Building » Bristol (Bedminster) – Holy Cross

Bristol (Bedminster) – Holy Cross

Dean Lane, Bedminster, Bristol, BS3

A notable interwar design in Byzantine style by John Bevan Jr, completed in a contextual manner in the early 1960s. The priest who built the church described it as ‘a little Westminster Cathedral … dignified but not pretty’. The impressive interior is notable for its baldacchino, brickwork detailing and stained glass.

In medieval times a shrine dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria stood in Bedminster at the junction of the present Lombard Street and East Street; the remains of this were finally removed in 1887 to make way for the offices of the Imperial Tobacco Company. A short distance away, a house at 11 Redcliffe Parade West was used from 1850 for Catholic worship, and a school established in the conservatory in the garden. In 1854 the mission priest, the Rev. William Vaughan (later Bishop of Plymouth) acquired a site at the junction of Regent Road and East Street, where a modest church and schoolroom were built at a cost of £518 from designs by Charles Hansom (who with his brother Joseph was later to build Vaughan’s cathedral at Plymouth). These soon became inadequate and in 1870 Bishop Clifford of Clifton asked Hansom to look for a larger site, closer to the city centre (the buildings were later sold and become part of Bedminster Library; the diocesan historian J. A. Harding suggests that parts survive within the present building). The newly-laid out Victoria Street was chosen as a suitably prominent and prestigious location, and here Hansom designed a school and church (1872-4). There was no room for a presbytery, and the mission was served by priests from the Pro-Cathedral and the Catholic Reformatory at Arno’s Court until 1885, when a resident priest was appointed, living in a nearby rented house.

With the higher standards required under the 1902 Education Act, lack of playing space meant that the school had to relocate. A two-acre site on Dean Lane was acquired, occupied by a pair of attached houses and next to a Church of England school and a disused colliery, which had closed in 1906. This was large enough for a school, church, parish hall and presbytery. The school and presbytery came first, the school opening in 1912. These were designed by John Bevan FRIBA of Bristol. At first Mass was said in the school chapel and at Victoria Street (until sold in 1914; it was later demolished); post-war building restrictions and lack of funds meant that it was not until 1921 that work finally started on the church. This was also built from designs by John Bevan, with W. Hendey & Sons of Cotham acting as main contractors.

The building of the church was inaugurated by the parish priest Fr (Canon) Davey, an Anglican convert, and the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Burton of Clifton on 17 November 1921. The church opened for worship towards the end of the following year, although the main body was not completed until 1926-7. It was designed to seat 600, and was described by Fr Davey as ‘a little Westminster Cathedral, choir and sanctuary well raised up, dignified but not pretty, with a wide nave for most worshippers but aisles for a certain number of worshippers, but mostly for processions’ (typescript in Diocesan Archives). The building was described more fully in The Tablet (2 December 1922, p. 42), where it was identified as something of an architectural departure in the diocese:

‘HOLY CROSS, BEDMINSTER: THE NEW CHURCH.—Rather more than a year ago—November 17, 1921—the foundation stone was blessed of the new Church of the Holy Cross at Bedminster, Bristol; and now that the church has been completed and opened, its beauty of design and fine proportions make a notable addition to the churches of the Clifton diocese, where it marks a departure in the style of ecclesiastical architecture. In the past the Gothic tradition has been followed, but the new church at Bedminster is Byzantine in character and reminiscent of Westminster Cathedral. The building is of local brick except as to the bases and capitals of the columns, which are of Bath stone. The colour effect of the brick, lightened as it is with cream pointing, is striking. A spacious and more than usually elevated sanctuary occupies the apse and one bay of the nave, the lofty ciborium raised over the altar and the predella, and the great cross hanging in the choir arch. As a background to the altar in the Sacred Heart chapel, is a rich and full picture in stained glass of the Crucifixion—an anonymous gift. The golden-domed bronze tabernacle at the high altar—the gift of the late Mr. W. Phillips, for many years Bro. President of the Parochial S.V.P., in memory of his wife—is also much admired. The parishioners of Holy Cross are justly proud of their church, which is in no small part the product of and the reward for their own liberal giving at weekly house-to-house collections during at least ten years; at the same time they own their gratitude to the generous benefactors without whose help the church could not have been built, much less beautified; one anonymous donation was of £1,000. The architect is Mr John Bevan, of Bristol, and Mr Elphege Pippet, of Messrs. Hardman & Co., designed the tabernacle and the rood. Father C. W. Davey, the parish priest, is heartily to be congratulated on this fine church, which stands, together with schools and presbytery, on a prominent site in the parish’.

The west front of the church remained simply bricked up and incomplete until 1961, when plans were finally put in hand by Ivor Day & O’Brien for the building of the narthex, western organ gallery and baptistery. These additions were generally in the spirit of Bevan’s design, but without his intended southwest tower. The church received a new floor and seating at the same time, and the architects also replaced Bevan’s presbytery with a new and larger building, linked to the church.

Bevan’s school building was destroyed in an air raid in 1941 and new primary school buildings were opened next door to the church in 1966.


The church is of traditional longitudinal plan, consisting (from liturgical west to east) of a narthex, five-bay aisled nave (with confessionals giving off the central bays of the aisles) and apsidal sanctuary, flanked by a Sacred Heart/War Memorial chapel to the north and a Lady Chapel to the south. At the west end is an organ gallery and (at the northwest corner) a former baptistery. A doorway near the Sacred Heart chapel leads to a sacristy which in turn connects with the adjoining presbytery.

The church is faced in red/orange local brick laid in Flemish bond with some granite dressings and tile roofs. The half-dome of the sanctuary is clad in lead. Inside, Bath stone is used for the bases and the capitals of the columns, the walls are faced in brick (apart from the hemispherical dome of the apse, which is rendered), and the roof structure and floors are of timber (the floors now carpeted).

The west front is by Ivor Day & O’Brien and bears similarities (e.g. in the design of the circular west window) to their earlier church of St Teresa, Filton, Bristol. In a projecting porch below this, the plain granite entrance has attached columns of pronounced entasis with cushion capitals. The corner bays (to south aisle and former baptistery) are double height and gabled at the sides, with round arched window openings surmounted by circular windows (blind on the west front). The west end has stylised square buttresses with pierced square caps.

The aisles have lean-to roofs, with lean-to confessionals giving off the centre bay on each side. The clerestory bays have alternate lunette and round-arched windows. At the east end of the nave the chapels project at right angles, lit by lunette windows to north and south, with the gable of the south (Lady) chapel raised to accommodate an Angelus bell and statue (now partially dismantled on safety grounds). The apsidal sanctuary has a hemispherical dome with lead roof.

The porch and narthex at the west end lead into a wide, tall nave of five bays, one of which contains the gallery at the west end, reached by a stair in the south aisle. The walls are faced in bare brick with stylised neo-Byzantine patterning, the rhythmic pattern of the tall, narrow recesses in the spandrels almost jazzy in effect. The nave piers are cruciform, with crude, squared versions of cushion capitals, left plain except for those on either side of the sanctuary arch and one on the north side of the nave, which have flat low-relief carving of Byzantine character. The nave and sanctuary have a king-post roof of early Christian/Byzantine character, while the half dome of the apse at the east end is plastered and lit from the top and sides. Steps and brick cancellae at the entrance to the sanctuary separate this area from the nave, a distinction broken down since Vatican II by a projecting dais with forward altar in front of the cancellae. At the sides of the sanctuary, iron screens are placed in the arches, separating this area from the side chapels. Behind the baldacchino, the wall of the apse of is of patterned brick, with a timber aumbry to the left, a central door (blocked) and a niche to the right.

The church retains a number of original and later furnishings of note. Chief amongst these is the original painted and stained timber baldacchino or ciborium in the sanctuary, the visual and liturgical focus of the interior. Designed by Elphege Pippet, this is supported on four columns with capitals carved with Eucharistic symbols and an open gable carved with symbols of the Passion. Its canopy underside is painted blue and gold, incorporating sun, moon, shooting stars and stars. Beneath the baldacchino is the original stone high altar, with the IHS monogram in a circular sunburst at the centre of the antependium, and behind this the original golden domed brass tabernacle and benediction throne, the latter reached by a timber stairs behind the openwork screen that closes off the apse. In front of the baldacchino, the painted hanging crucifix, with symbols of the Evangelists at the terminals and Agnus Dei on the verso, was also by Elphege Pippet and was in place for the opening of the church in 1922.

Now placed in the sanctuary (moved from its original position in the 1962 northwest baptistery) is the tapering stone font, of c.1962, with shallow brass domed cover. The forward altar, formerly placed on a dais in front of the cancellae as part of a post-Vatican II reordering, has been removed, although the dais remains. The north/Sacred Heart chapel is a war memorial chapel, with a stone altar with pedimented tabernacle. The antependium of the altar is carved with the names of the parish dead of the First World War. Above this is a fine stained glass window depicting the Crucifixion, by C. E.  Kempe, made in 1890 and donated to the church at the time of its opening (its previous location not established). The south (Lady) chapel contains a fine polychrome statue of the Virgin and Child, with a panelled timber reredos behind. There is other good glass in this chapel, transepts and aisles, mainly from the 1920s and by the Hardman firm (on the north side now boarded up for protection), with more recent glass in the high level lunettes over the side chapels. The organ in the 1960s gallery dates from c.1905 and is therefore older than the church. It is by the renowned organ builders Henry Willis & Son, and has a fine case with carved black oak and gilded pipework. Its provenance has not been established (more details on the National Pipe Organ Register website). The Stations of the Cross lining the walls of the aisles are Gothic, with polychrome tableaux and crocketed gables. They appear to be late nineteenth or early twentieth century in date, and were probably brought from the previous church. On the pier closest to the northwest baptistery is a stone wall tablet to Richard Canon Norris (1917-87), carved with his portrait. The baptistery itself is now a children’s corner, its original gates re-sited to the bottom of the stairs to the gallery. In the nave and aisles, the seating consists of open-backed benches of c.1962. The light fittings also may also date from this time.

*Entry revised and expanded 2.1.2021, using material from a report prepared by AHP for the Diocese of Clifton in September 2018. The photographs also date from that time.*

Heritage Details

Architect: John Bevan; Ivor Day & O'Brien

Original Date: 1922

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed