Building » +Brentwood – Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Helen

+Brentwood – Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Helen

Ingrave Road, Brentwood, Essex CM15

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

The cathedral church of the Diocese of Brentwood, and the first Classical cathedral to be built in England since Wren’s St Paul’s. Built as a mission church in the 1860s from designs by Gilbert Blount, it was raised to cathedral status in 1917. It was considerably enlarged by Burles & Newton in the 1970s, but this addition proved short lived, being replaced by new additions in 1989-91, from designs by Quinlan Terry. These later additions created a centralised plan, with a central altar designed for maximum congregational participation, and in these respects the church lies within the mainstream of post-Vatican II church design. However, in its architectural design it firmly rejects the modernism of the 1970s addition, and is a confident and thoroughgoing essay in Classicism, mixing Italian and English Renaissance influences. The stylistic contrast between Blount’s Gothic and Terry’s Classicism is pronounced, although they share common facing materials. Inside, every detail and furnishing has been designed by Terry or chosen by the Bishop, a remarkable collaboration of architect and patron. This collaboration extends beyond the cathedral to the surrounding complex, which includes the original church and house of the 1830s and a former convent building of the 1870s. These disparate buildings have been judiciously remodelled by Terry, with the landscaping treatment creating a homogeneity and distinct sense of place. The complex lies within, and makes a positive contribution to, the Brentwood town centre conservation area.

A mission with a resident priest was established at Brentwood in 1836, with a church built on land given by Lord Petre and opened on 26 October 1837. This building, which survives today as the Cathedral Hall, is a yellow brick Gothic design by Henry Flower, capable of seating over 200. It had its own burial ground. A clergy house built in 1836-37 also survives, now providing accommodation for the cathedral clergy.

A south aisle was added to the 1830s church in about 1845, but this soon proved insufficient to accommodate the growing congregation. In 1861 a second church was built to the south, from designs by G. R. Blount. The old church became a school (becoming the parish hall in 1969 and more recently the Cathedral Hall). The new church was a more full-blooded Victorian Gothic design (in Pevsner’s words, ‘of that assertive ugliness which is characteristic of much church work of the sixties’), built of Kentish ragstone, with a longish chancel, nave and two aisles and a southeast tower. In 1873 a convent for the Sisters of Mercy was built to the west of the church. This was a ragstone building by F. W. Tasker, and had a small chapel to the south.

In 1917 the church was made the Cathedral of the new diocese of Brentwood. In 1919, an early nineteenth-century building, Brent House (now Regency House), lying to the south at the corner of Ingrave Road and Queen’s Road, was acquired to serve as the residence of the first bishop, the Rt Rev. Bernard Ward (this was later sold and the bishop’s residence relocated to South Woodford; the current Bishop resides at Stock).

Although the church was appropriately refurnished to reflect its newly-acquired status (with F. A. Walters preparing designs for a new cathedra), it was not immediately increased in size. This did not happen until 1974, under Bishop Casey.

The rebuilding of the adjacent St Helen’s Junior School enabled the site to the north of the 1861 church to be developed. The new addition was roughly square on plan, and was built from designs by John Newton of Burles & Newton. The north aisle of the 1861 church was demolished and the north arcade of the nave opened up to join with the new worship space. The sanctuary was placed in the nave of the old church, while the old sanctuary became the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The rebuilt and extended Cathedral was capable of seating 1000, and was embellished with furnishings by John Poole (altar and ambo), Michael Clarke (tabernacle and stone base), David John (Crucifix) and others.

The Cathedral was rededicated and three altars consecrated on 3 May 1974, and the re-opening Mass was held on 5 June 1974. The final cost was approximately £104,000, excluding furnishings and enlarging and altering a Gothic building presents considerable problems. While no attempt has been made to re-produce the Gothic style, respect has been paid to its scale and materials. Externally the continued use of stone to match as closely as possible the colour and texture of the old building is hoped to ensure a unity of concept in sympathy with the old building. Internally, the linking of the new to the old has been achieved by the consistent use of two materials, timber and white textured plaster.

In 1982-83, Cathedral House, new diocesan offices designed by Laurence King were built to the west of the cathedral, an extension to the former convent building. This was two years after the consecration of the Rt Rev. Thomas McMahon as sixth Bishop of Brentwood. Bishop McMahon had previously been at Colchester, where he had become familiar with the work of the modern Classical architect Raymond Erith at Wivenhoe New Park, home of the (Catholic) Gooch family. The bishop sensed a lack of the numinous in the functional design of the new Cathedral which, although only a few years old, was also presenting maintenance problems. A major anonymous donation allowed for the possibility of rebuilding, and the bishop commissioned designs from the Dedham-based architect Quinlan Terry, partner of Raymond Erith (who died in 1973). Terry prepared plans for the replacement of the 1974 addition, working on the same footprint, but this time to a Classical design. Although recommended for approval by local planning officers, this scheme was refused planning permission by Brentwood Council on the grounds that the proposed extension would introduce an ‘incongruous and alien feature’ in the town centre conservation area. However, an appeal was lodged and the development allowed by the Secretary of State in March 1988.

Quinlan Terry was perhaps an unusual choice for a Catholic bishop in search of the numinous, being an architect with a strongly-held Protestant, indeed Calvinist, belief in the asacral nature of church buildings. However, the collaboration proved long and fruitful, with the architect’s involvement extending not just to every detail of the new cathedral, but also to improvements to its setting (including new gate piers and railings); updating and partially remodelling the original church (the Cathedral Hall); adding a portico to and refenestrating the clergy house; remodelling the cathedral offices with a neo-Georgian entrance; and converting and extending the old convent chapel for the choir school, the last of these being completed in 2001.

The rebuilt Cathedral was opened and consecrated by Cardinal Basil Hume on 31 May 1991.


The church consists of two elements, the surviving portion of Blount’s church of 1860-61, and Quinlan Terry’s additions of 1989-91. The former is Gothic in style and consists of nave, south aisle, chancel (now Blessed Sacrament chapel) with south chapel, former sacristy, south porch and southwest tower and spire. The latter is Classical in style, fusing Italian and English Renaissance elements, incorporating the nave of Blount’s church to form a centralised Greek cross plan. Although the two elements are of contrasting architectural style, they are united by their use of Kentish ragstone in the walls and slate in the roof.

The outer walls of the Terry addition are divided into bays by Doric pilasters, the smooth Portland stone finish of which contrasts with the more rugged ragstone surfaces between. The pilasters support a continuous Doric triglyph frieze with balls on the parapet marking the bay divisions. The main elevation is to the north, facing the old church. This consists of nine bays, with a central a semi-circular Doric portico, reminiscent of the south portico of Wren’s St Paul’s or the west entrance of Gibbs’s St Mary-le-Strand. This is flanked on either side by pedimented bays. There is a secondary entrance (the day-to-day main entrance) in the eastern bay, with hooped overlight. The main windows are all round headed, with Venetian windows on the east and west elevations. Set back behind the parapet is a raised clerestory of yellow brick, with arched windows and a hipped roof rising to a domed octagonal lantern. The external elevations of the western arm of the Greek cross, not seen from the street, are also faced in yellow brick.

On the east elevation the wall of the new church somewhat uncomfortably abuts the gabled east end of Blount’s chancel. This has diagonal stepped buttresses at the corners and a five-light Decorated window over a string course. The south elevation of Blount’s church has gabled sacristy and porch projections, an aisle of three bays with two-light windows, and a low clerestory with spherical triangle windows. The tower is asymmetrically placed at the southwest corner and has two square stages with a transition to an octagonal belfry stage. The belfry houses a new bell cast by Whitechapel Bell Foundry for the opening of the rebuilt Cathedral as well as the old bell of 1861 (also cast by Whitechapel), which sounds the Angelus. Above the belfry stage is a short stone spire. There is a further large five-light window at the west end of the nave.

The day-to-day entrance to the cathedral is via the entrance in the eastern bay of the north elevation. This leads into a narthex area in one of the re-entrants of the Greek cross, housing a repository (in the form of a large cupboard with scrolled open pediment, made by Taylor’s of Bildeston, Suffolk, to Terry’s designs). The main space of the church resembles an Italian Renaissance court, framed by an arcade of five bays on the longer north and south sides and three bays on the east and west sides. The stone Tuscan columns have a pronounced entasis. The design of the arcade, with its roundels in the spandrels, appears to be derived from Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. On the south side this arcade creates a degree of separation from the Blount church, while retaining intervisibility (whereas Burles & Newton had simply formed a large opening, with a massive steel beam supporting the superstructure). Above the arcade is a Doric entablature, with the ceiling of the raised clerestory stage divided into fifteen compartments, from the central one of which rises the lantern, with timber balustrading framing the octagonal opening. The flooring is of Portland stone slabs with diamond slates set into the corners, all on one level apart from where raised up for the chief liturgical furnishings (altar, throne, ambo and font). The walls are of plain painted plaster, with some detailing, such as the guilloche patterning over the clerestory, picked out in gold leaf. The space is well-lit, with large windows of clear glass. The interior of the Blount church has a more intimate atmosphere, dimly lit by stained glass, giving that sense of the numinous sought by the Bishop, and appropriate for an area used (in the chancel) for private prayer.

The furnishing of the church consists almost entirely of pieces designed by Terry or chosen by the Bishop. The chief earlier interior of note is the Blessed Sacrament chapel, with a painted ceiling of 1911 and stained glass in the east window by Mayer and Co., depicting the Risen Christ with saints Peter, Paul, John and Andrew. On its south side is a small window of the Sacred Heart, the original dedication of the Cathedral. On the north side in a niche is a small wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. The brass sanctuary lamp dates from the late nineteenth century and comes from St Mary’s, Hornchurch. The tabernacle is a polychrome timber piece, a mini-Classical church of centralised design, acquired by the bishop in Rome. It stands on a pedestal of Pisan Nabrasina stone.

At the west end of the old church is the organ, built by the London firm of Alfred Hunter in 1881, which came from the now-redundant Anglican church of St. Mary-at- the-Walls, Colchester. This has been rebuilt and enlarged by Daniels of Clevedon, with a handsome new Classical case by Terry.

The cathedra or bishop’s throne is placed in the central bay of the southern arcade. Raised on a dais of two Portland stone steps, it was made from Terry’s designs and is of Nabrasina stone. It has two scrolled arm rests and a segmental pediment to its back, incorporating the Diocesan coat of arms; its design was inspired by a throne at San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

The throne faces towards the altar placed centrally under the lantern. This too is raised on a Portland stone plinth and is made of Nabrasina stone. It is rectangular in form, following the proportions and axis of the main space, with its mensa carried on eight Tuscan columns.

On the same north-south axis as the throne and altar is the ambo, of Nabrasina stone, octagonal in form, with panelled faces and surmounted by a gilded eagle lectern.

The other chief liturgical furnishing is the font, located in the north aisle between the two entrances. This is raised on a stone plinth, and like the other liturgical items is of Nabrasina stone. It is octagonal, inset with a Greek Cross (the design informed by Romans 6:3) and has steps down to allow those being baptised to stand in the water.

The Cathedral (including walls, railings and gates) was listed Grade II* in May 2022. List entry:

Heritage Details

Architect: G. R. Blount; Quinlan Terry

Original Date: 1861

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*