South Parade, Bath, Somerset, BA2
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
The primary Catholic church in Bath and a major work by C. F. Hansom, in Decorated Gothic style. Its spire is the tallest in Bath and is a major local landmark. The rich furnishings include sculpture by Thomas Earp and stained glass and metalwork by Hardman & Co. The church makes a significant contribution to the conservation area and World Heritage Site, offering a dramatic and deliberate contrast with the Georgian architecture of John Wood the Elder’s South Parade.
In the seventeenth century, Bath was intermittently served by Jesuits from St Francis Xavier College near Hereford. By 1713, a group of Benedictines lived in Bell Tree House which also served as a chapel. (Bath was served by Benedictines until 1932.) In 1778, a site for a church and presbytery was purchased between St James’s Parade and the Lower Borough Walls, as well as three houses in St James’s Parade whose rents were to pay for the church. The church was completed by 1780 but was destroyed in the Gordon riots of the same year. A new site in Corn Street was acquired with the compensation money and a small church constructed (later the People’s Mission Hall and now a theatre, grade II listed).
By 1809 this had become too small and an eighteenth-century theatre in Old Orchard Street was converted to a chapel (now the Masonic Hall, grade II listed). This served until the opening of the present church in 1863.
The present church was built from designs by Charles Francis Hansom. The contractors were Messrs Bladwell and Ambrose. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Clifford on 2 October 1861; he also opened and consecrated the church on 6 October 1863. The priory or clergy house was completed in spring 1864 and the spire was completed in October 1867. A new parish school was built on the other side of the priory in 1883.
In 1932, the care of the parish passed from the Benedictines to the diocese. During the Baedeker raids of April 1942, the church’s south aisle was damaged and the presbytery destroyed. Both were rebuilt in the 1950s, the latter to a new design (architect for both: Alec French Partnership). In the 1980s, the parish school vacated the Victorian school buildings which were converted into offices, a parish hall and four flats for retired priests.
The building is fully described in the list entry (below). This only requires a few corrections, updates and additions.
Roman Catholic Church. 1861-1863, tower and spire added 1867. By Charles Francis Hansom.
MATERIALS: Rock-faced Bath limestone rubble with freestone dressings, Welsh slate roofs (replaced 1994).
PLAN: Cruciform plan with nave, aisles, transepts, polygonal apse, side chapels, west tower, north-west porch.
EXTERIOR: Major Gothic Revival church in the Decorated style. Three bay west front. Central arched doorway surmounted with relief of the eagle of St John, set within a crocketed gable, flanked by stepped buttresses; above is the five-light traceried west window beneath a hood mould, with trefoil, quatrefoil and mouchette motifs. Three-stage tower with spire and crocketed spirelets to corners (echoing those of Bath Abbey), with consistent elevation to each side. Middle stage with clock (installed in 1868) flanked by two lancets; upper belfry stage with a pair of two-light slatted openings with quatrefoil heads, beneath a triangular carved reliefs. Octagonal spire (based on that of Salisbury Cathedral, and added in 1867) with four bands of diapering; gabled two-light openings to each principal face; finial surmounted with cruciform iron terminal. Baptistery to left, connection to Presbytery to right two light gabled lucarne to four main faces. North front has gable to Baptistery, another to porch and three gables to nave aisles. Each of these has three light window. Large gable to north transept which has circular window containing seven trefoil lights surrounding quatrefoil. Above aisle nave clerestory has three light windows, with strip pilasters between, and corbel table above. South side was similar but plainer than north, excepting that partly obscured by connection to Presbytery. Both Presbytery and north aisle destroyed on 27 April, 1942, and rebuilt to new design by the Alec French Partnership in 1950’s. East end has two three light windows to aisles, and triangular gables with trefoils in roof above. Features not repeated on south side much plainer. Three faces of apse each have three light window in gable, and separated by stepped buttress. Apse roof has triangular trefoil vents and decorative iron cresting to ridge. Church presents very striking silhouette, particularly when viewed across river from east, and adds important vertical interest to lowest part of Bath.
INTERIOR: Five bay nave arcade of polished red Devonshire marble with large foliate capitals of Ancaster stone, fourteen of these columns in all. Rest of internal stonework Bath limestone ashlar. Aisle roofs supported by timber trusses to arcade, each pierced by octofoil. Altarpiece of polished marble and alabaster by Earl of London, as are carvings associated with arcade. Some good joinery, particularly in Sanctuary. Stained glass and metalwork by Hardman of Birmingham, but these received some damage in the bombing of 1942. Ironwork parclose screens are an important survival of the work of John Hardman Powell. Roof supported by timber ribs, and ceilings panelled large squares with central bosses, but this is probably post WWII repair. The Lady Chapel altar was incorporated from previous Roman Catholic Church in Bath, which still survives in Corn Street. Baptistery contains relics of St. Justina within shrine designed by Edward Hansom in 1871. Belfry contains ring of eight bells by Taylors of Loughborough, installed in 1868 and 1878. The fall in levels from west to east made possible the construction of a lower level of rooms at the east end beneath the sacristies, connected with the adjoining clergy house or priory.
HISTORY: Founded as an off-shoot of Downside Abbey by Father Worsley, this Catholic church replaced the inadequate chapel in Corn Street; it was not transferred to Clifton Diocese until 1932. The site was acquired from Earl Manvers and a pleasure ground formerly occupied the space to the west now occupied by a car park. The tower initially finished at the arcaded parapet level: the spire, when added in 1867, transformed the Bath skyline and the entire church forms a notable example of revived Catholic, and Gothic, confidence. Charles Hansom considered it to be one of his best works.
SOURCES: The Builder, 22 February 1862, 132-33; The Buildings of England: Pevsner N: North Somerset and Bristol: London: 1958-: 106; Rory O’Donnell, ‘Church of St John, Bath’ (unpublished notes, 1989); The Bath Chronicle: Images of Bath: Derby: 1994-; Jackson N: Nineteenth Century Bath – Architects and Architecture: Bath: 1991-: 141-147.
Listing NGR: ST7535264587
Architect: Charles Francis Hansom
Original Date: 1863
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*