who executed several similar works in other churches (e.g. Holy Ghost, Basingstoke), using this technique. The paintings, carefully packed, are now in the presbytery awaiting a new home.

Diocese: Portsmouth

Architect: J. E. Holloway; new church by Columba Cook

Original Date: 1866

Conservation Area: Yes

Modifications: 1991

Listed Grade: Not listed