Building » Blackheath – Our Lady Help of Christians

Blackheath – Our Lady Help of Christians

Cresswell Park, Blackheath Village, London SE3

A late Gothic Revival church, of 1890-1891 by A. E. Purdie. It replaced an orphanage chapel which had moved to the site in 1870 and which led to the establishment of the Blackheath mission in 1873. The church is notable for its complete set of fine stained glass windows by John Hardman & Co. The church makes a positive contribution to the Blackheath Park Conservation Area.

Before his conversion, the Very Rev. Canon Dr William Gowan Todd (1820–1877) had been an Anglican clergyman in Dublin. Following his ordination as a Catholic priest he was appointed to the mission at Chislehurst, where he founded the St Mary’s Orphanage for Boys in the 1850s. This was intended for middle class boys, as he found that there were already plenty of institutions looking after poorer children. In 1860, he moved the orphanage to larger premises, 70 Croom’s Hill in Greenwich, near the new church of Our Ladye Star of the Sea.

In 1870 there was reportedly a quarrel between Fr Todd and Canon North, the priest at Greenwich, who required the orphanage building for a convent. Fr Todd moved with the orphanage to Park House in Blackheath, a large house on the Cator Estate. It had been built in 1787 by East India Company captain Thomas Larkin, using materials salvaged from the burnt-down Wricklemarsh  House, built in c.1725 by John James for Sir Gregory Page. (Cresswell Park is named after Francis Cresswell who took over Larkin’s lease of Park House in 1806.)

Fr Todd built a small chapel on the site of the present St Mary’s Hall, and a two- storey school with refectory and playroom behind. The Bishop of Southwark gave permission for the use of the chapel by orphans and staf  only;  however, local Catholic residents preferred to go to Mass there as well, rather than walk to Greenwich. Fr Todd appealed directly to Rome and received permission to say Mass also for patrons and supporters of the orphanage – which he interpreted to include anyone who contributed to the collection. Thus, the mission at Blackheath was established with Fr Todd as its first priest. (It was formally set up by Bishop Danell in 1873.) Canon North complained unsuccessfully to the Bishop; however, in 1873, the two men were reconciled.

After Fr Todd’s death in 1877 he was succeeded by Fr Joseph Wright, an old boy of the orphanage. The third mission priest was Fr Thomas Ford, whose curates included Fr (later Canon) Francis J. Sheehan (1859–1935), and Fr Francis Bourne (1886–1935), later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. In 1888 Fr Sheehan became mission priest (until 1931) and it was during his incumbency that the church was built. Charles Butler of Lee Terrace was unsuccessfully looking for a suitable freehold site in 1889–1890, eventually deciding to fund a building on the leasehold site adjacent to the orphanage. (Butler left an endowment for purchasing the freehold later on; this became possible when the trustees of the Cator Estate were in financial difficulties.)

The church was built between 1890 and 1891. The architect was Alfred Edward Purdie (1843–1920), the clerk of works was C. Healy, and the builders were Messrs Smith & Son, of Norwood. Excluding the fittings, the cost was £4,147. The sculptor was D. N. Smith of Clapham. The tower clock and chiming arrangements were by Gillett & Johnson of Croydon; the heating system by Metcalfe & Dilworth, engineers, of Preston. On 1 July 1891 the church was opened by Bishop Butt. In 1894 the side altars were consecrated by the Bishop. During the 1890s and 1900s stained glass windows by John Hardman & Co of Birmingham were installed in every window of the church, many commemorating members of the Butler family. (John Hardman Powell (1827–1895), the firm’s chief designer, lived at 12 Lee Road, Blackheath, from the mid-1880s to his death in 1895 in order to superintend the firm’s London office.) The old orphanage chapel was converted into a church hall, known as St Mary’s Hall. Apparently both the font and the reredos today in the Sacred Heart Chapel were transferred from the old chapel.

On 3 September 1906 the church was consecrated by Bishop Amigo. In 1913 another member of the Butler family, Miss Catherine Butler, endowed the church with £10,000. In 1919 St Joseph’s Academy moved to Lee Terrace, Blackheath. In 1922 the Chigwell Sisters bought the Cedars, a large mansion nearby, which by the 1930s was known as St Theresa’s Convent (today Sacred Heart Convent). The convent later opened St Theresa’s secondary school and Our Lady of Lourdes primary school. In 1935 a large stone crucifix was erected to the west of the church, commemorating the Fr Sheehan’s golden jubilee and the diamond jubilee of the parish.

During the Second World War an oil bomb destroyed St Mary’s Hall, while the church and other buildings suffered only minor damage. In 1955 the Hall was rebuilt and formally opened on 22 December. In the 1960s the basement of Park House was converted into offices for the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council Centre. Fr Charles Jones had the two bells in the tower repaired and they were blessed by Archbishop Cowderoy, who himself had been baptised at Blackheath in 1914.

From 1965 to 1969 Mgr Alan Clark was the parish priest, until he was elevated to Titular Bishop of Elmham in the Diocese of Northampton (and later Bishop of East Anglia). His successor, Mgr Charles Henderson, Chancellor and Vicar General of the Diocese (later Auxiliary Bishop of Southwark), undertook urgent repairs to the church, organ and other property. The orphanage had closed some years previously and in the early 1970s its buildings were converted to offices.

In the 1970s the Sacred Heart Convent erected a new building with attached chapel to the east of the Cedars. As part of the alterations and building work, a timber and glass lobby became redundant and was offered to the church at Blackheath where it was subsequently installed at the west end. In 1978 an organ built in Germany was installed on the loft. (A description published in the Tablet of 27 June 1891 mentions an organ chamber; however, it is not clear where this was located.)

In the early 1990s the sanctuary of the church was slightly reordered, including the raising of its floor, the laying of parquet and the addition of a new forward altar, ambo and presidential chair. Possibly during this reordering, the wrought iron rails and gates to the chapels were removed, and the font moved here from the baptistery. In the late 1990s with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, the church roof was renewed with additional insulation which slightly raised the roof height. In 2006 planning permission was received for a small single-storey parish hall just to the south of the side door. It was opened in about 2008; the architects were Austin Winkley & Associates. In 2007 St Matthew’s Academy was opened in a new building in St Joseph’s Vale, after the closure and amalgamation of Our Lady of Lourdes primary school and St Joseph’s Academy.


The list entry (below) is fairly brief. The church of Our Lady Help of Christians was built in 1890–1891 by the architect A. E. Purdie. The style is Early English Gothic. Faced in Kentish ragstone with dressings in Monks Park stone, the structure is apparently built in brick. It is roofed in slate. The church has a longitudinal plan, of a four bay nave with pitched roof and lean-to aisles, with a chancel with polygonal apse flanked by straight-ended side chapels, a sacristy at the southeast and an octagonal former baptistery at the southwest corner. Two confessionals project out from the south aisle’s outer wall. The main entrance is at the west, with a side entrance at the south. A modern glass roof covers the short passage between the south entrance and the recent parish hall opposite.

The west front’s central bay has a five-light traceried window below a small loop window under the gable. A shallow lean-to contains a gabled entrance door and two flanking windows. To the left (north) is the slim tower on a square plan, with a clock face to the north and a statue of Our Lady in a niche to the west. Above, the tower becomes octagonal, with louvre boards in round-headed twin openings just below the short octagonal spire. The west fronts of the aisles have a single-light window each.

Inside is the glazed timber lobby with a spiral staircase to the organ loft above, transferred to the church from the Sacred Heart Convent in the 1970s. The windows on either side of the west door show Blessed (now Saint) John Fisher and Blessed John Forrest. Like all the stained glass in the church, they are by John Hardman & Co, of Birmingham. Inside the lobby is a small memorial plaque to the Very Rev. Canon Dr William Gowan Todd. On the loft above, the organ is placed against the north wall, leaving the west window unobstructed. It shows Our Lady surrounded by child saints, and the Trinity above. An inscription quotes Matthew 18, 5: ‘He that shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me’, a theme suitable for a church with attached orphanage.

The nave has four bays, with an arcade of pointed arches on columns with foliage capitals. Each bay has three clerestorey windows consisting of a single light with a trefoil above each, and glazed with clear glass. The nave has a scissor-beam roof of pitch pine. The floor is of woodblock paving, described in the Tablet of 27 June 1891 as ‘Duffy’s wood block paving’. The seating consists of simple dark timber benches.

The disused original pulpit stands at the west end of the north aisle. Octagonal in form, it has carved panels between marble colonnettes, showing the symbols of the Four Evangelists. The stained glass windows in the north aisle depict from west to east: St Dorothy; the Presentation in the Temple (in memory of Charles Butler, d.1895); the Nativity (in memory of Surgeon Major Ratton, d.1865); the Visitation (in memory of Harriet Bache, d.1889); and the Annunciation (in memory of Marie A. Ratton, d.1890). The Stations of the Cross resemble the work of Mayer of Munich and are painted on metal in oak frames.

The two-bay St Joseph’s Chapel at the east end of the aisle has a stone altar with a carved reredos showing the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt in gabled niches. They are divided by small marble columns topped by two angels and a statue of St Joseph. The windows behind depict Joseph’s dream and the Virgin’s marriage. The two windows in the north wall of the chapel are of Daniel in the Lions’ Den (in memory of Charlotte (d. 1899) and Daniel Sheehan (d.1906), and St Pancras and St Lawrence (in memory of Arthur Butler, d.1890). The arches into both chapels have large corbels, carved with foliage and faces, allegedly of workmen involved in building the church. The easternmost arches between the chapels and the chancel have carved oak screens.

The sanctuary level has been raised one step to the level of the former lowest step of the high altar. The latter was carved by the sculptor D. N. Smith of Clapham who was responsible for all the sculptural work in the church. The impressive high altar has a large carved and pinnacled stone reredos depicting the Annunciation and the Assumption, flanked by two angels in niches. The centre niche houses the monstrance throne. (Behind the high altar curved steps lead up to a platform to access the latter.) The tabernacle is of marble, and the frontal has two angels and the Agnus Dei. To the left is an aumbry, to the right a piscina. The central window behind the high altar shows Christ surrounded by children (‘Let the little children come to me’), flanked by two windows with unidentified saints. Apart from the high altar, most of the furnishings are modern and date from the reordering of the 1990s, including the stone forward altar, the pulpit with stone base and timber desk, and the timber lectern and chair. In front of the lateral oak screens are nineteenth-century choir stalls. Below the arch to the southeast chapel is the large octagonal font on a central stem surrounded by marble columns.

The southeast chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart has a large gilded and painted timber reredos, apparently from the original orphanage chapel. Above the tabernacle stands a statue of the Sacred Heart in a canopied niche, in front of a painted representation of the Sacred Heart, suggesting that the statue was a later addition. The upper register has painted saints in front of a gilded background, including (left to right): SS. Gertrude, Francis, Paul, Peter, Virgin and Child, George, John and Edith. Below are panels painted with floral motifs in gold. The frontal shows the four Doctors of the Church, on either side of Christ. The window in this chapel consists of three trefoils to the east, and one quatrefoil to the west, none of which have stained glass, only some coloured glass. There is a disused door to the sacristy beside which hangs a large crucifix which apparently used to hang in the chancel arch.

In the south aisle there is another door to the large, two-room sacristy. The windows in the aisle include a depiction of the Holy Family (in memory of Henry Joseph Butler (d. 1890) and Clare Mary Butler (d. 1896)) and Christ among the Doctors (in memory of Mary Ratton (d. 1871)). There are doors to two confessionals, projecting beyond the outer south wall. The south porch has stained glass windows of St John the Evangelist and St Chad. The window at the west end of the south aisle shows St Francis receiving the stigmata (in memory of Ellen Mary Butler, d.1896).

The former baptistery with its octagonal dome is now used as a shrine to Our Lady, with a statue of the Madonna and Child. Five stained glass windows reflect the original baptismal theme (left to right): Noah and the Ark; Noah giving thanks after the Flood; the Baptism of Christ; Moses striking the rock; and Moses and the Crossing of the Red Sea.

List description


1891 by A E Purdie. Nave, aisles, apsidal chancel. North aisle extension as chapel, South aisle extension as organ chamber. Early English style with stiff-leaf capitals and stiff-leaf corbels to chancel arch. 4-bay nave, 2-bay chancel. Elaborate carved reredos. Marble columns to altar. Scissor-truss roof. Small, octagonal baptistery at South-west angle. Outside, coursed rubble masonry with freestone dressings. High pitched, slated roof. Diagonal buttresses at angles and stepped buttresses at junction of aisles and chapels. Bell turret at north-west angle of nave.

Heritage Details

Architect: A. E. Purdie

Original Date: 1890

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II