Building » Blyth – Our Lady and St Wilfrid

Blyth – Our Lady and St Wilfrid

Waterloo Road, Blyth, Northumberland NE24

A large, but well massed church built for the Benedictines from designs by A.M. Dunn. The large expanse of continuous roof creates a presence in the townscape (and is nicely balanced by the tall URC spire opposite). The interior has good glass and although the roof is visually weak, the fully detailed east and west end arrangements give it some grandeur. Recent changes have re-established some of the c.1900 character of the sanctuary.

The port of Blyth was founded in the eighteenth century but only rose to prominence with the development of the nearby coal mining in the mid nineteenth century. The first Catholic mission was built at Cowpen in 1840 by the Sidney family of Cowpen Hall and it was a Miss Sidney who provided most of the £7000 it cost to build Our Lady and St Wilfrid’s, with its presbytery, school and teacher’s house. Archibald Dunn was the architect, the foundation stone was laid by Fr Allanson of Swinburne on 10 October 1860 and although Masses commenced in 1861, it was only formally opened by Bishop Hogarth on 22 October 1862. Bishop Lindsay consecrated the church on 20 October 1981. The school and house were built 1874-75, so filling this rectangular site just to the west of the town centre. The presbytery was converted for use as a convent for the teaching Sisters of Mercy and then a Youth Mission after 1970. 

The Benedictines of Douai supplied the parish priests until 1970, hence the large presbytery and the use of the term ‘cloister’ for the long link to the church along the large courtyard to the east of the church. The second Abbot of Douai, Rt Rev Thomas Ambrose was priest here 1905-44 and was buried at Cowpen (now served from Blyth, a reversal of the nineteenth century position). The parish erected a wooden memorial altar to him under the west gallery, which now fills the original south side baptistery.

A new altar with a simpler reredos than now exists was installed in 1878; it cost £400 and was by Charles Walker. That altar still survives, but the present winged stone reredos in a late Gothic style and the apse arcading with statuary is part of the late nineteenth century decoration of the sanctuary. The stencilling and wall paintings carried out by Mr A. Smithson of Blyth for £150 were obliterated in the 1960s. The west gallery in similar late Gothic style was also installed in 1899, as were the pulpit and the Stations of the Cross.  A wooden shrine incorporating a pietà was erected on the north nave wall as a First World War memorial and moved to the southwest in the 1981 reordering. This was by Jack Lynn and created the present sanctuary platform, removed the altar rails, installed a new altar and lectern and moved the 1861 font next to the altar. The central block of the nave pews was divided to create a central aisle.

A Millennium project saw three new stained glass windows installed, including the south transept ‘rose’ window, which was rebuilt in the 1990s to a new six ‘petal’ form. The previous tracery had failed, having been rebuilt after World War II bomb damage to a different form to Dunn’s original ten-petal design.

In 2008 John Curtis of Napper Architects replaced the 1981 Lynn altar with the 1899 hexagonal stone pulpit (adding two panels) and re-sited the font to a new position on an inscribed circular stone floor to the north of the sanctuary. Following the recent closure of the large United Reformed Church on the opposite side of the road, the presbytery link (sometimes called the ‘cloister’) has been used by that congregation. 

Our Lady and St Wilfrid’s church was built 1860-61 by Archibald M. Dunn in a free fourteenth century style, using rock-faced local stone with ashlar dressings and a Welsh slate roof. An unaisled, five-bay nave with an unbroken roof ridge that continues into the polygonal east end with a gable raised over the east window. A two-storey south transeptal chapel emerges to the eastern bay of the nave, with a large eastern stair turret topped by an octagonal ashlar bell turret and a long single storey passage linking the church to the large brick presbytery to the southeast.

The church building is well described in the July 1987 list description (below), but requires some updating and additions.

The southwest ‘porch-like sacristy’ is the original baptistery, now a chapel for private prayer and the link building has never been open as the word ‘cloister’ implies. The south ‘transept’ is a choir gallery (possibly used by the Benedictines resident in the presbytery?) above the confessional and sacristy and has never been used as a chapel.

The similar beam on the north side suggests that a northern transeptal chapel was intended to be built. The ‘bell-turret’ is of stone and ‘tegulated’ presumably refers to the indents in alternative courses of the spirelet.

The canted west gallery was inserted in 1899 and the ‘Lady Chapel’ is the Abbot Bamford memorial altar, now in the former baptistery. The 1899 pulpit is now the freestanding altar, the Stations were installed in 1899, the c.1900 west window is indeed of high quality. It cannot be by Dunn as Fr Quinn suggests, as it was not inserted until well after his death. The 2000 windows are by David Cowan (Our Lady of Lourdes, southwest nave), Alan Davis (St Benet Biscop, northeast nave) and Cate Wilkinson (Christ the Light of the World, ‘rose’). Other windows are by Dobbelaere of Bruges c.1899 (St Catherine, north nave and St Boniface, south nave) and Bennett of Newcastle c.1862 (three apse windows). 

LIST DESCRIPTION:

Catholic Church, 1862 by A.M. Dunn. Rock-faced stone with ashlar dressings; mixed Lakeland and Welsh slate roof. Unaisled, 6 bays with polygonal apse; south-east bell turret, south transept and south-west sacristy. Cloister linking transept with presbytery. Free C14 style. Chamfered plinth, stepped buttresses, hollow-chamfered eaves cornice, with grotesque heads to rainwater pipes. Coped gables with moulded kneelers and finial crosses. West end shows double diagonally-boarded doors in moulded arch with 2 orders of colonnettes, flanked by small lancets; stepped group of three 2-light windows above; hoodmoulds with head stops. North and south walls with trefoiled lancets; porch-like sacristy on south has 2-light window; transept has two 2-light windows with large wheel window above and cusped niche in gable. Lower cloister to east has two 2-light windows. Apse has 3-light east window, with cusped niche over, in slightly-projecting gable end; 2-light windows to east side. Extruded turret has stair loops and octagonal upper section with trefoil panels and trefoil-headed niches under gabled hoods with richly-carved beast stops; Short tegulated stone spire.

Interior: Unbroken apsidal-ended space, plastered. South transept is vestry with gallery over. Western screen and jettied canted gallery with carving. Lady Chapel with carved stone reredos below gallery on south side. Arcaded apse with figures of saints in trefoiled carved panels with marble shafts between. Canted reredos with central pinnacle in the form of a steeple flanked by crocketed niches with sculptured groups. Pinnacled sides canted forward with figures of saints under canopies at either end. Richly-carved pulpit with figures of saints and group of Christ preaching. Stations of the Cross oil on canvas in Gothic wood panels. Large west window: Adoration of the Lamb, asymmetrical composition of high quality.

The cloister linked the church to buildings on the east, now altered and not of special interest, which originally housed a small community of Benedictine monks.

Heritage Details

Architect: A.M. Dunn

Original Date: 1860

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: II