Building » Canterbury – St Thomas of Canterbury

Canterbury – St Thomas of Canterbury

Burgate, Canterbury, Kent CT1

In the city of St Thomas Becket’s martyrdom, and in the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral. The church was built on the site of a medieval chapel, and holds relics of St Thomas. Architecturally, as built in the 1870s, the church was an exercise in the High Gothic style much in the manner of E. W. Pugin. Its symmetrical design was unbalanced in the 1960s when major additions were made to the church in an uncompromisingly modern style. Though externally the juxtaposition between these structures is not successful, the interior space works well and much of the nineteenth- century character survives.

The  history of the Catholic mission at Canterbury is bound up with that of the recusant Hales family, who lived nearby at Hales Place. Sir Edward, third Baronet Hales, helped his fellow-Catholic King James II in his flight at the Glorious or Protestant Revolution of 1688. The Hales family maintained its Catholic loyalty, and Masses were occasionally held at their Tudor house, originally called Place House. This was rebuilt by Edward, fifth  Baronet, in 1769 and renamed Hales Place, and regular services were held in the chapel there until the 1920s, when (after various vicissitudes, including an attempt to establish a convent and the establishment of a Jesuit college) the estate was broken up and the house and chapel demolished.

A mission in the city of Canterbury was established after 1859, when Mary Ann Wood gave the present No 59 Burgate Street, a mediaeval and later house, for the use of ‘a priest in the city of Canterbury’; this building still serves as the presbytery for the parish of St Thomas. Land near the house was purchased for the building of a church and school. The church of St Thomas of Canterbury was built in 1874-5, on part of the site of a medieval chapel dedicated to St Mary Magdalen, which had been demolished in 1871. The new church was opened on 13 April 1875, with Cardinal Manning preaching. The architect was John Green Hall, a local man who had designed other churches in Canterbury. His design shows the influence of E.W. Pugin, who died in 1875, but who may have influenced the early development of the design (he had worked at Hales Place in the 1860s). Hall does not appear to have been a Catholic, and the design for the high altar and the altar in the Lady Chapel appears to have been entrusted to A. E. Purdie, who may also have had a hand in the design of the church.

The building of a new church on the site of a medieval church in the city of Becket’s martyrdom and within site of the main Cathedral of the established Church had a particular resonance for many Catholics. Relics of St Thomas were presented to the church in the late nineteenth century and in 1953, and when Eric Gill’s Stations of the Cross were installed at Westminster  Cathedral, Cardinal Bourne donated the old Stations to St Thomas’s church.

The buildings formerly surrounding the church were badly damaged in the Canterbury blitz of June 1942. In the early 1960s under the auspices of Canon de Laubenque a large new addition was built on the north side of the church with the Canterbury Saints chapel on the ground floor and parish rooms above. A Martyrs Chapel was also built on the south side containing relics of St Thomas of Canterbury. In 1989 the sanctuary was reordered under the supervision of the architect Richard Fulbrook. In 1997 a mosaic depicting St Augustine of Canterbury was installed in the north aisle as part of the celebrations marking the 1400th anniversary of the arrival of the saint in 597 AD.


The original church is a building in the High Gothic style with an aisled nave and aisleless sanctuary under a continuous pitched roof. The west gable wall is faced with Kentish ragstone, the side and east walls with yellow stock brick, with Bath stone dressings. The main roof is covered in Welsh slate. Attached to the north side of the church and extending east beyond the sanctuary is a large modern flat-roofed addition, two storeys high. The ground floor is faced with grey industrial brick with a glazed timber opening along the north side, the upper floor with concrete panels with a continuous strip window. Attached to the east end of the south aisle is another flat-roofed addition with two traceried windows and a modern strip window at high level.

The steeply-gabled west front facing Burgate Street has two tall two-light traceried pointed windows either side of a tall central pinnacle-cum-buttress housing a statue of St Thomas, surmounted by a bell turret housing one bell. Carved angels perched on the main gable verges frame the statue. The aisle-ends are also gabled. The south aisle terminates in a south porch with a pointed doorway with a round window above. The north aisle has a two-light traceried window.  The side elevations are largely concealed by the post-war additions described above, but the north clerestory with its triple windows is still visible. The east wall has a large pointed window with a huge wheel in the tracery with a smaller rose above.

The interior of the original church has nave arcades of five bays of heavily moulded pointed arches on cylindrical stone columns with moulded capitals and bases. At the west end of the nave is a gallery flanked by the south porch space and what was originally the baptistery at the west end of the north aisle. The principal trusses of the steep timber nave roof are brought down onto wall-posts resting on elaborately- carved stone corbels. The floors throughout are modern parquet. The side aisles have lean-to timber roofs braced down onto both the aisle walls and the nave columns. A tall pointed stone chancel arch marks the transition to the sanctuary, which has pointed arch openings on either side and an elaborately-shafted surround to the east window. There were originally four small chapels opening off the north aisle through pointed arches but this area was reconfigured in the 1960s. The two eastern arches now belong to the Martyrs chapel, a modern flat-roofed space. The western openings have doors serving other parts of the modern addition. On the south side the three eastern bays of the nave arcade are mirrored by modern openings divided by piloti which connect the main church to the large 1960s chapel of the Canterbury Martyrs.

In 1989 an octagonal forward altar in Lepine limestone, designed by Daniel Rikh, was introduced. It is supported by eight pillars with Italian green marble shafts. At the same time the original stone font, carved by the local stonemason George Horan, was moved to the sanctuary from the baptistery. The original high altar was left in situ; according to the parish website, this was designed by A. E. Purdie. Its frontal has three stone panels, with the Agnus Dei flanked by adoring angels with thuribles. The gradine is more elaborately carved, and above this the reredos has two high-relief panels, showing the martyrdom of St Thomas and Henry II doing public penance for Becket’s  murder. The tabernacle is made of  alabaster, with four marble columns supporting the canopy.  Above the altar is a double rose window with floriated tracery under a plain Gothic arch. The central roundel depicts in the Pelican in her Piety while the six surrounding medallions show scenes from the life of St Thomas. In the six-point light in the roundel at the apex of the window is a representation of Christ in Glory. The altar in the Lady Chapel adjoining the sanctuary was given by Eva Minna Billington in 1905 in memory of her mother. Its design is also attributed on the parish website to A. E. Purdie. The Stations of the Cross are said to have been brought to St Thomas’s from Westminster Cathedral when Eric Gill’s new Stations were installed there. In the Chapel of the Canterbury Saints both the large and striking mural on the east wall and the bronze tabernacle are by Helen Grunwald.

On the south side of the church, a reliquary over the altar in the Martyrs Chapel contains a piece of Becket’s vestment and a piece of a bone from his body. These were given to the church in the late nineteenth century by Mary Hales and came from Gubbio in Umbria, where they had been held since the 1220s.  In 1953 a piece of Becket’s finger was given by the Prior of Chevetogne, Fr Thomas Becquet, a collateral descendant of the martyr. The reliquary is flanked by statues of St John Fisher and St Thomas More. The stained glass windows in the chapel show the martyrdom of St Thomas, Pope St Gregory with slave children in the Roman Forum, St Augustine of Canterbury, and, below, St Augustine preaching to King Ethelbert. To the left of the windows in a reliquary set into the wall are parts of the Mass vestments which belonged to Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980. These were presented to St Thomas’s church in 1997. The cast statue on the west wall of the Martyrs’ Chapel is of St John Stone, the Augustinian Friar executed in 1539 and canonised in 1970, and is by Mother Concordia of Minster Abbey, Thanet. Also by Mother Concordia is the statue of St Joseph in the adjoining chapel, with St Joseph depicted as Patron of the Universal Church, holding in his arms a model of St Peter’s in Rome.

In the north aisle is a mosaic depicting St Augustine of Canterbury, installed in 1997 as part of the celebrations marking the 1400th anniversary of the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD. At the west end of this aisle the pieta comes from the chapel at Hales Place, and was acquired when the house was sold by the Jesuits in 1928.

Amended by AHP 01.02.2021

Heritage Details

Architect: John Green Hall; J. C. Clague

Original Date: 1875

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed