Building » Clerkenwell – St Peter (Italian Church)

Clerkenwell – St Peter (Italian Church)

Clerkenwell Road, London EC1

In the early nineteenth century the Saffron Hill area was a poor, densely-populated neighbourhood, in which many Italian and other immigrants had settled. Having no church of their own, they worshipped at the Sardinian Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where from 1824 an Italian priest served their needs.

In 1845, Fr (St) Vincent Pallotti, a priest and founder of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottines), proposed the building of a church for Italians in London.  This was taken forward by Fr Rafaelle Melia and Fr Giuseppe Faà di Bruno. However, it was not intended that the church should be exclusively for the Italians; Fr Melia wrote to Vicar Apostolic Wiseman saying that Pope Pius IX ‘wished the church to be dedicated to the leader of the Apostles, […] given that the church must serve Italians and the faithful of all nations, we must choose an architectural style that satisfies everyone’ (quoted in Stanca, 75). 

A site was identified in Victoria Street (the present Farringdon Road), but that purchase fell through.  The hunt for a site then centred on Clerkenwell and the alleys around Saffron Hill, where there were estimated to be about 2000 Italians as well as a large number of Irish.  In 1851 Fr Melia’s appeal for funds aroused hostility; this was the time of the so-called Papal Aggression, and sensitivities were high. The Duke of Harrowby asked in the House of Lords whether ‘the Government was ready to use its influence at the Court of Rome to secure permission to erect a Protestant Church within the walls of the City of Rome for the practice of the Anglican faith’[1], while the Anglican Bishop of London railed against proposals ‘to build a huge cathedral to St Peter in this city, whose metropolitan Cathedral is dedicated to St Paul’ (quoted in Stanca, 77).

Fr Melia persevered, and in 1852 a piece of land at the northern end of Hatton Garden was acquired. According to The Builder (14 May 1852, p.312) the land was ‘purchased by B. Bond Cabbell Esq., MP, in December last for the sum of 7500l…The architect is Signor Francesco Gualandi of Bologna, who will have the assistance of an English architect in carrying out the works. Subscriptions to defray its expenses are being levied throughout the Continent’. Gualandi’s design (figure 1) was for a huge basilica capable of holding 3,400 people, with an imposing portico facing towards Little Saffron Hill (now Herbal Hill). The design was based on the basilica of San Crisogono in Trastevere, Rome.  Whether it was in ‘an architectural style that satisfies everyone’ is an interesting question at this point; Pugin had recently died, and the Romanità and Renaissance preferences of Wiseman and the Oratorians were in the ascendant.

After various delays, work finally began in 1862. However, a shortage of funds necessitated a scaling down of Gualandi’s plans; the Irish architect John Miller Bryson was called in to produce revised designs, with the nave reduced in length by a quarter, and frontage and portico to Little Saffron Hill omitted. Even with this reduction, the church was able to seat 2,000, and was the largest post-Reformation Catholic church yet built in Great Britain.  The builder was a Mr Fish. The crypt, reached from Back Hill, was completed by December 1862 and consecrated on Christmas Day.  The church itself was consecrated on 16 April 1863.  The main entrances were from Back Hill and Hatton Wall.

In 1866, the large presbytery fronting onto Back Hill was built, completed by Wylson and Long from designs by Bryson (photo upper right). In the same year, the galleries in the church were closed off.

In 1877 a new church school was built to the east of the church, on the site of the (ritual) west end and portico of Gualandi’s design, from designs by F. W. Tasker (this is now the headquarters of the Central School of Ballet). The building of the school was associated with the laying out of Clerkenwell Road, which was completed in 1878. This metropolitan improvement opened up land to the south of the church for development, an opportunity of which the Pallottine Fathers took full advantage, with a terraced development of shops with three storeys of accommodation above facing onto the new thoroughfare.  At the centre of this, Tasker was asked to design In fact, just such a church had been erected in Rome in 1825, later replaced by G. E. Street’s church in Via del Babuino an entrance loggia, to serve as the new main entrance to the church, with a handsome façade above, its pedimented upper storey rising above the properties on either side. He also completed the Roman-style campanile, which houses one large bell.    

Meanwhile, the internal fitting out continued. The sanctuary and nave decoration dates from 1885-86, carried out by the Piedmontese artists Arnaud di Caraglio and Gauthier di Saluzzo.  They also painted the other murals in the church, as well as the scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul on the panels which had infilled the gallery openings. At about the same time as the nave decoration was added, the western choir gallery/loggia and organ were also built. The latter was made by the Belgian organ builder Anneesen (Stanca, 81); it was restored in 1959 and 1995.

In 1953 a scheme of redecoration involved the overpainting of many of the murals, leaving those that remain rather marooned in a sea of white.

In the 1970s the church was redecorated and restored after a fire in St Joseph’s chapel. In 1996 there was a major, English Heritage-funded programme of repairs to the roof.

The altar is at the geographical west end, but this description assumes conventional liturgical orientation.

The building and its chief furnishings are described in the list entry, below. This does not mention the wealth of statues and furnishings, too numerous to list here. Worthy of particular mention are:

  • The nave pulpit, hexagonal and of Sicilian marble, raised on a single fluted column.

  • Communion rails of various inlaid coloured marbles, with red marble Corinthian pilasters, by Broder.

  • Terracotta statues of the four Evangelists, two on each side of the high altar, purchased at the International Exhibition of 1862.

  • In the chapel dedicated to St Vincent Pallotti to the north of the sanctuary (the former Lady Chapel), an important oil painting of the beheading of St John the Baptist by Alessandro Turchi, 1640.

  • Marble memorial tablet to Fr Melia (d.1876)  in the south aisle.

  • A seventeenth century Neapolitan crib in the north aisle, a copy of a work by Aniello D’Antonio.

Heritage Details

Architect: Francesco Gualandi/ John Miller Bryson; F. W. Tasker

Original Date: 1862

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: II*