Building » Bristol – St Mary-on-the-Quay

Bristol – St Mary-on-the-Quay

Colston Avenue, Bristol BS1

A fine neoclassical design and city landmark, begun in 1839 for the Irvingites but acquired for Roman Catholic use in 1843. The interior is a galleried box, containing a fine high altar attributed to J. F. Bentley and (somewhat incongruously) an imported Gothic font by G. E. Street. Amongst the names of parish dead recorded on a war memorial on the front of the church is George Archer-Shee, the original ‘Winslow Boy’.  

The church was built from designs by Richard Shackleton Pope for the Catholic Apostolic Church (Irvingites) but they ran into financial difficulties, and before it was finished the church was purchased by the Rev. Patrick O’Farrell, a Franciscan. The Quay in the dedication refers to the proximity to the harbour of the River Frome, which originally ran in front of the church. The order of the noble Corinthian portico comes from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. The neoclassical design would have appealed greatly to Bishop Baines, who opened it as a Catholic church in 1843 (and was found dead in his bed the following morning, aged only 57). However, the church was only about 200 yards away from the 1790 chapel in Trenchard Street, which was served by the Jesuits; in 1861 Bishop Clifford resolved the problem by closing the latter and adapting it to serve as a school, with St Mary’s becoming the main place of Catholic worship in the city centre. This was placed under the care of the Jesuits, who completed the purchase in 1871. A new high altar with domed tabernacle and Lady Chapel altar were provided and the church redecorated under the direction of Charles Hansom. By 1885, a school for boys associated with the school on Trenchard Street was built against the south flank of the church. Another wall was built in a similar style against the north flank, thereby retaining the symmetry of the frontage.

In about 1900 the church was redecorated by J. F. Bentley, with parquet flooring in the sanctuary and new choir stalls and benches in the nave. During the First World War, sixty-seven men of the congregation and former pupils of St Mary’s School lost their lives. They are commemorated in a bronze memorial on the front of the church. The first name commemorated is that of George Archer-Shee, who had been an altar boy at St Mary’s, and was killed at Ypres in 1914. In 1910 he was the subject of a celebrated trial, which became the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s drama The Winslow Boy.

The church was redecorated in the early 1950s under the direction of H. S. Goodhart-Rendel PPRIBA. In 1969 plans were advanced by the Jesuits for the redevelopment of the site, involving the demolition of the church and its replacement with a new church of modernist design by Ivor Day & O’Brien, with a new eighteen-storey office block alongside. The proposed demolition gave rise to widespread opposition from local groups and, nationally, from the Victorian Society and the Royal Fine Art Commission. Although the church had been listed in 1959, under the ecclesiastical exemption, listed building consent was not required for the demolition of the church provided it remained ‘in use’. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government’s Advisory Committee on buildings of special architectural and historical interest was asked to intervene, and concluded that ‘they did not regard the main part of the building to be of great interest but they were of the opinion that the portico was of considerable importance and a distinguished piece of civic ornament’ (letter from MHLG to the Diocese of Clifton, 14 May 1969, in Diocesan Archives). In the event, the plans were withdrawn, but the threat to St Mary’s did not end there. In 1976 the architects Broadbent, Hastings, Reid & New prepared plans to create a car park under the church, with an entrance and exit from Colston Avenue, a new hall created above and the floor of the church itself raised by twelve feet. Other schemes were advanced, all involving major adaptation behind a retained portico. They all foundered for lack of funds or on account of planning objections. However, there was still a building to be maintained, and insufficient funds for repair, even after the Trenchard Street chapel was redeveloped behind the façade as housing. When in 1980 the estimated cost of repairs exceeded £350,000, Bishop Alexander, after consultation with the Jesuits, announced that the church would close. This was the catalyst for determined fundraising, including £100,000 provided by the Jesuits themselves, and the threat of closure was averted. In 1982 the site of a former club room behind the church was acquired to serve as a presbytery, and the church was fully repaired by 1983.

In 1996 the Jesuits handed the parish over to the Diocese of Clifton, and since 2004 it has been under the care of the Divine Word Missionaries. In 1999 (according to Harding, list entry says 1984) an 1860 font by G. E. Street from St George, Brandon Hill was installed in the church. In c.2003 alterations were made to improve disabled access, including a door and lift from street level up to the church. Internal redecoration took place in 2009, when the three altarpieces were renovated by Vanessa Webb. Today the church is one of the most popular in the city, open every day to local workers and tourists, and with a Sunday Mass attendance of about 450 (2015 Directory).


The list entry (below) has recently been brought up to date and expanded; it offers a fairly complete account of the building, and repetition is unnecessary. The following additional points may be noted:

  • The church was redecorated by J. F. Bentley in c.1900, with parquet flooring in the sanctuary and new choir stalls and benches in the nave.
  • According to the list entry, the high altar with domed tabernacle was installed by Bentley at this time, but it is not listed amongst his works by Bentley’s daughter and biographer Winifred de L’Hôpital, and in fact belongs to Hansom’s reordering of 1871 (Bristol Daily Post, 13 November 1871, information from Andrew Foyle).
  • The polychrome statue of the Virgin and Child over the Lady altar came from the Vaughan family chapel at Courtfield, Ross-on-Wye.
  • Three large framed canvases at the back of the church over the gallery include a copy of a Murillo Madonna, and are all probably Italian and nineteenth century.
  • Two timber plaques of founders of the Society of Divine Word Missionaries in south transept are by an Indonesian artist.

Entry amended by AHP 2.1.2021

List description


Summary of Building: A Catholic church of 1839-43 in the Greek Revival style by R.S. Pope.

Reasons for Designation: The Roman Catholic church of St Mary on the Quay, Bristol, which dates from 1839-43, by Richard Shackleton Pope, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: an assured and accomplished rendition of the Greek Revival style, of the Order from the Lysicratic monument in Athens; * Historic interest: as the first Catholic church to be built in Bristol following the Emancipation Acts. Additionally, a Roll of Honour to the congregation including the figure of George Archer Shee who is of national note, is an eloquent witness to the tragic impacts of world events on this community, and the sacrifices it made in the First World War; * Interior: the church has a high quality interior including later fittings by G.F. Bentley and G.E. Street.

History: The church was designed by Richard Shackleton Pope for the Irvingites (the Catholic Apostolic Church) but was purchased before completion in 1843 by the Roman Catholic Church. It is marked on the 1855 Ashmead map of Bristol as St Mary’s Chapel, set back from Under The Bank by the Floating Harbour (the River Frome). It is shown with its portico on the 1874 Ashmead Map, when it is marked St Mary’s Catholic Chapel. The ‘Quay’ in the title refers to its proximity to the harbour and it is thought that there were originally tethering rings for boats fixed to the front wall of the portico. By 1885, a school for boys, associated with St Mary’s School on Trenchard Street, was built along the south flank of the church. Additionally, a wall was built in a similar style attached to the north flank, to restore symmetry to the façade. In the late C19, the northern end of the Floating Harbour was infilled, and Colston Avenue laid out in front of the church. The altar with dome tabernacle was designed by J.F. Bentley and is of c.1900 date. During the First World War, 67 men of the congregation and former pupils of St Mary’s School lost their lives in the conflict and are commemorated in a Roll of Honour fixed to the Colston Avenue wall. The names include George Archer-Shee, the subject of a notorious High Court trial in 1910 and the inspiration for the famous play The Winslow Boy. He had served as an altar boy at the church, and died at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. During the C20 the school became a presbytery, and sometime after the closure of the Church of St George, Brandon Hill (qv) in 1984, its marble font by G.E. Street (1860) was moved to the north transept of St Mary’s. Floodlighting was installed in the year 2000, set in the top of the stylobate. In the C21 it remains in use as a place of worship; is administered by the Diocese of Clifton, and under the care of the Divine Word Missionaries.

Details: Catholic apostolic chapel, now a Roman Catholic church, of 1839-43 by Richard Shackleton Pope. MATERIALS: limestone ashlar. The roof has modern coverings. Interior fittings are constructed of timber, stone and marble. PLAN: cruciform plan with sanctuary at the west end (ritual east). EXTERIOR: in the Greek Revival style of the Order from the Lysicratic monument in Athens. The church has a hexastyle portico of Greek Corinthian columns on a raised, vermiculated stylobate, with a dentil pediment inscribed on the entablature VIVAT CHRISTUS REX. Above the pediment is a stone cross. The Corinthian columns are deeply fluted. The distyle-in-antis inner porch is reached by two converging flights of steps. The large central doorway has a battered, eared architrave and cornice, and there are plain doorways in the returns with a six-over-six pane timber sash above. Lower, parapeted flanking blocks are set back, and rusticated to the height of large, moulded blank recesses between paired Doric pilasters, with low doorways below. The recess to the right has a fixed statue of the Madonna and Child. The rusticated walls break forward to the street, meeting short continuations of the stylobate. To the centre of the front face of the stylobate is inscribed CHURCH OF ST MARY ON THE QUAY, and there is a bronze First World War Roll of Honour plaque below: A.M.D.G./545 MEN OF ST MARY’S SCHOOL AND CONGREGATION/ JOINED UP IN THE GREAT WAR. 67 LOST THEIR LIVES./ ROLL OF HONOUR/ (NAMES)/ MAY THEY REST IN PEACE. The transepts are pedimented. The aisle flanks are of five bays with tall, narrow, square-headed windows with glazing bars. INTERIOR: the five-bay nave is lit by tall narrow windows with timber margin glazing. The nave has C20 timber pews and moulded doorways below the south windows. The chancel is top-lit with a decorative ceiling with gilded plasterwork and dentil cornicing. At the rear of the chancel is an ornate altar with domed tabernacle by J.F. Bentley. The stepped floor of the chancel is covered in parquet veneer. The galleried (ritual) north transept is arranged as a side chapel with a marble font with timber lid and wrought-ironwork by G.E. Street. The (ritual) south transept is also a side chapel. The gallery at the ritual west end is supported on two fluted cast-iron Doric columns. There are stone winder stairs to the gallery from both sides, and from the side doors in the portico, and have decorative ironwork gates and grilles. Both gallery doors are within panelled vestibules, with a piscina set in the wall to one side. The five rows of carved timber pews are raked have hinged kneeling rests. The nave ceiling has a rectangular design with a roundel motif incorporating the fixings for the nave lighting. Above the chancel arch is painted AD MAIOREM DEI GLORIAM.

Selected Sources

Books and journals: Foyle, A, Pevsner Architectural Guides: Bristol, (2005), 103; Gomme, J L, Bristol: An Architectural History, (1979), 241; Hankins, K, In My Father’s House, (1993), 107.

Websites: UK National Inventory of War Memorials, accessed 09/01/2015 from

Heritage Details

Architect: R. S. Pope

Original Date: 1843

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*