Building » Blackheath – Our Lady Help of Christians

Blackheath – Our Lady Help of Christians

Cresswell Park, Blackheath Village, London SE3

A typical 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  staff  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 Monsignor Alan Clark D.D. 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, Monsignor 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.

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: II