Building » Borough – Precious Blood

Borough – Precious Blood

O’Meara Street, London SE1

A handsome essay in neo-Romanesque by F.A. Walters, achieving grandeur in the face of economy. The church has some notable furnishings. The contemporary presbytery is also a building of note.

Until the building of the present church, the largely Irish and Italian Catholic population of the Borough area was served by the Cathedral and Our Lady, Melior Street (London Bridge). The site of the present church was bought from the Anglican Diocese of Winchester in 1890, for £4000. The church was built in 1891-92 from designs by F A Walters, and the contractor was James Smith & Sons of Norwood. The church was built cheaply, this being a very poor parish, but does not lack in gravitas or scale. Its architect described it as ‘of an extremely simple style of Romanesque or Norman, somewhat like the earlier portions of the abbey of St Albans’ (quoted in Evinson, 206). Church and presbytery were built at the same time, along with clergy and choir sacristies, for a total contract sum of £7000. The completed church was opened on 6 June 1892. Its chief internal furnishing was the giant painted timber baldacchino over the stone high altar, modelled on the baldacchini in the Roman basilican  churches of  San  Lorenzo  fuori  le  Mura  and  San  Giorgio  in  Velabro.  It appears that this was a design which Walters had prepared earlier for his church at Mitcham (qv). Other early furnishings include the Calvary (1893, photo bottom right) and the large painted terracotta Stations of the Cross, by the German sculptor Matthias Zens (1839-1921), installed in 1894. Also in the 1890s the railway line running close by the north side of the church was widened, bringing it even closer to the church.

Later developments:

•     In 1909 an organ was donated

•     In 1956 two bells were cast by the Whitechapel bell foundry to hang in the western bell cotes, in memory of Fr Carey, parish priest from 1939-55

•     In  1958  a  shrine  to  Our  Lady  of  Lourdes  was  erected  outside  the  main entrance of the church

•     In 1962 the church interior was decorated and statues of Our Lady and St Joseph introduced on either side of the high altar

•     In   1969   the   church   was   further   redecorated   after   a   small   fire;   two confessionals were introduced at the same time.

In 1981 the Bishop invited the Society of the Divine Saviour (Salvatorians) to take over the running of the parish; this they continue to do, with the house also acting as lodgings for their students for the priesthood.

A large, urban brick church, built economically in London stock brick in the neo- Romanesque style often favoured by its architect, F.A. Walters. On plan it consists of a  wide  nave  with  narrow  circulation  aisles,  western  gallery  and  baptistery  (now vestry) and apsed sanctuary with side transepts. The sacristies give off the church to the rear, and interconnect with the presbytery beyond (which has a separate main entrance in Redcross Way).

Outside the church, the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes, dating from 1958, should be noted. The Sicilian marble figure of Our Lady is set upon a rubble plinth of Dartmoor stone, and within an apse of knapped Norfolk flint. She is placed within an elaborate Baroque  stone  surround,  with  rustication,  scrolls  and  a  pediment  broken  by keystones, or continuation of the rustication. It provides a colourful and devotional element in the street scene.

The west front of the church, or westwerk, faces onto O’Meara Street. It has a central round arched doorway with circular window above. The circular window has iron glazing subdivisions, forming a cross and circles and incorporating some coloured glass. Above this is a gable containing a pair of round arched windows within a round arched opening. This central bay is flanked by corner bays rising as tall bellcotes, each containing a Whitechapel bell of 1956, with gabled tops. The flat plane of the elevation is articulated by pilaster strips defining the central and corner bays.

The central entrance leads into a small brick vestibule with three arched recesses on each side, each with what appear to be later doorways in the centre arch (concrete lintels). The main doors in the middle are paired, with attractive iron strapwork hinges and a segmental arched opening with herringbone brickwork over. This leads into the main body of the church, which is entirely faced in painted brick. At the west end of the nave is a gallery, a solid masonry structure with three round-arched openings giving onto the nave, supported on square piers. Further arched openings lead off at the southwest corner to the stair leading up to the large gallery (built to accommodate 150 people) and at the northwest corner into the former baptistery, originally with steps down to a lower floor, now levelled to form a clergy vestry.

The arcuated treatment continues around the narrow circulation aisles, with tall round-arched arcades towards the nave and lower, narrower arches punctuating the buttress-like piers which mark the bay divisions at this level. The walls of the aisles are alternately blind and lit by two small round-headed windows. The nave is of seven bays, two of which are incorporated in the western gallery accommodation.   The bays are divided on the nave side vertically by pilaster strips, and horizontally (as far as the  gallery)  by  a string course.  Above  the  string  course there is  a round  arched opening   in   each   bay,   each   incorporating   a   circular   clerestory   window,   with alternating patterns (diamond and square) of iron glazing subdivision.  Above this is a timber roof, with hammer beams supporting a king-post truss. The westernmost aisles bays of the nave are slightly wider, and accommodate side chapels and altars; a Lady Chapel on the south side (the lean-to rafters here are painted with a chevron pattern) and a statue of St Joseph on the north. Beyond this, taller arches to left and right give onto the shallow north and south transepts, which have small high-level window openings on their shorter sides.

The sanctuary is dominated by a painted timber baldacchino over the stone high altar, placed within a semi-circular apse. Four columns carry two upper balustraded tiers, the first square and the second octagonal, all crowned by an octagonal roof surmounted by a cross. As Evinson points out, the source for this design lies in the baldacchini in the great Roman basilican churches of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and San Giorgio in Velabro.   Around the arch of the apse is the lettering ‘CHRISTUS DILEXIT NOS AT LAVIT NOS IN SANGUINE SUO’ (‘Christ loved us and washed us in his own blood’). This is all that visibly survives of an earlier scheme of painted decoration, shown in figure 1.  Behind the baldacchino an aumbry and piscina are set into the wall, and a door leads off the north side to the sacristy. In front of it is a modern forward altar.

The main furnishings of note are the dramatically expressive and life-size painted Calvary figures (Our Lord, Our Lady and St John) in the north transept (introduced in 1893, artist not established), and the large rectangular painted terracotta Stations of the Cross in the aisles, by Matthias Zens. A marbled tablet in the second bay of the nave from the east gives the names of the parishioners who gave the Stations in 1894. There is a memorial to the parish war dead alongside the Calvary.

The benches of the nave are plain; about half of them have been removed as the congregation has diminished.

A doorway in the north transept leads into a large sacristy with a top-lit raised roof. This communicates with the presbytery via a corridor following the curve of the apse. The  presbytery  was  built  at  the  same  time  as  the  church,  also  from  designs  by Walters. Its main entrance façade faces onto Redcross Way and is a handsome design in stock brick, articulated by pilasters strips and shallow arches. It has an asymmetrically-placed corner turret bay with prominent stacks incorporating shallow arcading.

Heritage Details

Architect: F.A. Walters

Original Date: 1891

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed