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 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 Magazine of March 1832 as ‘a plain unpresuming edifice’. Its site is not known, but Geoffrey Scott (in his brief history of the mission) suggests that it was on part of or near that of the present church.
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 £1,000. 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 £1,100); 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 £1,500). 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 1856-7, 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 & 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 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).
STAINED GLASS: 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:
List description (the church, presbytery, boundary wall and gate piers were listed in 2016, following Taking Stock)
Summary: Roman Catholic Church, c1840 by John Dobson, extended in 1862 and again in 1910. Early English Gothic Revival design. The presbytery is of the same date, also by John Dobson, but the north-east extension and its link are excluded from the listing. The stone wall with gate piers to the south and south-west are included.
Reasons for Designation: The Roman Catholic Church of St Joseph of c1840, completed in 1843, with later additions of 1862 and 1910, also its presbytery and enclosing wall, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Date: completed in 1843, this is a relatively early Catholic church conceived and constructed well before the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850, after which Catholic church building proliferated; * Architectural interest: set in a prominent elevated location within the town, the church has a pleasing Early English Gothic design and a prominent octagonal mock belfry, which is complemented by the contemporary presbytery and enclosing wall; * Fixtures and fittings: despite mid-C20 reorganisation, a number of notable fixtures and fittings are retained including the white marble and alabaster forward altar, the fine limestone octagonal font and a full complement of later-C19 linen fold oak benches; * Architect: John Dobson was one of the foremost C19 architects, producing c400 works across a range of building types, and as a documented example of his work for the Catholic church it is of considerable interest; * Extensions: the mid-C19 and early C20 additions are constructed in the same stone and lancet Gothic style and are seamless in quality and execution; * Historic interest: as the church of one of the oldest Catholic missions (Benedictine) in County Durham established in the late C17; * Group value: taken together the church and presbytery form a functional and spatial grouping, which is enhanced by the survival of a contemporary, stepped enclosing wall with ornate stone pillars.
History: The Benedictine Mission was established in the area in the late C17, making this one of the oldest Catholic missions in County Durham. By the 1830s the existing church of c1791 was becoming too small to deal with the growing industrial population, and plans were being made for a new, larger church. In 1841 a plot of land was purchased for £400 and A W N Pugin was approached; although letters from Pugin confirm his intention to design a new church at Birtley, this was not realised and the commission ultimately went to John Dobson of Newcastle. John Dobson was a leading architect of his period and the most eminent in the North East of England. He produced c400 works across a range of building types and was a pioneer of the Gothic revival in the North-East. He established a substantial ecclesiastical practice, for all denominations, and in this context many of his designs were built to a limited budget in the growing urban and industrial areas of the North-East and as such had to be fairly plain and functional. The original church designed by Dobson, comprising a single cell building with a sanctuary, was constructed in the early 1840s at a cost of £1,000 and opened on 18 August 1843. Dobson also designed an adjacent detached presbytery, and schools on a site across the main road. In 1862, a new chancel was added at a cost of £1,100; although the architect of this extension has not been established, it is considered to have possibly been Dunn and Hansom, who designed the new high altar installed at the same time. Probably at the same time, the existing presbytery was linked to the new chancel by a low range, and by the end of the C19 the presbytery had been extended to the north-east. In 1910 a N aisle and a Lady Chapel were added at a cost of £1,500; the architect is again uncertain, but J C Parsons is a possibility. The church continued to be enriched with new furnishings: in the 1880s the chancel ceiling was painted with the arms of major Benedictine foundations from designs supplied by Fr Norbert Sweeney; in 1892 in anticipation of a new organ, a replacement organ gallery was erected at the west end of the nave; in 1896 a new high altar was installed, in 1898 new oak benches were added to the nave, and in c1915 a new baptistery was created in the new north aisle with a font and stained glass window by the Bromsgrove Guild. The high altar had been removed from the sanctuary in the mid-C20 but reordering in the 1970s and 1980s led to the re-siting of the 1906 Sacred Heart altar to the sanctuary. The organ was also divided into two in order to allow more light into the gallery, and its metal pipes were replaced with imitations. In the later 1980s the font was relocated to the Lady Chapel and the oak railings that formally surrounded it were discarded. Many of the stained glass windows including those of the 1840s, the oak panelling in the sanctuary, the communion rails, the pulpit and statues were also lost.
Details: Roman Catholic church, c1840 by John Dobson, extended in 1862 and again in 1910. Early English Gothic Revival design. Presbytery of same date, also by John Dobson but the north-east extension and its link are excluded from the listing. There is a stone wall with gate piers to the south and south-west. MATERIALS: local sandstone ashlar and Welsh slate roofs. PLAN: a five-bay nave with a north aisle, a square-ended chancel with a north chapel and a sacristy to the south. There is a projecting south porch and a secondary porch on the north side. A presbytery to the east is linked to the chancel by a low range, and to the west there is a large graveyard. The church and presbytery are bounded to the south by a stone wall with entrances which continues around the south-west side of the graveyard.
CHURCH: situated in prominent location, set within a former graveyard overlooking the centre of Birtley. Windows are all pointed-arched Early English forms, roofs are pitched and there is a low plinth and continuous sill band to most elevations. The rectangular chancel has angle buttresses and is surmounted by a cross finial, and the large east window has five stepped lancet lights. Attached to the south side of the chancel there is a sacristy with paired lancets and a chimney, extended to the west by a small single-storey, flat-roofed bay. The nave has five bays and each gable is surmounted by a cross finial. On the south side the bays are demarcated by stepped buttresses, with a single lancet to each bay with hoodmoulds and enriched foliate stops; the easternmost bay (formerly the sanctuary) is lit by a pair of lancets with foliate and head stops, and there are similar stone heads adorning the buttress top to the end of the nave. The main entrance at the west end of the nave has a gabled porch detailed with triangular water tables with roll moulded tops; the moulded, pointed arched entrance has engaged columns and a hoodmould with circular stops engraved with crosses. The north aisle displays a variety of window styles, all Early English in character: a single lancet, two-light plate tracery windows and stepped triple lancet lights, all with hoodmoulds and plain, square stops. A secondary entrance within a gabled porch is in the westernmost bay. The projecting north chapel has single or paired lancets and a coped gable. The gabled west end forms the principal elevation facing the town and is surmounted by a prominent octagonal mock belfry with arcading, now blocked with stone, and a conical stone roof. The west window is of five stepped lancets, alternately blind and glazed.
PRESBYTERY: facing south attached to the south-east corner of the chancel by a low linking block. It has two storeys and three bays under steep pitched roofs of slate with tall stone chimney stacks, a plinth and prominent water tables. The central entrance bay has a six-panel door with paired over lights and flanking margin lights, all with stained and leaded glass depicting crosses, beneath a stepped hoodmould with bar stops. The first floor has a gabled half dormer stone cross window. The right bay is a gabled cross wing with a six-light mullion and transom window to the ground floor and stained glass depicting shields/coats of arms to the lower parts and a stone cross window above, both with hood moulds and bar stops, and a stone finial to the apex. The right return is largely blind. The left bay is single-storey with a six-light mullion and transom window to its gabled west elevation and a cross finial to the apex. The later north-east extension to the presbytery is a two bay, two storey block with a pitched roof, linked to the original building by a two-storey linking block, both of very plain character and are not listed.
CHURCH: the walls throughout are plainly painted plaster with exposed ashlar stonework to the windows and arcade. The chancel has a timber boarded wagon roof painted with the arms of major Benedictine houses, medieval and modern. A five-light stained glass east window depicting the Crucifixion is set high up to accommodate the high altar (removed). There is a stone piscina to the sanctuary and a forward altar installed in 1906 of white marble and alabaster with a depiction of the Sacred Heart. The chancel arch is carried on enriched carved stone consoles bearing representations of St Benedict and St Scholastica. The north chapel contains an octagonal font of 1915 carved in fine limestone with low relief panels of sacred emblems on each of its sides. Two wall-mounted carved wooden panels of the Annunciation and the Nativity, removed from the discarded high altar of 1896, are affixed to the north wall. There is also a three-light Sacred Heart stained glass window by Hardman given in 1906, a lancet with St Edward the Confessor given in 1930 and two windows of Art Nouveau character; war memorial tablets are also affixed to the east wall. The nave is separated from the north aisle by a wide arcade of plain chamfered arches without capitals, and above is a timber open hammer-beam roof supported on carved stone consoles, set higher on the north side to accommodate the aisle arcade. The body of the nave is filled with oak benches of 1898, with boarded backs and linen fold end panels and more ornate bench fronts with Gothic arcading. The windows of the nave and north aisle retain original stained glass roundels depicting Benedictine saints set into what are now clear diamond quarries; the nave windows have plaster hoodmoulds and head stops. The north aisle has a flat, boarded ceiling and simple open-backed benches; the westernmost bay contains a stained glass window of the Baptism of our Lord by Archibald John Davies given in 1915 and double doors give access to the secondary entrance. The west gallery, reached by an ornate, metal spiral staircase, retains the central part of a Gothic arcaded timber front, flanked by the divided organ. The space below the gallery is partially enclosed below to provide a WC and stores. The south porch has a shoulder-arched entrance fitted with a simple boarded door, an encaustic tiled floor, wainscoting and a stone Holy Water stoup.
PRESBYTERY: this retains its original plan and has mostly six-panel doors throughout. It has a rectangular plaster stair arch and a dog-leg staircase; the latter has an ornate beaded newel post and ramped handrail, with a timber, pierced pointed-arched balustrade also with quatrefoils and circles. Double doors leading from the entrance vestibule have stained glass to the windows with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega. Original fireplaces have been removed and replaced with C20 examples.
SUBSIDIARY ITEMS: south of the church and presbytery there is a stone wall with double-chamfered stone copings. An entrance to the church is flanked by tall stone pillars surmounted by gabled caps with inset trefoils and trefoil roll moulding to the ridge and an entrance to the presbytery is flanked by tall narrow pillars with gableted caps. The wall extends west and steps around the churchyard and here it has simple triangular coping stones. A churchyard entrance has square squat pillars with shallow pyramidal caps. All of these features contribute to the special interest of the church and are included in the listing.
Pursuant to S.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 it is declared the inset red letter box to the south boundary wall is not of special architectural or historic interest.
This List entry has been amended to add the source for War Memorials Online. This source was not used in the compilation of this List entry but is added here as a guide for further reading, 16 August 2017.
Websites: T. E. Faulkner, ‘Dobson, John (1787–1865), accessed 16 February 2016 from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/7717, accessed 16 Feb 2016]; War Memorials Online, accessed 16 August 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/249223; War Memorials Online, accessed 16 August 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/249095
Other: Churches in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle: An Architectural and Historical Review; AHP, 2012.
Architect: John Dobson
Original Date: 1843
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II