Building » Balham – Holy Ghost

Balham – Holy Ghost

36 Nightingale Square, Balham, London SW12

A late nineteenth century church by the noted Catholic architect Leonard Stokes, who infused Gothic with an Arts and Crafts imaginative flair. The exterior is plain and not as designed by Stokes, but the interior has some Stokesian features and other furnishings of note.

In 1887 the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration acquired land on the west side of the newly-laid out Nightingale Square and built a convent; its chapel, dedicated by Bishop Butt in 1890, was made available to local Catholics. Soon afterwards, the nuns gave some land adjoining the convent for a church, presbytery and elementary school, and designs were prepared by Leonard Stokes. Bishop Butt is said to have objected to the narrowness of the nave as designed by Stokes, insisting that it should be widened to 30 ft. The foundation stone was laid by Coadjutor Bishop Bourne in June 1896 and the church was first used in February 1897 (the priest was Fr Warwick). The builder was J. T. Scott of Blomfield Street, London Wall. Stokes’s original designs included a school (which opened in September 1897), attached presbytery and tower. However, money was short; neither the presbytery nor the tower was built, and judging from an early photograph, the west elevation of the church as built was very plain indeed. According to the account in The Architectural Review ‘the extreme simplicity of the exterior […] has to some extent been dictated by the amount of money at disposal, and by the stipulation that any decorative effect in the design should be entirely confined to the interior’.

A permanent chapel for the nuns was added on the north side of the church in 1901. For this the nuns used their own architect from Belgium rather than Stokes; the design is said to have been modelled on a chapel belonging to the community in Ghent. The west porch was added by 1915 in the time of Fr John Moynihan, who also added the pulpit and the east and west windows. Under Fr William Thomson the school was extended in 1922 (and again in 1935), and the south aisle widened (with crypt), sacristy added and Stations of the Cross installed in 1931. On 17 May 1934 the church was consecrated by Bishop (later Archbishop) Amigo.

The nuns left in 1931 and in 1933 the former convent was sold to the BBC. The sale included the former nuns’ chapel attached to the north side of the church. However, when the convent was sold again in 1963, the diocese exercised an option to re-acquire the chapel, at which point it was incorporated into the church, with new openings from the original narrow circulation aisle. This became the Lady Chapel, and the existing Lady Chapel became St Joseph’s chapel.  At the same time the baptistery and confessionals were moved to the west end of the new Lady Chapel, the high altar simplified, and new Cathedral glass inserted in the windows. In 1971 all three altars were reordered, and new stone floors installed in the sanctuary and St Josephs chapel; this work was undertaken by Messrs Bartlett & Purnell.


The church was built in 1896-97 from designs by Leonard Stokes, and has additions of 1901, 1915 and 1931. The intended tower and attached presbytery were never built. The church is in a free Arts and Crafts version of late Gothic, built of brick laid in English bond, with stone dressings and a Westmorland slate roof. On plan it consists of entrance porch/narthex, nave with south aisle, narrow north circulation aisle, Lady Chapel (former nuns’ chapel) and sanctuary with side chapels. The exterior bears little resemblance to Stokes’s original design, the only feature in common being the horizontal brick banding. The five-light west window with Perp tracery is, with the porch in front, an addition of c1915; the latter is built of stock brick with red brick detail, and has a profusion of buttresses (which Stokes generally avoided). The entrances are on the sides of this porch; at the front is a crucifix commemorating the consecration of the church in 1934. Set back to the right (north) is the red brick gable end of the former nuns’ chapel of 1901, with a two-light Dec window, and to the left is the plain end wall of the south aisle, added in 1931.

The interior is more recognisably Stokesian, with a narrow north circulation aisle and hexagonal, capital-less piers dividing the five bays of the nave. The circulation aisle on the south side has been lost by the widening of the aisle in 1931. Between the arcades, wall shafts rise up to a cornice and a timber collar rafter roof. There is a modern gallery at the west end of the nave. At the east end there is a wide chancel arch leading to the square-ended sanctuary, which has a five-light Perp east window, short in its proportions to accommodate a reredos. On the north side of the sanctuary arches with metal gates connect to the nuns’ chapel. Other than at this point, the chapel was not originally linked with the church, but in 1963 three openings were formed between its nave and the north circulation aisle of the church. The nuns’ chapel is now the Lady Chapel; it has a pointed barrel vaulted timber roof with tie beams and crown posts.

The three altars (high altar, Lady Chapel and St Joseph’s altar) are all of polychrome marble, as are the two ambos (blessed in 1979), side walls and steps of the sanctuary. The tabernacle door is repoussé work, featuring the Pelican in its Piety. A wooden crucifix is attached to the east wall, said to be Oberammergau work of the eighteenth century. Over this, the five-light east window has post-war glass, Our Lady and Apostles at Pentecost. Other glass: at the west end, post-war glass, Christ flanked by Mary and Joseph; in the east window of the Lady Chapel, Madonna and Child, signed by Goddard & Gibbs; and in St Joseph’s chapel, a modern window depicting St Oliver Plunkett and St Benedict Joseph Labre. Otherwise the glass is Cathedral glass in pastel shades. There are statues of St Anne and St Joachim on either side of the chancel arch. The design of the altarpiece in the Lady Chapel (Douglas Purnell c. 1971) is based on the Visitation attributed to Luca della Robbia in the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia; it was carved by Dorigo Vigilio Prugger and painted by Henry Farmer FRSA. The altar in St Joseph’s chapel on the south side of the chancel is of verde antico and has  flanking relief tableaux by Prugger, 1964. The font is located at the west end of the Lady Chapel, behind gates; it is an octagonal design, given in memory of Fr John Moynihan, who died in 1917. The Stations are cast and painted three-dimensional pieces resting on cast corbels; they were installed in 1931. The seating consists of pine benches with panelled ends.

Heritage Details

Architect: Leonard Stokes

Original Date: 1896

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed