Building » Commercial Road – St Mary and St Michael

Commercial Road – St Mary and St Michael

Commercial Road, London E1

A large Gothic Revival church built from designs by William Wardell to serve the East End, and the successor to the eighteenth-century Virginia Street chapel. When first built, it was the largest Catholic church in London (soon overtaken by the Italian church in Clerkenwell). The church contains several historic furnishings, despite war damage and several reordering schemes. Although the intended tower and spire were never completed, the church is a powerful presence in the Commercial Road Conservation Area.

The parish is the successor to the eighteenth-century Virginia Street chapel, attached to a hospital for foreign sailors. The Catholic chaplain was maintained by the Portuguese ambassador and local Catholics attended the chapel as well. This building was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and rebuilt as a plain building. Its lease was to expire in 1857 and fundraising for a new site and building started as early as 1815. In 1842 a freehold site was acquired for £3,000. Ten years later, in 1852 William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-99) prepared drawings and the builders, Messrs Bird, signed the contract. Cardinal Wiseman laid the foundation stone on 24 May 1853 but building work stopped temporarily for lack of funds. The still unfinished building was opened by Cardinal Wiseman on 8 December 1856. The total cost was around £30,000.

In 1898, Frederick Arthur Walters (1849-1931) reordered the sanctuary. He also made drawings in the 1890s for additions to the presbytery (then to the liturgical southeast of the church) and to the schools (then on a site between Joseph Street and Johnson Street on the other side of the railway viaduct). By 1900 there was a disused burial ground behind the church and presbytery which Walters surveyed as part of an unexecuted proposal for new school buildings on the site. In 1909-11 and 1916, several new furnishings designed by Robert Leabon Curtis (1842-1918) were installed. Following war damage in 1945, the church was repaired by J. E. Sterrett, who also formed the gable in the top of the truncated tower, with statues in niches. He also designed the new presbytery with sacristy to the (liturgical) north of the church. In 1992, the church was reordered by Martin Goalen with the contractors Messrs Peak of Harlow.

In 2002, Abbott & Associates were given planning permission for a Community Hall behind the east end of the church. In August 2011, the HCC issued a faculty for a new warm air heating scheme. Kyle Smart Associates converted the west end of the outer north aisle into a heating chamber with tracery-shaped vents to the church and two dormer vents on the roof.


The exterior is described in the list entry (see below). The interior was not inspected at the time of listing, but the description refers to various features the church was said to contain. The following is a more detailed description.  

The church faces south, but this description uses conventional, liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was at the east.

The plan is longitudinal, consisting of an eleven-bay aisled nave with an outer north aisle and chapels at the east ends of the aisles. At the south is an entrance porch but the main entrance is via the unfinished tower at the west. The nave, the inner aisles and all three chapels have gabled roofs, while the outer north aisle has lean-to roofs. Internally, the nave roof is arch-braced while the aisles have collar-beam roofs. The outer north aisle is mainly occupied by confessionals. Of the three bays at the west (designed by Wardell as organ chamber), two bays are now enclosed as a heating chamber.

There are a number of corrections and suggested additions to the list entry:

  • According to Evinson, the stone dressings are in Caen Stone (rather than Bath stone as in the list entry).
  • The post-war statue in the niche on the west gable is of Christ the King.
  • The high altar and reredos were erected in 1911 in memory of Dean Dooley and were designed by Robert Leabon Curtis (not R. C. Curtis as in the list entry). The frontal depicts the Last Supper.
  • The alabaster and marble communion rails date from 1916 and were also designed by R. L. Curtis
  • Theodore Phyffers (c.1820-76) made two statues in the church, that of St Patrick (according to Evinson of 1855) and that of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, both formerly in chapels and now at the west end.
  • The sanctuary reordering of 1898 by F. A. Walters (not ‘Walter’ as in list description) comprised a change to the floor level and the arrangement of steps, additions to the reredos and gradine, a new tiled sanctuary floor, wrought-iron screens, and a rood beam (since removed).
  • The original stained glass was destroyed in the Second World War and was replaced in 1956-57 by stained glass by Hardman (in the windows at the east, in the southeast chapel, northeast chapel and outer northeast chapel). The east window’s tracery was simplified. One south window in the southeast chapel and a north aisle window have glass of 1999-2001 by Shades of Light.
  • The list description mentions the 1992 reordering by ‘Gerald Goalen’. According to Evinson, it was actually executed by his son, Martin (who traded with his father as Gerald Goalen & Partner). This included a raised stone platform with marble floor to the west of the altar rails, with a stone forward altar with marble-faced supports, a presidential chair and an ambo of stone.
  • The Boulton and Swales altar is in the Blessed Sacrament chapel at the southeast (formerly the Sacred Heart chapel, originally dedicated to St Patrick). Its reredos has reliefs of the Last Supper and the Multiplication of the Loaves. Reliefs in the frontal depict the Crucifixion and the brazen serpent. In front of the chapel is the organ (Slater of London), raised on a timber platform.
  • The Lady Chapel at the northeast has a stone altar with a frontal of marble columns and marble-filled cusped arches. Its reredos, similar in outline to that in the southeast chapel, has reliefs of the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi on either side of a niche with a statue of the Virgin and Child.
  • The outer northeast chapel, dedicated to the Stepney Martyrs, has a marble and stone altar and a reredos with reliefs relating to the martyrs, both of a post-war date. A stone tablet on the north wall commemorates the individual martyrs.
  • At the southwest is the baptistery with marble-panelled font and walls, wrought-iron rails and the Baptism of Christ in mosaic and opus sectile work.
  • Other furnishings of note at the west end are a large crucifix (which formed part of a Calvary that was partly destroyed during bombing in March 1945) and a statue of St Michael and the dragon.

Other furnishings of note at the west end are a large crucifix (which formed part of a Calvary that was partly destroyed during bombing in March 1945) and a statue of St Michael and the dragon.

List description


Roman Catholic church. 1852-1856 by William Wardell (1823-1899). Kentish rag stone with Bath stone dressings; Welsh slate roof. Eleven bay nave with chancel, side aisles, and side chapel; tower with spire never built. Gothic Revival, Decorated style. Five-light traceried window to (liturgical) west end over arched door, set between buttresses capped with statues of St Mary and St Michael; statue-filled niche above. Cross finials to gable apexes. Three-light Decorated tracery windows to ends of side aisles. Large traceried window to Chancel. 

Interior not inspected but said to contain numerous fittings of interest. These include: original altar and reredos of 1856 by Boulton & Swales in the side chapel; stained glass by Hardman & Co. of 1856; high altar and reredos of 1911 by R.C. Curtis; alabaster communion rails; statue of St Patrick by Theodore Phyffers, c1856. 

History: when first built this was the largest Roman Catholic church in the capital. Wardell, its architect, was a pupil of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin: this church embodies the teachings of his master. The chancel was altered in 1898 by F.A. Walter and the church was reordered in 1992 by Gerald Goalen.

Heritage Details

Architect: W. W. Wardell

Original Date: 1856

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II