Charlton Road, Charlton, London SE7
A neo-Romanesque church of 1905-1906 by the French architect Eugéne- Jacques Gervais, built for an Assumptionist congregation from Bordeaux. During a restoration campaign of 1959, an outer north aisle was added, and the reredos and high altar altered. The interior is colourful and theatrical. The church has some townscape value.
Following expulsion under the French Association Law, in 1903 a group of Oblate Sisters of the Assumption bought a large house in Charlton. Called ‘High Combe’, this had been the home of the civil engineer, William Henry Barlow (1812–1902), famous for the roof of St Pancras station, who had died at the house the year before. A few days after their arrival in July 1903, Mass was said for the first time in the house by Fr Benedict Caron, A.A., their chaplain and the first mission priest. The chapel was opened to local residents and in time this grew into a mission, under the guidance of the Augustinians of the Assumption. Miss Frances Ellis was a benefactress to the Convent. In October 1903 a Sunday school was started by Mother Franck.
On 27 August 1905 the foundation stone for the present church was laid by Bishop Amigo, in the presence of the Assumptionist Superior General, Fr Emmanuel Baily, A.A. The church was opened a year later, on 8 September by Fr Darbois, Superior of the Assumptionist Mission in New York. Apparently the Sisters chose the dedication because of the existence of a shrine to Our Lady of Grace in the area before the Reformation. The Assumptionists employed a French architect from Bordeaux, Eugéne-Jacques Gervais (1852–1940). The cost of the building was £5,000. The builders were Jones & Sons of Erith. Gervais designed a highly theatrical interior, focusing on an apse behind the high altar with a dramatic statue of the Virgin and Child standing on clouds lit by concealed windows in the apse. (A similar arrangement at St Sulpice, Paris, has been suggested as inspiration.)
Following the opening of the church a convent school was set up in High Combe, in order to pay for a school building. In February 1907 Stations of the Cross were erected in the church. In 1908 the first parish school opened in a disused stable. In 1912 the founding group of Sisters returned to Bordeaux and the Assumptionist Fathers moved into High Combe. A new group of Oblate Sisters from Paris settled at 34 Charlton Road where they set up St Joseph’s High School for Girls in July 1913.
In 1922-3 volunteers built the parish hall to the east of the presbytery, which was initially used by the school. In 1925-7 new furnishings were added to the church, including a new organ, and a pulpit and benches carved by Fr Gregory Chedal A.A. In 1927, a new permission was gained for the school plans of 1913 and the following year, the foundation stone was laid. Our Lady of Grace School opened a year later with 270 pupils. At the same time the convent school in Victoria Road was extended to include a hostel for young ladies coming to London to learn English.
In 1937 the RAF took over the Victoria Road buildings and the convent moved into temporary premises, before settling at Littlecombe, 151 Charlton Road. The foundation stone for the new building was laid in 1928 and the Sisters moved in a year later. In 1940 both the convent and the church were damaged by bombs, the latter mainly in the sacristy area. In July 1945 St Joseph’s High School closed and a new primary girls’ school opened. In 1956 the Assumptionists sold land in order to provide a site for St Austin’s School (merged in the 1980s with St Joseph’s Academy, Blackheath).
Under Fr Walter Robertson A.A., the first English parish priest, the church was repaired, redecorated and extended in 1959. During the work, structural problems were discovered in the foundations and remedial work was added to the repair programme. The foundations, especially at the west, were strengthened; a concrete floor laid; stone and brickwork were repaired; the sanctuary floor was underpinned with steel girders; a porch was built at the south side, as well as a whole range to the north side, containing a porch, a baptistery, the Assumption Chapel and three confessionals. The sacristy corridor at the east was also added. The services were renewed, including new gas, electricity and water mains, rewiring, and the introduction of an electric floor heat storage system. (Previously, the church had been heated by a hot water storage system.) The sacristies were furnished, the high altar remodelled, and the interior redecorated. Several statues and new Stations of the Cross were commissioned from the sculptor Virgilio Prugger, painted by Henry Farmer. In the place of the sculpture of Our Lady, a rood was inserted in the apse, carved by Edward Carron and coloured by Henry Farmer. Below, a painting designed and painted by Henry Farmer was installed, apparently a copy of an icon of Our Lady of Grace venerated in the Augustinian Church of S. Patrizio in Rome. The new Assumption Chapel was furnished with an altar and tabernacle. The work was supervised by Messrs Bartlett & Purnell, and executed by Messrs Walker-Symondson of Ruislip, decorators and joiners, Messrs Frederick Smith, New Cross, general builders, and others.
Following the restoration the church was consecrated by Bishop Cowderoy on 13 September 1960. In 1970 the present organ was installed. In July 1972 the convent school closed after nearly 70 years. Two years later the Oblates of the Assumption left Charlton. In a reordering in 1985 the font was moved from the baptistery near the sanctuary steps. This reordering might also have included the removal of the altar rails. In the same year the parish celebrated the silver jubilee of the church’s consecration and the 80th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone. Four years later the Assumptionists left Charlton, handing the parish over to a diocesan priest, Fr Michael Leach, who has been parish priest since. For the Millennium, a bronze plaque of the Virgin and Child was affixed to the northwest porch. For the church’s centenary in 2006, the artist Maurizio Dovani was commissioned to paint the internal sides of the west doors. In 2009, Dovani painted a landscape mural in the Lady Chapel. Most recently, the former boiler room below the sanctuary and sacristy has been refurbished and is now used as a weekday chapel.
The church is facing northnorthwest. For the sake of clarity, this description uses the conventional liturgical orientation.
The church was built in 1905-1906 to designs by Eugéne-Jacques Gervais, in neo-Romanesque style. The materials are stock brick, laid in English bond, with stone dressings, and a slate roof. (The brickwork of the sacristy at the east is laid in Flemish bond. The outer north aisle has brick laid in stretcher bond.) The plan is longitudinal, with a nave and sanctuary with pitched roof, lean-to aisles, and a sacristy with cross roof at the southeast, like a single transept arm. In 1959 an outer north aisle was added, with flat roofs and circular sky lights, and a flat-roofed narrow sacristy at the east end. There is a chapel in a former boiler house below the sanctuary and the sacristy, with a separate external entrance in a small timber porch to the east.
The west elevation has buttresses dividing nave and aisles, and blind arcading below the eaves. At the apex of the gable is an aedicule niche with a statue of the Madonna and Child. Below are a cusped circular window and the west doors within a gabled Corinthian porch. To the right of the doors is the foundation stone. The porch to the outer north aisle has a door on the south elevation and a bronze plaque with the Madonna and Child of 2000 on its west side. The church’s south elevation has circular windows in each aisle bay and corbelled eaves. A small porch was added in 1959 in the angle between aisle and sacristy. The south facade of the two-storey sacristy has a circular window below the gable, above two round-headed sash windows in the upper storey and two sash windows with glazing bars in the lower storey. Directly below are two windows lighting the chapel in the former boiler house, which apparently used to be the coal chutes. The east elevation has a narrow apse set against the gable, above a flat-roofed sacristy extending across the full width. The latter has an entrance door with steps at its south end. There are two slim chimneys on either side of the east gable, presumably for the boiler.
The west doors open straight into the five-bay nave with barrel vault. The inside faces of the west doors have large paintings of St Michael and St Peter (2006, M. Dovani)
On either side are statues of St Theresa and St Anthony (c.1959, carved by Virgilio Prugger and painted by Henry Farmer). The organ loft above is supported by two Corinthian columns. It has a cast-iron balustrade and is accessed via a cast-iron spiral stair in the north aisle. (The organ has been described as being by Mander but has a small plaque from ‘T. Hopkins & Son, organ builders, Heworth, York’.) The nave has Corinthian columns with scagliola shafts, bases and pedestals, which support a round-headed arcade. Instead of a clerestorey with windows, there is a triforium with quatrefoils in circles with symbols from the Litany of Loreto. The benches filling nave and aisles are by Fr. Chedal A. A. (1920s). The Stations of the Cross are carved in low relief (c.1959, carved by Prugger and painted by Farmer).
The north aisle has at its east end a columned niche with a statue of the Sacred Heart (c.1959, carved by Prugger and painted by Farmer). The outer north wall was partially removed in 1959, when a range of chapels and other spaces was added, which turned the north aisle’s circular windows into clerestorey windows. The outer north range has circular skylights. At the west end of this range is a porch and a lobby with a large carved crucifix, leading into the north aisle. A small repository (presumably the former baptistery) is located in the next bay to the east, its gated entrance accessible from the north aisle. The Lady Chapel (originally the Assumption Chapel) is in the two bays to the east. At its west end is a timber confessional, beside a door leading to a narrow alley outside. The chapel has a landscape mural by M. Dovani (2009) and a small altar with tabernacle below a relief statue of the Virgin of the Assumption (c.1959, carved by Prugger and painted by Farmer). At the entrance to the chapel is a large statue of St Patrick. The easternmost space in the outer north aisle is a Room of Reconciliation.
To the left of the sanctuary steps is the octagonal timber pulpit on a scagliola column base (by Fr Gregory Chedal, 1924). Five sides are carved with the Four Evangelists and Christ. To the right of the sanctuary is the small octagonal stone font on a small scagliola column on a square pedestal. On a corbel behind is a small sculpture of Christ’s Baptism. Internally, the sanctuary is polygonal, probably due to the boiler flues in the outer corners. It has timber clergy stalls, a timber forward altar and two entrances from the sacristy on either side. The high altar is of stone with a marble mensa. The frontal has four Composite scagliola columns, a metal cross, the Christogram ICXC and the words ‘adveniat regnum tuum’. The altar was remodelled during the 1959 restoration but retained the original mensa. Originally, the high altar was more elaborate and had a gabled tabernacle (now in the sacristy) above which was a monstrance throne (figure 1). In the walls on either side of the altar are an aumbry with a metal door with the Agnus Dei (in memory of Atilla Joseph Kurucz, d.1986), and a piscina. Above the altar is a niche created in 1959 and filled with a painting by Henry Farmer, which is a copy of an icon of Our Lady of Grace in the Augustinian Church of S. Patrizio in Rome. Above, framed by a double arch on Composite columns and pilasters, is a large rood carved by Edward Carron (c.1959), filling the apse which originally contained a statue of Our Lady and the Child. The apse is lit by a skylight and two side windows.
The south aisle has at its east end a columned niche with a statue of St Joseph the Carpenter with the Christ Child (c.1959, carved by Prugger and painted by Farmer). The sacristy consists of a room at the southeast and a full-width corridor at the east which leads to the entrance on the north side of the altar. The room to the southeast contains the tabernacle from the original high altar, within its gabled aedicule with two scagliola columns. Underneath the church’s east end is the ‘crypt’ (the former boiler house), consisting of three large rooms which have been recently refurbished for use as a weekday chapel. The rooms are lit by raised basement windows. There is a niche (presumably leading to one of the chimney flues) now decorated like a grotto with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The presbytery, an early-mid nineteenth century villa, is listed Grade II.
Architect: Eugéne-Jacques Gervais
Original Date: 1905
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed