Building » Colchester – St James the Less and St Helen

Colchester – St James the Less and St Helen

Priory Street, Colchester, Essex CO1

A church of the 1830s in Norman style by J. J. Scoles, a leading Catholic architect of the middle years of the nineteenth century. The choice of Norman may have been influenced by the proximity of the Romanesque ruins of St Botolph’s Priory (next to which the Anglican church of St Botolph, also neo-Norman in style, was built at the same time). The adjoining presbytery is contemporary with the church and also by Scoles. In the early years of the twentieth century the church was considerably enlarged and refurnished under Canon Bloomfield, repeating the neo-Norman style of the original work. Post-Vatican II reordering was undertaken sympathetically, and included the introduction of stained glass by A. W. Pugin and Heaton, Butler & Bayne, rescued from redundant churches. The church, presbytery and adjoining early twentieth-century Cardinal Bourne Institute form a good group close to Colchester’s Roman wall, and make a positive contribution to the local conservation area.

At the end of the eighteenth century a small group of Irish Catholic exiles from the Continent were living in Colchester, ministered to by an exiled French priest. Their numbers were boosted in the early nineteenth century by the arrival of Irish Catholic soldiers, and in 1814 Amand Benard, a French priest serving Colchester Garrison, recorded eleven civilian Catholics in the town and twelve baptisms. However, there is no record of a chapel having been registered (as required under the Second Relief Act).

In 1831 William Dearn, a former soldier and artisan-tradesman, provided a small building near the bottom of North Hill, where Mass was said by a priest from Witham. There may have been a small chapel in Moor Lane (later Priory Street) before the building of the present church. This and the adjoining presbytery were built in 1837 from designs by J. J. Scoles, the church being originally dedicated to St James the Greater. The site was donated by James Hoy, a farmer of Stoke-by- Nayland, and the mission was endowed by Lord Stourton. The foundation stone was laid on 3 March 1837 and the church opened by Dr Thomas Griffiths, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, on 3 November in the same year. The cost was £2,500, with an additional £250 for the altar and stained glass. Like the nearby Anglican church of St Botolph, the church is built in the Norman style. This was adopted elsewhere by Scoles, for example at the slightly later (1841-43) St John the Evangelist at Islington, unfavourably described by Pugin as ‘the most original combination of modern deformity that has been executed for some time’. The choice of the Norman style at Colchester may have been influenced by the proximity of the ruins of the Romanesque St Botolph’s priory (next door to which the Anglican church of St Botolph, also in the Norman style, was built about the same time). The church was cheaply built in brick, with no external images or statues, for fear of local hostility.

To start with, the civilians in the congregation were greatly outnumbered by Catholic soldiers and their families, particularly in the 1850s at the time of the Crimean war. Civilians and soldiers continued to worship together until 1865, when an army chaplain was appointed. From 1867 this chaplain used the camp chapel in Military Road, but in 1904 the pastoral care of Catholic soldiers in the garrison reverted to St James’s. A garrison church was built at Le Cateau barracks in about 1954 but this closed in the 1980s, whereupon Mass for army families was held at St John’s, Iceni Way.

In 1891 the Sisters of Mercy arrived from Brentwood and in 1896 a school was built next door.

The dedication of the church was changed to St James the Less by 1900 (no doubt to avoid confusion with the nearby medieval Anglican church of St James the Great, East Hill). St Helen was added to the dedication in about 1902. St Helen (or Helena) has local significance; the mother of the Emperor Constantine and inventor of the True Cross was, according to some accounts, born in Colchester.

The church has been altered and added to over the years. Originally it consisted of an aisleless nave (with west gallery) and short apsidal sanctuary. In 1861 the organ was removed from the gallery to make way for extra seating for soldiers. In the early twentieth century major changes and enlargements took place under Canon Bloomfield (parish priest 1902-1932). In 1904 a north aisle and sacristy were added, and the apsidal sanctuary rebuilt in enlarged form (builders Messrs T. J. Ward) and in 1907 a south aisle was added. The architect for these additions is given as Charles Edward Butcher, although one wonders whether F. W. Tasker, whose neo-Norman church at Clacton (qv) had recently been completed, also had an advisory role. (Interestingly, Tasker had also completed Scoles’s Islington church in the 1870s.) The additions were largely built from a legacy of £2,000 from Dean Lucas, who had died in 1902 (and who is commemorated in the Lady Chapel altar and in a stained glass window in the apse). In 1911 the parish hall was built, from designs by Canon A. J. C. Scoles (son of the original architect of the church) and Geoffrey Raymond. This addition, the Cardinal Bourne Institute, was named after and opened by Cardinal Francis Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster.

The church was reordered in 1975 and again in 1987, when stained glass windows by A. W. Pugin from a redundant church installed in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, and glass by Heaton, Butler & Bayne from the redundant Anglican church of St Leonard, Leicester was installed in the apse.

In the 1990s the outside appearance of the church was enhanced by repaving and the introduction of iron railings, grant aided by the Borough Council and English Heritage through a local conservation area partnership.


The church is built in the Norman style. As originally designed by J. J. Scoles it consisted of an aisleless nave with short apsidal sanctuary, but in 1904 and 1907 it was enlarged by C. E. Butcher, with the addition of aisles and a larger apsidal sanctuary with flanking chapels. The church is built of pale grey bricks laid in English bond, with Portland stone dressings and slate roofs. A contemporary presbytery in matching brick and also in vaguely neo-Norman style is attached to the south side at the west end; this has recessed panels within which are round-arched sash windows with glazing bars. Originally it was connected to the church via a single storey link, to which a second storey was added in the twentieth century.

The design of the west front is loosely based on that of St Etienne at Caen in Normandy, with triple arched windows over the central round-arched entrance, and flanking turrets (now truncated and capped with concrete) typical of the Commissioners’-type churches of the early nineteenth century. The central door is flanked by stone panels with a lozenge motif. The triple windows over and the round- arched window in the gable have stone dressings with dentils in the arches and narrow flanking colonettes.

The west doors lead into a narthex with gallery over, created in the early twentieth century. Within the narthex is a series of marble memorial plaques to parishioners and clergy, including Canon John Bloomfield, ‘generous benefactor of this church’, who oversaw the early twentieth-century additions. The arcading of the narthex has been glazed in. The main space of the nave consists of three bays, and is separated from the aisles by Norman-style circular piers with cushion capitals and arcading with billet mouldings. Above the arcades are short clerestory lights (the original window proportions may be guessed from the blind opening in the western bay of the nave). The ceiling is flat, boarded and compartmented. At the east end of the nave is a wide chancel arch giving onto the apsidal sanctuary, the latter rebuilt in the early twentieth century.

Fittings include stained glass windows in the apse by Lavers & Westlake, dating from 1904 and a central apse window by Heaton, Butler & Bayne from the redundant church of St Leonard, Leicester, installed here as part of the 1987 reordering. In the north (Blessed Sacrament) chapel are two lancet windows with vibrantly-coloured stained glass by A. W. Pugin, also introduced in 1987, from a redundant church in Derbyshire. The central panels depict Christ and disciples with smaller panels above and below with angels and floral motifs. Stained glass in the aisles is early twentieth- century in date, contemporary with those additions. The original altar was brought here from the Catholic chapel at Somers Town. In the early twentieth century this was replaced by a stone and marble altar with neo- Norman detailing, given as a memorial to the parents of Canon Bloomfield. This has been adapted to serve as a forward altar. Behind this against the east wall of the apse is the presidential chair, again with neo-Norman detailing. The stone pulpit, against the south respond of the chancel arch, is Gothic, with carved figures of saints. The furnishings of the side chapels are also Gothic, stone with marble trim. The neo- Norman font, now placed in the north aisle towards the east end, is said in the English Heritage listing report to be contemporary with the church, but is almost identical to the early twentieth-century font at Our Lady of Light, Clacton (qv), and probably belongs to Canon Bloomfield’s time. What was presumably previously the baptistery, at the west end of the north aisle, is now a war memorial chapel housing a large alabaster pieta.

The congregational seating consist of plain modern benches, probably introduced at the time of one or other of the post-Vatican II reorderings, while the organ dates from the 1960s.

Heritage Details

Architect: J. J. Scoles; C. E. Butcher

Original Date: 1837

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed