Building » Alton – St John the Baptist

Alton – St John the Baptist

Castle Hill, Alton, Staffordshire ST10

The church is a key part of a major scheme by Pugin for his greatest patron, the Sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, and dates from 1840. It forms an essential part of the Alton Hospital and Castle complex. Although many historic furnishings remain, the historic character of the interior has been somewhat compromised by post-Vatican II interventions. 

This church was designed in 1839-40 as the chapel of the Hospital of St John the Baptist, founded by John Talbot, the Sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury. It represents an early collaboration between him and the great pioneer and polemicist of the Gothic Revival, A. W. Pugin. This would lead on, most magnificently, to the building of St Giles’s church in Cheadle (1841-46, qv). The scheme for the hospital was meant as a residence for ‘decaying priests’ (said Pugin) and also a school. Originally what is now the nave was built as a schoolroom which could be closed off from the chapel beyond by large wooden doors; the hinge brackets still survive. The consecration took place on 13 July 1842 but it is clear that Pugin failed to persuade the earl to create a permanent, full hospital foundation. After the death of the last Catholic earl in 1856, the property continued as a boys’ school. In 1875 a boarding school for young ladies was opened here. The chapel was consecrated in 1932 and then became the parish church of Alton. The complex now serves as a Diocesan Youth Retreat Centre, using the church as required (the chapel in the castle has been stripped of its furnishings and is no longer used for Mass).

Outwardly the church might seem unremarkable if judged against most medieval churches and, indeed, later Victorian examples. It is, however, an embodiment of Pugin’s aims, which would be crucial in transforming the face of nineteenth century church architecture. He saw the Alton Hospital project as a return to an idealised medieval world of care and humanity under the aegis of the Catholic Church. The redeployment of medieval architecture, faithful to the original, was part of this process and predated similar work by Anglicans by a couple of years. Unusually for Pugin the style was Perpendicular, a choice he would soon repudiate as being inappropriate for modern Christian architecture.


The building is fully described in the list entry (below) and repetition is unnecessary. However, some updating is necessary. The description speaks of the interior being ‘sumptuously decorated including much painted decoration’, but sadly this is no longer the case. The overpainting of the stencil work (and removal of Pugin’s rood screen) is a post-Vatican II intervention. Associated with this, Pugin’s marble high altar has been brought forward. The frontal depicts Our Lady of Alton flanked by St John the Baptist and St Alban, with heraldic angels between them; it was executed by Pugin’s regular carver, Thomas Roddis of Sutton Coldfield. The west window stained glass is by Paul Woodroffe. The encaustic floor tiles by Herbert Minton were removed in the 1960s and the present ones date from 2000 (those in the north chapel, however, are original).

List descriptions



Roman Catholic Church circa 1840 by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Ashlar with edged herringbone tooling; plain tile roof with crested ridge tiles. Perpendicular style; 4-bay nave, 3-bay chancel, north-east oratory, south-east chapel, buttresses at each bay division, diagonal buttresses to each corner. Nave: pointed west doorway with moulded surround and hood mould terminating in foliated stops; 4-centred west window above with wave moulded surround, 2 lights to each side of a central blind arch with nodding ogee over a statue of a bishop, hood mould terminating in heads, a king and a bishop; octagonal bellcote with scaled pointed stone roof surmounted by a cross; square-headed north and south windows of 3 cinquefoil headed lights with sunken spandrels. Chancel: pointed east window of 3 cinquefoil headed lights and Perpendicular tracery, hood mould terminating in angels bearing shields; pointed windows of 2 cinquefoil headed lights with short supermullions above and deeply hollowed surrounds. North-east oratory: North window has trefoil-headed lights; lean-to roof with stone tiles.

Interior: sumptuously decorated including much painted decoration. High pointed chancel arch with moulded surround; nave roof has 2 pairs of purlins, a ridge piece and collar with curved struts extending to the principals, 3 tiers of paired curved wind braces; chancel roof has arch braced collars, the braces are moulded and spring from octagonal posts with capitals which stand on corbels carved as angels bearing shields, one pair of purlins and ridge piece, 2 tiers of paired curved windbraces, wall plate and purlins are brattished; oratory to north of chancel entered by a pointed doorway to the west with nook shafts, 4-centred arch to the east; chapel to the south of chancel entered by a 4-centred doorway with panelled spandrels; 4-centred arch to the east matching that on the north side.

Fittings: octagonal stone font; pulpit in south-east corner of nave, quarter octagon on corbels; 4 brass chandeliers in nave; benches with elaborate poppy heads and backs decorated with openwork tracery; elaborately carved crucifix suspended over the sanctuary; marble altar of 5 bays, with cusped heads, the central and outer ones slim, the other 2 wide, the central niche contains a figure of the Virgin, the outer niches figures of 2 of the Apostles, the others contain figures of angels; 9-bay alabaster reredos, trefoiled ogee arch niches containing figures, except the central one in front of which the cross stands; niches to each side of the east window, each containing a figure, cusped arches with nodding ogee over; piscina to right of altar with trefoil ogee arch. Monuments: brasses to the sixteenth and seventeenth Earls of Shrewsbury died 1852 and 1856, one to each side of the altar. Stained glass good throughout especially the east window by Thomas Willement depicting the Madonna and Child and John the Baptist. Pugin’s screen has been removed to the Birmingham Museum.

The R.C. Church of St. John the Baptist was built as the chapel to the Hospital of St. John (q.v.) and is attached to its north-western angle; it forms part of an important group of buildings by Pugin built during the 1840s for the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury. B.O.E. p. 60.

Listing NGR: SK0736142466



Churchyard cross. Circa 1840. Ashlar. Square plan base. 3 steps to a pedestal with quatrefoil panels containing the symbols of the Evangelists; shaft with chamfered corners and a shield to each face: elaborate head with canopied panels surmounted by a foliated cross.

Listing NGR: SK0734342451

Wall and attached outbuilding enclosing north and west sides of churchyard


Wall and outbuilding. Circa 1840. Ashlar with herringbone tooling. Approximately 150 yard length of coped wall with small gabled out- building aligned north-south immediately north of the chancel and approached from the west by a flight of stone steps; the wall is terminated at the east end by a rectangular shaped pier. Included for group value.

Listing NGR: SK0738742483

The Priest’s House and attached garden walls and gate piers


Former schoolmaster’s house, walls and gate piers. C17 extended and remodelled by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin circa 1843. Ashlar with herringbone tooling, some edged; plain tile roof with crested ridge tiles and coped verges; ashlar external end stack and lateral external stack. Aligned north- west/south-east facing south-west; the extension is in a Vernacular Revival style to match the original house. C17 house to the left. C19 extension to the right with a higher ridge. C17 house: 2 storeys, 2 bays, chamfer mullioned windows, those to the ground floor have a continuous hood mould; central gabled porch with stone slate roof and blocked doorway with cambered arch. C19 extension: 2 storeys, irregular facade, windows to ground and first floors left have three 4-centred arch lights beneath a square head, sunken spandrels and returned hood moulds, similar single-light window to ground floor right; central gabled porch with stone slate roof, 4-centred doorway with panelled spandrels and half-glazed door; lateral chimney stack to right of centre. Coped garden walls enclose gardens to the front and rear; a pair of gate piers at the south east angle of the front garden lead to the Hospital of St. John (q.v.), The Castle (q.v.), and St. Johns Preparatory School (q.v.). They are made of rusticated rock-faced ashlar and have pyramidal caps.

Listing NGR: SK0736242392

Hospital of St John


Hospital, now convent and school. 1840 to circa 1847. By Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Ashlar with edged herringbone tooling; shaped tile roofs with plain tile bands and crested ridge tiles; ashlar ridge stacks with octagonal shafts and crenellated caps. 3 attached ranges grouped around a roughly square courtyard, entrance (east) range aligned north-south facing west, north and south ranges aligned east-west, projecting to the west, warden’s house attached to the west end of the north range linking it with the Chapel, now the R.C. Church of St. John the Baptist (q.v.). Entrance range: central 2 storey gabled porch with diagonal buttresses, the right hand side of the range has 2 storeys and an attic with storey bands, the left hand side has one storey and attic and single-storey lean-to gallery; 7 bays marked by buttresses, square- headed ground-floor windows with one to three cinquefoil-headed lights, first floor and attic windows to the right are mullioned and of 2 lights, cambered attic windows to left with 2 cinquefoil headed lights, all attic windows within gabled dormers; central pointed door and oriel window above. Left hand range: one storey, 3-bay range with 3-light windows and buttresses at the bay divisions, terminated to the left by the 3-storey tower of the warden’s house; the tower has 2 storey buttresses to left and right flanking a central 4-centred doorway. The Chapel, now the R.C. Church of St. John the Baptist (q.v.) is set back to the left. Right hand range: main block of 2 storeys and attic and 6 bays with a slightly lower 2-storey bay attached to the left and a 2-storey gabled tower attached to the right, surmounted by a bellcote with pyramidal steeple; the bay divisions are marked by buttresses, the ground floor windows of the main block are of 3 ogee-headed lights with short supermullions rising to a flat arch, the 2-light first-floor windows are of a similar character but have cambered arches, hipped attic dormers.

The Hospital of St. John is part of an important complex of buildings designed by Pugin for the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.

B.O.E. pp. 59-60; C.L. November 24, 1960, pp. 1226-1229.

Listing NGR: SK0738642428

St John’s Preparatory School


House now school. 1847. By Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin for the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury. Ashlar with edged herringbone tooling; plain tile roofs with crested ridge tiles; ashlar ridge stacks and integral end stacks with octagonal shafts and crenellated caps. Castellated style with Gothic details; L-shaped plan house, chapel attached to the east end to make a T-shaped plan; principal alignment east-west, 2 courtyards to the south. North front: 3-storey, 5-bay main house to the right and 2-storey, 3-bay wing to the left, 4 storey projecting corner towers to left and right, the latter has a pyramidal spire; mainly 2-light mullioned windows to the house, the towers have mainly single-light rectangular loops, the main house has 2-storey bay window to the right and to left of centre; crenellated parapets throughout; chapel set- back to the left of the house. South front: main house to left of 3 storeys and attic on basement with projecting 4-storey left hand corner tower and 2-storey right hand porch, projecting wing attached to the right, single set-back bay to the far right linking the house to the chapel which it partly obscured. Main house: 2:4 bays, transomed windows, those to ground floor have cambered arches, those to first and second floor have flat arches, all have trefoil-headed lights, gabled attic dormers to principal range with paired Caernarvon arch lights; the porch has a pointed door and block stopped hood mould, shield above bearing a rampant lion, first floor window of 2 cinquefoil headed and transomed lights under a square head; crenellated parapets throughout. Right hand wing: 2 storeys on basement; about 6 bays, the east and west sides have square headed transomed windows with cinquefoil headed lights, except those to ground floor west which are 4-centred arch windows of 2 cinquefoil headed lights; the south gable has a corbelled out oriel window to the right with brattished band to a hipped roof, and single-light stair windows to the left, the south-west corner is capped by a turret (Pugin’s “look out tower”) with pyramidal roof and openings of two 4-centred lights with panelled spandrels. Chapel: taller 2-bay chancel with semi-octagonal east end and moulded eaves cornice to a brightly coloured fishscale tile roof, hipped towards the east; tall slim pointed windows of 2-lights with encircled quatrefoil in the head. Interior: rib- vaulted roof, the ribs springing from wall shafts supported on corbels carved as angels. St. John’s Preparatory School is part of an important complex of buildings designed by Pugin for the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury; its site on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Churnet Valley, and its architectural style are reminiscent of the castles of the Rhine which may have provided a source of inspiration.

B.O.E. p. 59; C.L. November 24, 1960, pp. 1226-1229.

Listing NGR: SK0731642478

The Castle


Castle remains. A castle was in existence here by 1176, some of remains are late C12 and there are additions of the first quarter of the C13. Ashlar with diagonal tooling and rubble core. The castle is situated on a hill overlooking the Churnet Valley. It was protected to the north by a precipitous cliff and to the south by a rock-cut ditch and curtain wall which enclosed an irregularly shaped site on an east-west axis; the gatehouse lay towards the west end of the south curtain and there were two wall towers towards the centre. The South Curtain: mainly late C12. The remains of the wall stretch from the south-east angle of St. John’s Preparatory School (q.v.) to the western apex of the site being interrupted by the eastern wall tower; towards the east end of the curtain is a pilaster buttress, at the western apex immediately north of the gatehouse is the base of a square buttress or turret. The parapet has been destroyed but its height and position are to be discerned on the west side of the eastern wall tower (see below). The Eastern Wall Tower: late C12 and bonded into the curtain wall. Square open backed tower with a battered base and a string course at the ground level of the castle enclosure; a blind pointed arch springs from the string course and indicates the position of a barrel vaulted chamber entered from the enclosure; above this is a central arrow loop of circa 1190 with cross slit and fishtail shaped base, to the rear of the loop is a round arched embrasure; from the level of this loop upwards the corners of the tower are chamfered. The left hand side of the tower has a rectangular loop set high up immediately in front of the former south curtain parapet, the position of which is indicated by a break in the ashlar work. On the right hand side of the tower corbelling spans the angle between tower and curtain at parapet level. The Western Wall Tower: early C13. D-shaped. Foundations only. The tower was served by a newel staircase situated in its north-west angle. The Gatehouse: early C13. Twin D-shaped towers survive to a height of approximately 10 feet, the eastern tower has a battered and offset plinth. Originally the towers flanked a central gate passage with a portcullis at its outer (southern) end, the lower part of a portcullis groove of square section survives on the east side of the passage. A mural staircase entered from a door on the west side of the passage gave access to the upper parts of the gatehouse (now destroyed). Below the level of the former gate passage and between the 2 towers is a sally-port with round arch, it gives access to a central corridor beneath the gate passage, at the north end of which a segmental-headed doorway to the west leads to the basement of the west tower and to a doorway in the north wall which probably communicated with the castle enclosure via a mural staircase. There is no indication as to how the basement of the east tower was entered, it may have been from a trap in the floor of the room above. A short length of wall extends from the front of the western tower and probably terminated the rock-cut ditch to the west and flanked one side of the former approach road. The gatehouse was undergoing consolidation work at the time the survey (June 1985) and was partly obscured by scaffolding. Derek Renn “Norman Castles in Britain” (1973) p. 352. Scheduled as an Ancient Monument.

Listing NGR: SK

Heritage Details

Architect: A. W. N, Pugin

Original Date: 1840

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*