Cowpen Road, Cowpen, Northumberland NE24
A Gothic Revival design converted from an old cow barn, originally by John Dobson and much altered in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The building is of substantial historical interest as the church of the earliest Benedictine mission in the immediate area and the church and burial place of the Sidney family, whose patronage of the Catholic faith was so important in the middle years of the nineteenth century. In 1840, Marlow Sidney introduced the c.1750 Flemish altar rail and pulpit incorporating sixteenth and c.1700 carvings, both of great interest and quality. The re-used English mid-nineteenth century woodwork of the west gallery is also very fine.
The church is at right angles to the road, so its west end faces north. For the purposes of this report, conventional liturgical orientation is used, i.e. the altar at the east.
Cowpen (pronounced Coop’n) is an old settlement, now a suburb of Blyth that doesn’t even merit a separate mention in Pevsner (p195). Ten Catholics from Cowpen joined the 1569 rising and two were later executed. The Sidney family came to Cowpen Hall in 1804 (rebuilding it soon after) and ‘Mass was first offered there by a French priest, Father Deshoques and the baptism records for the period 1811-1820 show seventeen entries. Mass later moved to Cowpen Grove House, but this became too small due to the expansion of the Bedlington Iron Works, and an influx of Irish immigrants, who swelled the Catholic population.’ The Hall was about 500 yards south (west) of the church; part of it became the Sidney Arms public house in the early twentieth century. It was demolished in the late 1970s and the site is now a drive-in MacDonald’s restaurant
‘In 1841, Mr Marlow J. Sidney, a local Justice of the Peace, converted an old cow byre, with a hayloft, into the first church at Cowpen. This would later be pulled down and the stones of the old building worked into the church that survives to this day. The church became part of a Benedictine mission which included Bedlington, Morpeth and Cowpen and would later encompass New Hartley, Blyth, Backworth, Annitsford and Ashington’ (quotes from Blyth church history website).
Down your Aisles (the history of the diocese) gives 1836 as the date of the Benedictine mission here and the diocesan Calendar a consecration date of 18 November 1840. A letter of 5 August 1840 in the Northumberland Record Office (RCD 6/1/67) from Mr M. J. Sidney to Bishop Briggs at York describes the conversion of a building into a church in detail, and asks the bishop to consecrate the altar, which he did on 18 November following. Dobson presumably added the present sanctuary, with its good thirteenth century-style stone features set within re-used stone, to the farm building that became the nave. ‘Some of the old oak carving which still adorns the altar rails and pulpit was purchased by Mr Sidney from a church in Holland, which was being demolished during one of his visits to that country’. (B. S. Durrant, Memorials of the Sidneys and the Woolletts, Liverpool 1911, 11)
The altar rail and stem pulpit with tester and staircase contain much re-used carved and sculpted wood dating from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, of varying but often high quality. The rail and staircase appear to be of one mid-eighteenth century date and are possibly complete as the central gate has clearly been cut into an existing panel to fit this position. The openwork panels and their subject matter suggest a Flemish origin; although there are rather cruder standing figures on the intervening plinths, the similar style of the faces and draperies suggest they are contemporary. The pulpit is more obviously assembled and is based on a more recognisable English prototype; stem pulpits are known on the continent, but usually they are rather more flamboyant.
In a letter of 16 August 1979, Fr Andrew Gibbons OSB, parish priest of Cowpen, wrote to Geoffrey Scott (now Abbot of Douai) ‘the west wing of the church was built AD 1859-60; the east wing later’ and an 1872 ‘enlargement’ might be the date of the latter. (Northern Catholic History, no. 30, Autumn 1989, ‘Catholic Missions since 1850’, 36). These seem to be referring to the north (compass east) and south (west) aisles, which do have detailed differences. The north aisle has thirteenth century-style corbels under the gutter which are not present on the south, the south aisle has ashlar facing to its west wall, the west wall of the south aisle is attached to a nave buttress, the north has a conventional corner, the west gable crosses are different, the north has single lancet windows, the south pairs. Internally, the west arches to the chancel chapels are formed differently to those connecting the chapel to the sanctuary.
They are called ‘wings’ because building control drawing LBB/G/2/912 dated March 1904 by J. Goulding, architect of Blyth, in the Northumberland Record Office indicates that there were solid walls between the nave and what are now aisles in 1904. This cannot be right, as no entrances are shown to the two spaces, despite the drawing showing most windows, arches and doors in the church. But if stone arcades did exist, surely they were not replaced by the present iron columns and girders?
That drawing was proposing the insertion of girders the length of the nave, with the erection of the present clerestory on top, all supported with three ‘metal’ columns each side; the insertion of a ‘plaster’ chancel arch on corbels and the erection of a new unaisled west bay with a west gallery and porch. The story is that ‘a former priest found the nave too dark, so he raised the roof & included clerestory windows c. 1904. Perhaps he got the money from the colliery, in compensation for a landslip which cracked the edifice….’. (Fr Gibbons letter of 16 August 1979). As the two hopper heads at the west end of the aisle valley gutters are dated 1904, work was presumably carried out that year. There are a few detail differences ‘as built’ e.g. no tracery to the west windows, but it can be attributed to J. Goulding. The simple post and lintel construction of the nave ‘arcades’ is very unarchaeological for the date, as are the corbels under the timber chancel arch and the decoration to the roof trusses.
A sanctuary platform was built by Fr Gibbons in 1969 when the high altar was brought forward, the 1879 reredos removed and the plaster of the east end was stripped and the present black pointing substituted. This reveals a ledge in the rubble at window sill level in the east wall, which might be part of the original cow barn.
The adjacent presbytery is linked to the northeast sacristy with a stone and slate link that includes a door. The presbytery itself is rented out and has been extensively modernised, but the stone gables suggest a nineteenth century date. Again, it is thought that it was converted from a farmhand’s single storey house attached to the cow barn that came to be the church.
There is a cemetery on the opposite side of the road; letters in the diocesan archive suggest it was attempted to bring this into local authority care in 1970, following some re-interments for road widening. However, it remains the responsibility of the parish. It has recently undergone improvement, incomplete at the time of the visit, making it more like a park. Some headstones remain on the boundary. As Blyth (and other local churches) had no graveyard, Cowpen was the main Catholic cemetery for the area. Benedictines were buried in a large vault to the northwest of the churchyard and in the 1970s some of the Sisters of Mercy based in the Blyth presbytery were buried here.
A red brick parish hall adjacent to the cemetery was sold to the Empire Boxing Club a few years ago.
St Cuthbert’s was built in 1840 by John Dobson in local stone with slate roofs, the north aisle added in 1859-60, the south aisle 1872. The west bay with its gallery, nave ‘arcades’ and clerestory and chancel arch were added in 1904 from designs by J. Goulding. The exposed random walling of the chancel internally is quite different to the squared and partly dressed external nave stone and is said to be the stonework of the cow barn initially converted for worship by the Sidneys of nearby Cowpen Hall (demolished). Four-bay aisled nave with unaisled western bay with central west porch. The aisles continue to flank the deep chancel, forming a sacristy to the north and chapel to the south, the latter with an attached brick built recess on the south. There is a stone and slate link passage to the modernised presbytery the the north of the chancel.
West facade with stepped and gabled buttresses flanking a porch beneath a window of three large stepped lancets with trefoil heads. The gable is crowned with a gabled bellcote for one bell (Dobson’s re-erected). The west porch gable culminates in a big cusped cross over a quatrefoil panel. The double boarded west door is within an arch of two orders and hood mould with fourteenth century style foliate capitals and stops. The west ends of the nave aisles are set back behind the facade and both have a two light plate tracery window with a quatrefoil in the apex, with small detail differences. The western bays of the nave have the same type of window lighting the space under the western gallery inside.
North nave aisle with chamfered buttresses and trefoil headed lancet windows, but a pair of lancets in the west bay. The stonework is similar to the west end of the nave and the window sill level string course continues across the west end and porch; thirteenth century style corbels under the gutter. The south aisle is not readily accessible externally, but the west wall is built of large ashlars and the plate tracery window is larger as well as different in construction and detail to those on the nave and north aisle. There is also a different gable cross. Pairs of lancet windows between chamfered buttresses. The exterior of the east end in the presbytery garden was not inspected.
Internally, the nave is plastered but the east end walls were exposed in 1969 and re-pointed with heavy black mortar. The grey rubble chancel stonework is approximately coursed but as none of the stone features are inserted into it, the walls were assembled at the same time. The features are all simply chamfered and of a grey stone that is different to the yellower stone of the chamfered arches at the east ends of both nave aisles. The east wall has three stepped lancets and a shallow ledge the length of the wall at sill level. The stained glass is signed ‘Newcastle 1860’ and is probably by Atkinson Brothers. The two side walls have doorways to the flanking spaces (sacristy and chapel north, Lady Chapel south) to the west; there is a crudely formed open arched recess to the north east, piscina and triple arched sedilia (also open to the south chapel) to the southeast.
Both north and south chancel walls have a central square headed clerestory window of two pointed lights beneath a timber lintel. The single roof truss sits on the lintel. The chancel roof is continuous with the nave but there is a boarded timber chancel arch springing from a concave sided stone corbel decorated with praying angels. It looks as though a circular shaft was intended beneath the corbel.
The chancel chapels have matchboarded flat ceilings and a single pointed-head window (south wall on the south, east wall on the north). The south chapel has a grotto surrounding a statue of the Virgin on the east wall over a modern altar. The north chapel is used as a sacristy but retains a statue of the Sacred Heart. The door to the link includes a confessional grille and has rustic iron hinges.
The aisled nave has four bays formed by the three cast iron columns with c.1300 detail supporting a continuous timber faced iron girder with a roll-moulded lower edge. Square headed clerestory windows of two pointed lights (like the chancel) to each bay. The ornate collar roof trusses have almost seventeenth century Gothic details; three passing purlins and a roof ridge, all chamfered.
A west gallery fills the unaisled west bay. Although the main timbers and much of the panelling is of 1904, it incorporates some very high quality tracery details and decorative work of early fourteenth century style, which although also nineteenth century in date, is clearly re-used. There is a domestic staircase in the south west corner. Two wall mounted brasses in the northwest corner commemorate Marlow and Christina Sidney, ‘founders of this Church’ and Fr Wilfrid Burchall, in Mass Vestments, missioner here 1845-66 [death]. The latter is probably the work of Hardman of Birmingham. The west porch beyond has a tessellated floor incorporating the IHS symbol and a fine thirteenth century style piscina-like stoup, possibly another Dobson piece re-used. The west door has a single order on shafts.
The wooden altar rail obtained by Marlow Sidney ‘in Holland’ has four openwork panels separated by piers decorated with a pointed arch over cruder but probably contemporary standing angels, all beneath a moulded rail. The slightly Rococo style suggests a c.1750 date. Two panels to the south of the central gate panel, one to the north. Within the panels are St Michael with his scales but on horseback, a mounted king with a bow and arrow (Horsemen of the Apocalypse), a pair of tablets with a scroll and quill (Ten Commandments) and a flying angel. At the north end is the staircase to the pulpit, of pale wood with two dark wood roundels (like the pulpit), one with Marian symbols including the crowned initials IXXR, the other a fluted columnar plinth topped with a ram in flames (Sacrifice of the Ram).
The pulpit is square with chamfered corners, stands on a short fluted column and has a back and tester. It may be a complete c.1700 Flemish piece containing two sixteenth century carvings, but the carcase is more probably a c.1840 assembly copying late seventeenth designs with winged cherubs and gadrooning, but containing many genuine seventeenth century pieces (e.g. on the underside of the tester), presumably form ‘Holland’. On the two long sides are what seem to be late medieval sixteenth century figurative pieces; a mitred abbot clothing a novice in the monastic habit with three monks and Christ displaying his wounds flanked by angels. The back has two more roundels and some seventeenth century griffons and a cherub. The two exposed corners have standing figures of a nun and a monk, possibly of eighteenth century date.
The church was listed Grade II in 2016, following Taking Stock. The list description can be seen at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1431014
Architect: John Dobson; J. Goulding
Original Date: 1840
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II