Building » Brockley – St Mary Magdalen

Brockley – St Mary Magdalen

Howson Road, Brockley, London SE4

A much-altered Italianate church of 1898-9 by the little-known architect Young Bolton. The richly decorative high altar is one of the few original furnishings to survive.

The mission at Brockley was started in 1895 and a school was opened the same year, whose upper floor was used as a temporary chapel. This was soon inadequate and Bishop Bourne sanctioned the building of an inexpensive church, for which he advanced £2,000. The church was built by the diocesan builder Mr Romain to designs in the Roman style by the architect Young Bolton (died 1903). The plot was 1,321 square yards large and the church was to seat 300 people. On 9 July 1898, Bishop Bourne blessed and laid the foundation stone. At the time there were about 370 Catholics living in the area. On 16 March 1899, the new church was blessed and solemnly opened by Bishop  Bourne. The following year, a new Angelus bell was blessed and hung in one of the towers; it was rung for the first time on Easter Sunday 1900. In September 1902, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart (Cabrini Sisters) opened a day and boarding school in Wickham Road. They stayed until 1922, when the lease expired.

On 24 July 1904, the patronal feast, the stone pulpit was blessed and used for the first time. It was presented to the mission priest, Fr James Hayes by parishioners from his previous parish in Sutton. In 1905 and 1906 two new missions were opened – Nunhead and Forest Hill – which took away parishioners from Brockley. Subsequently, Bishop Amigo decided to place the Augustinians of the Assumption in charge of St Mary Magdalen. They were to remain for 91 years, from 1906 until July 1997. The first Assumptionist mission priest was Fr Marie-Louis Deydier, who spent three terms at Brockley.

On 10 December 1911 a new altar was blessed. This was the work of Fr Gregory Chedal, A.A. and survives as the current high altar. In 1917 a Calvary was unveiled as a war memorial. A year later this was completed by the addition of a marble tablet in the form of an open book with the names of the deceased. It was designed by Joseph Dutton. Fr Gregory Chedal returned from the war in 1919 and set about completing the four side altars dedicated to the Sacred Heart, St Vincent de Paul, St Peter and St Joseph (the latter paid for by the priest’s housekeeper Emilia Jiminez de Tejada). (Apart from the corresponding statues nothing survives of the four side altars.) Chedal also began work on the Lady Chapel with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. By December 1919 the altars were in place, the sacristy was enlarged by the removal of a wall and a door was inserted, connecting sacristy and presbytery. At the silver jubilee service on 7 October 1920, the new altars were blessed.

In 1920 Brockley became an independent parish. Three years after the convent had left in 1922, the Oblate Sisters started a new school in Wickham Road. In 1926 the presbytery was refurbished and the church roof repaired. The same year a statue of St Theresa was blessed, donated by the Newman family. In 1926–7 the church was repaired, the Lady Chapel decorated and a new boiler installed. In 1929 two bells cast at the Paccard foundry at Annecy, France, were blessed and hung in the tower. By December 1930 electricity was introduced in the church, as well as an electric organ blower.

During the interwar years, the Catholic community grew to over 2,000 with the development of the Honor Oak Estate, one of the London County Council’s suburban estates, rehousing people from Deptford, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. In about 1937 the organ was repaired and overhauled. Repairs were also made to the west front, towers, and the wall along Comerford Road.

On 16 September 1940 a time bomb fell nearby and the parish priest was able to remove the Blessed Sacrament and the Lady Chapel’s altar stone before the bomb exploded the next day. The Lady Chapel was completely destroyed, the north wall pushed inwards and the sanctuary furnishings severely damaged. Only the high altar and St Peter’s altar remained intact. The presbytery was left uninhabitable, although by the late 1940 the priests returned to the house. A school room served as a temporary chapel. On Easter Sunday 1943 the church reopened, while repairs were still being carried out.

By the end of 1948 the second phase of the restoration had started, including the rebuilding of the sanctuary roof and the Lady Chapel, and the reconstruction of the smashed pulpit. New coloured glass was inserted in all the windows and an upper room was added to the sacristy. By 1950 the restoration was almost complete. A new floor was planned, as well as the refurbishment of seats and kneelers, repairs to the organ, and works to the lighting and cleaning. In December 1951 Bishop Cowderoy blessed the new Lady Chapel and the new altar.

In the 1950s Fr Patrick O’Neil got permission to reposition the door west doors in the tower, creating a central large door in place of a row of five windows, with the two side doors being replaced by windows. The former southwest porch on the interior became a baptistery (now a toilet). In c.1959 the parish planned the demolition of the presbytery and three adjoining houses in order to build a larger church, but these plans came to nothing. In 1968 the parish purchased St Cyprian’s Hall from the Anglican parish of St Hilda, Crofton Park, for £10,500. It was planned to build a new church on its site while the old church was used as a hall. Again, this came to nothing. In 1980, the font was moved closer to the sanctuary. A year later a new hall was built behind St Cyprian’s Hall, which opened in 1982.

In 1985 an overhaul of the organ was completed; in the same year plans were approved for a number of alterations. These included the raising of the sanctuary floor, the removal of the altar rails and the pulpit, and the insertion of a sound-proof confessional. The Lady Chapel altar was brought forward and a reconciliation room created. The church floor was cleaned and sealed, the benches repaired and cleaned, and the roof insulated. In 1986 the boiler was replaced. Three years later rising damp in the outer walls required their treatment and re-plastering. In September 1996 the Lady Chapel was renovated and its small tabernacle removed. In July 1997 the Assumptionist Fathers left, due to a lack of vocations, and the parish was placed under the care of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. In 2009 St Cyprian’s Hall was sold; the school hall is now used as a church hall.


The church was built in 1898–9 by the diocesan builder Mr Romain from designs by the architect Young Bolton. It is built in red brick, laid in English bond, with a pitched roof covered in slate and two copper-clad domes. Its plan is longitudinal, without aisles, with two short towers at the west end, and a lower sanctuary flanked by the Lady Chapel at the north east and the sacristy at the corresponding corner.

The west facade facing Howson Road is four windows wide and two storeys high. The central bay is pedimented, with a Celtic cross at its apex and a circular window in its centre. Between the two round-headed windows at the second floor it has a niche with a statue of St Mary Magdalen. On the ground floor, five windows were replaced in the 1950s by a large doorframe, which now contains two smaller doors with side windows. The side bays of the west front have windows on ground and first floors, and circular windows in the octagonal drums of the copper-domed towers. The side elevation faces Comerford Road and has five large round-headed nave windows separated by shallow wall strips. The side elevation of the east end has five smaller windows in a row. At the street corner is the war memorial by Joseph Dutton in form of a large crucifix with a table in the shape of an open book in its socle.

Beyond the west doors is a shallow narthex with the gallery stair in the northwest bay (with carved doors), and a toilet in the southwest bay. Seen from the nave, the organ stands below a central elliptical arch on a balustrade gallery which projects into the nave, supported on Corinthian columns. On either side are smaller arches with balustrades. The nave has five bays and an elliptical ceiling. The imposts of  the round-headed windows are marked by a cornice which runs around the nave walls into the sanctuary where it becomes the cornice of the reredos. The windows have lightly coloured modern panes. The timber benches are modern. In the northwestern corner of the nave stands a statue of St Teresa, followed by St Vincent (by La Statue Religieuse, Paris) and St Joseph in niches between windows on the north side. On the south side, there is a sculpture of St Augustine at the west end, and statues of St Peter (by La Statue Religieuse, Paris) and the Sacred Heart between the windows. The Stations of the Cross are painted plaster casts.

The Lady Chapel is only three windows deep (instead of the original five). It has a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in a niche to one side, and a door leading into the small room beyond (now used as a confessional). At the north side of the sanctuary steps stands the small stone font of an octagonal bowl with the IHS monogram on a short column. The sanctuary has an elliptical ceiling, with elliptical arches to the Lady Chapel and the sacristy (the latter is glazed and has a door). The high altar survives largely as designed by Fr Gregory Chedal in c.1911. It is made from Bath and Portland stone, as well as marble. The frontal depicts the Last Supper and flanked by statues of the Four Evangelists by Verrebout. Below the tabernacle is the inscription ‘Magister adest et vocat te’. Above the tabernacle stands a small metal crucifix in a small mosaic apse. The reredos is an aedicule with Ionic columns and an open segmental pediment. It contains a Calvary with a kneeling St Mary Magdalen, below the inscription ‘Dimitte nobis, debita nostra’ from the Lord’s Prayer. On either side are niches with the patron saints of the Assumptionists, St Monica and St Augustine of Hippo. Apart from the high altar, the sanctuary furniture is of timber and modern.

The walkways between the benches are carpeted, as is the sanctuary. The sacristy door is carved with symbols including the ChiRho, alpha and omega, and the chalice – in a similar style to the carved door in the narthex. The sacristy has four windows beside a door leading onto the school’s playground. A stair leads to the upper floor of the sacristy, used for storage. Another door connects to the presbytery.

Heritage Details

Architect: Young Bolton

Original Date: 1898

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed