Building » Birtley – St Joseph

Birtley – St Joseph

Birtley Lane, Birtley, Chester-le-Street DH3

Birtley is one of the oldest Catholic missions in County Durham, dating from the late seventeenth century. From its origins until 1977 it was served by the Benedictines. The present church replaced a building of c1791 and is a stone-built Early English Gothic design of the early 1840s by John Dobson of Newcastle. 

The building was seamlessly extended in 1862 and 1910. Despite unsympathetic post-Vatican II reordering, it retains several furnishings of note. The church is set in a burial ground, raised up in a prominent position at the centre of the Birtley Conservation Area. The contemporary stone-built presbytery is also by Dobson, and his former school building is now the parish centre. The burial ground contains something of a curio: the top of the medieval spire from the parish church of Chester-le-Street. 

In 1696 William Tempest, agent to Lord Lumley of nearby Lumley Castle, gave £300 to the English Benedictines for the provision of a priest to serve the needs of the small number of Catholics in the area. Originally based at Chester-le-Street, the mission was moved to Birtley in 1746 possibly to maintain a low profile in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. 

The congregation grew rapidly from the 1830s, with an influx of Irish Catholic workers associated with the expansion of the local coal industry.  The old chapel was becoming increasingly inadequate and dilapidated. In 1841 Fr James Sheridan took over the mission, and for £400 purchased a parcel of land from the Maddison family on which to build a new church. It seems that A.W.N. Pugin was approached in connection with the new church; he wrote to his patron the Earl of Shrewsbury on 23 February 1842 saying that he was going to build two churches in the north, he visited Birtley on 3 March, and wrote again to Shrewsbury on 9 March, mentioning new churches at Newcastle, Birtley etc. However for whatever reason, the commission failed to materialise and the job went to John Dobson of Newcastle. 

The new church, a Gothic design, opened on 18 August 1843. Although not a Catholic, Dobson had by this time built up an established Catholic clientele, with designs for churches at Ministeracres (1834), Cowpen (1840), Longhorsley (1841) and Felling (1841). The cost was £1000.  Dobson also designed the schools (now the parish centre, on the other side of the road) and the priest’s house.  The altar and altar stone from the old church were salvaged and later taken to Wrekenton for use in the new church built there in 1882-84.

Dobson’s original design was for a single cell building, with the sanctuary in what is now the eastern bay of the nave. In 1862 a new chancel was added (at a cost of £1100); the architect for this has not been established, but since Dunn & Hansom provided the designs for the new high altar installed at this time, it is possible that they also provided the designs for the addition. The new high altar was of sandstone, with three quatrefoils at the front, and dogtoothed ornament around the top and bottom. In 1910 a north aisle and Lady Chapel were added (cost £1500). Again, the identity of the architect has not been established but J. C. Parsons, who designed a church for the Benedictines at Wrekenton (qv) in 1902-03, is a possibility

The church continued to be enriched with new furnishings; in the early 1880s the chancel ceiling was painted with the arms of major Benedictine foundations, from designs supplied by Fr Norbert Sweeney, a monk of Downside Abbey. In 1892 an organ gallery was built at the west end of the nave, replacing a gallery of 1856-57, in anticipation of a new organ. In 1896 the bicentenary of the mission was marked by the provision of a new high altar, and in 1898 new oak benches were installed in the nave. In the early years of the First World War a new baptistery was created in the new north aisle, with a fine font and a stained glass window made by the Bromsgrove Guild.

The parish continued to be served by the Benedictines until 1977, when it was handed over to the diocese. There were several schemes of reordering in the 1970s and 80s. The Dunn & Hansom high altar, which had lain outside the church for decades, was re-erected in the Lady Chapel on the site of the Sacred Heart altar, which in turn was moved to the sanctuary to become the new high altar. Later, in the 1980s, the Dunn and Hansom altar was again dismantled, when the font was also relocated to the Lady Chapel (and the elaborately-carved oak railings around it discarded). Other post-Vatican II losses included many of the stained glass windows, the oak panelling in the sanctuary, the communion rails and the pulpit. Statues of Benedictine and English saints under canopies which formerly lined the walls of the nave and aisles, which had been donated by parish confraternities, were also removed.

The church is in the Early English Gothic style, built of local ashlar stone and with a slate roof. On plan, it consists of a nave of five bays, north aisle, square-ended chancel with Lady Chapel extending to the north and sacristy to the south. There is a projecting gabled entrance porch on the south side of the nave in the second bay (from the west) and a secondary entrance porch in the westernmost bay on the north side. Although the church was built in three phases, the consistent use of the same building stone and lancet Gothic style gives the whole a seamless quality.  The principal elevation is that to the west, prominent in views towards the town centre. This has a stepped arrangement of five lancet openings, alternately blind and glazed, over a high stone plinth.  The gable is surmounted by an octagonal top-knot with blind arcading (originally open, blocked with stone in the 1970s), a steep stone roof and surmounted with a cross. On the south elevation the bay divisions are marked by stepped buttresses, and there is a single lancet window in each bay, each with a hoodmould with enriched foliated stops; however, the eastern bay (originally the sanctuary) is lit by paired lancets. The north elevation (1910) also has buttresses marking the bay divisions, and a range of window types, all Early English in character: a single lancet, paired lancets within plate tracery and stepped triple lancets.  The north chapel is simpler, with single or paired lancets. The largest window is the east window in the sanctuary, with five stepped lancets.

There is an encaustic tile floor to the entrance porch on the south side. Inside, the nave is separated from the north aisle by a wide arcade of plain chamfered arches without capitals.  There is an organ gallery at the west end of the nave, partially enclosed below to provide a lavatory and other facilities. Above the nave is an open hammerbeam timber roof supported on carved stone consoles. The chancel arch too is carried on two enriched carved consoles, bearing representations of St Benedict and St Scholastica, while the chancel itself has a timber boarded wagon roof, painted with the arms of major Benedictine houses, medieval and modern .  The east window is set high in the end wall, and was designed to accommodate below a high altar by Dunn & Hansom. This was later replaced by a timber altar and reredos which were in turn removed in the 1970s (though surviving in part in the Lady Chapel).  A stone piscina survives in the sanctuary. 

The Birtley mission was supported by the Brandling and Humble families, who had coal mining interests in Leeds and Felling.  The mission grew in the late eighteenth century; by 1780 there were 180 Catholics in the Anglican parish of Chester-le-Street, which included Birtley. Soon after this, in 1783, the Benedictines placed Fr Bernard Slater in charge of the mission, and it is likely that it was in his time that the first church was built (public Catholic chapels having been legalised under the Catholic Relief Act of 1791). This was on land given by Charles Joseph Humble and was registered on 29 October 1791; it was described in the Catholic Magazineof March 1832 as ‘a plain unpresuming edifice’.  Its site is not known, but Scott suggests that it was on part of or near that of the present church.

Fixtures and fittings

The forward altar replaced the high altar in 1965, when the latter was (according to Scott) removed and taken to the parish chapel of ease of St Benet at Ouston (which closed in 2001; the fate of the altar has not been established). The present altar dates from 1906 and was the gift of the Swinburne family, brickyard owners and major benefactors to the parish. It originally stood in the Lady Chapel below the Sacred Heart window. It is of white marble and alabaster and has a depiction of the Sacred Heart in the central panel.  

The Lady Chapel has become something of a repository for discarded liturgical furnishings. These include a painted (on metal) panel of the Last Supper (unfixed) and two wall-mounted carved wooden panels of the Annunciation and the Nativity, from the high altar introduced in 1896 and removed to Ouston in 1965. Also, two large paintings of Our Lady, oil on canvas, one Arts and Crafts in style and the other a copy of an Italian Renaissance painting, in elaborate gilt frames, now placed against the wall. These formed part of the reredos of an altar of 1923, erected in memory of John Cuthbert Blythe.

The font of 1915  was given in memory of members of the Swinburne family. It was originally located in the north aisle, by the Davies window and enclosed by carved oak railings, and was moved (minus the railings) to its present location in the north chapel near the sanctuary in the 1970s. The font is beautifully carved in fine limestone, with low relief panels of sacred emblems on each of the eight sides. The style is in the manner of Eric Gill, but the piece is presumably a product of the Bromsgrove Guild.

The oak pews of the nave have linenfold panels in the ends; they date from 1898 (there are simpler pews in the north aisle).

 At the east end of the north aisle, a fine carved wooden statue of Our Lady, by the Bromsgrove Guild for Fr Edward Morrall, 1917; also a statue of St Joseph,  which originally stood at the side of the high altar.

 The organ (1890s) was originally situated at the northern end of the gallery, and was probably a gift of the Swinburnes (one of whom was organist at St Andrew’s, the Dominican church in Newcastle). In the 1970s it was divided in two by Nicholson’s of Newcastle to allow more light into the gallery from the west lancets. In the process, the original spotted metal pipes were replaced by imitations.

The Stations of the Cross date from c1890 and were given by the executor of Miss Anne Humble; they originally had ornate wooden frames, removed in the 1960s.

In the Lady Chapel, marble war memorial tablets, originally attached to the base of a pieta by Wall of Cheltenham, 1918 (which was placed outside the church in the 1970s near the Lourdes grotto, and has since crumbled away). 


Much of the stained glass was removed from the church in post-Vatican II reordering, to create a lighter interior. This included glass dating from the 1840s, of which survive the roundels representing Benedictine saints set into what are now clear diamond quarries in the windows of the nave and north aisle. However the glass in the five-light east window survives, depicting the Crucifixion and signed by Atkinson of Newcastle. This was given by Miss Anne Humble to mark the diamond jubilee of the church.   Other glass of note:

  • In the western bay of the north aisle, in the former baptistery area, the Baptism of Our Lord, a fine design by Archibald John Davies (1877-1953) of the Bromsgrove Guild, given in 1915 in memory of two members of the Blythe family (figure 2);

  • In the Lady Chapel, on the east side, the three-light Sacred Heart window, signed by Hardman, to Fr Benedict Scannell, who died in 1906; a lancet with St Edward the Confessor (the centre light of a window formerly in the north aisle), to Edward Morrall OSB, who died in 1930; and two windows of Art Nouveau character given by members of the Blythe family. 

Heritage Details

Architect: John Dobson

Original Date: 1843

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed