Building » Dulwich – St Thomas More

Dulwich – St Thomas More

Lordship Lane, Dulwich, London SE22

A late Gothic Revival church by Joseph Goldie, third generation of a dynasty of Catholic architects. The design is unambitious for its time, but is nevertheless of good solid quality. The chief furnishing of note is the altar and reredos, a fine elaborate Gothic design in Caen stone probably by E. W. Pugin, brought here from Hales Place, Canterbury. The church occupies a prominent location in East Dulwich and lies within the Dulwich Village Conservation Area.

The Franciscans at Peckham established a mission in East Dulwich in 1879, building a school chapel dedicated to St Anthony at Five Elms in Lordship Lane in 1883. They handed the mission over to the Benedictines from Downside Abbey in 1892. The present site was acquired on a long lease from the Estates Governors of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift in 1907, on condition that a presbytery be built within one year and a church within five  years. J. N. Comper (who had worked for the Benedictines at Downside) designed the presbytery, which was completed on schedule in 1908. Comper also prepared designs for a church, but funds needed to be raised, and the Estates Governors persuaded to grant a three year extension on the terms of the lease. The intervention of the Great War put plans on hold, and no significant progress had been made by 1923, when the Benedictines relinquished the parish and handed it over to the diocese. Fr James O’Donoghue was appointed parish priest, and was to remain in post for 38 years. He negotiated a new lease of 200 years with the Estates Governors and appointed Joseph Goldie of Victoria Street, Westminster, to prepare fresh plans for a new church. Goldie’s first designs, said to have been based on Giles Gilbert Scott’s church at Northfleet, was rejected as too ambitious and expensive. A modified scheme was prepared and agreed, and a grateful Goldie wrote to Fr O’Donoghue saying that the Dulwich scheme had saved him from going out of business. Work started in the winter of 1927/28, the contractors being Goddards of Dorking. In February 1928 the great Caen stone high altar was acquired from Hales Place, Canterbury, where it had been made for the chapel of a Carmelite community of nuns intended by Miss Mary Barbara Hales, probably from  designs by E. W. Pugin. This project was never completed and the estate was subsequently acquired and a college built by French Jesuits. After their departure the house, college and chapel were demolished and the land redeveloped in 1928. The altar was acquired by Fr O’Donoghue for £200 and carefully dismantled, transported and reassembled by George Lee of Earp & Hobbs. It was described by Fr O’Donoghue in the opening handbook as ‘typical of Pugin’s genius at its best’.

The church was formally opened on 20 May 1929. The cost was £13,500. It was not then in a complete state. The side chapel/transepts were added in 1934 and the baptistery in 1935. In July 1944 Comper’s presbytery was destroyed by enemy action, with some damage to the church. The presbytery was rebuilt from designs by Russell Vernon, and the church reopened in February 1953. It incorporated a new Lady altar, acquired from a Liverpool convent in 1948. In 1963 the Sacred Heart chapel and baptistery were refurnished and the sanctuary roof painted under Fr Kenny, Fr O’Donoghue’s successor. About this time also oak lobbies were installed at the back of the church and oak pews installed in the nave, designed by John Kirby, an architect parishioner. Extensions were built to the sacristy, connecting it with the presbytery, and a new organ was installed. In 1968 a boundary wall and gates were built on the Lordship Lance frontage. Later, in 1970, the Sacred Heart chapel was refurbished, again under John Kirby’s direction, and a modern stained glass window in honour of St Columba installed, designed by Patrick Pye Studio, Co. Dublin.


The church was built in 1928-9 from designs by Joseph Goldie. It is in a free Middle Pointed Gothic style, and is faced in Bargate stone with Bath stone dressings (apart from the less visible east wall of the chancel, which is faced in brick). The roofs are clad in clay tiles. On plan it consists of a nave of five bays, with transept/chapels giving off the eastern two bays on each side, and a three bay chancel with sacristy and organ chamber giving off the south side. A baptistery gives off the western bay of the nave on the south side; this is a slightly later addition, as are the transepts. Attached to the church at the east end is the presbytery, a red brick design in a plain Tudor style, replacing a presbytery by J. N. Comper, which was destroyed by an enemy bomb in 1944.

The west front towards Lordship Lane is dominated by a large six-light tracery window over the entrance porch. Above this a stone crucifix is built into the gable, and in turn surmounted by a stone bellcote housing one bell. The flank elevations have tracery windows of three lights; the south elevation is broken by the projections of the baptistery, (the lower) confessional, the two bay gabled transepts and the gabled organ chamber giving off the sanctuary. The north elevation has a double gabled projection for the transept, with a secondary entrance porch on the west face of the transept projection.

The entrance porch leads into a small lobby or narthex and thence via oak framed lobbies into the main body of the church. The nave is wide and aisleless, with a painted hammer beam roof and wood parquet floors. The baptistery gives off the first bay to the south, separated by elaborate wrought iron gates. This is now a repository. Confessionals give off either side of the nave. The nave arcading continues in front of the two bay transept-chapels at the east end of the nave. The bays of the transepts each have transverse ribbed barrel vaults. On the south side are the Sacred Heart altar and the organ, and on the north side the Lady altar. A chancel arch separates the nave from the sanctuary; the latter is of three bays and has a pointed barrel vaulted ceiling divided by ribs into square compartments, which are painted with various saints emblems and monograms (added in 1963). An organ gallery (now used as a store) gives off the south side at the upper level, accessed via a spiral metal stair in the sacristy.

The church has a good collection of furnishings. Chief amongst these is the high altar and reredos, acquired for the church from the chapel at Hales Place, Canterbury. This occupies the entire east wall, and is of Caen stone, relieved with coloured marbles and mosaics. Figures of St Martha and St Mary Magdalen under canopied niches frame four panels also under Gothic canopies, of unusual iconography (intended for a female religious community) and depicting St Teresa, St Catherine of Ricci, St Mary Magdalen of Pazzi and St Juliana Falconieri. The alabaster tabernacle incorporates a Pelican in her Piety and a jewelled and embossed brass door with the Agnus Dei.

Other furnishings of note are:

  • The carved oak panelling and seating on the sides of the sanctuary, incorporating both linenfold and Gothic motifs
  • Carved and bleached oak pulpit/ambo at the chancel arch, Gothic and possibly cut down
  • Bleached oak benches in the nave, c1964
  • Gothic timber reredos in the Sacred Heart chapel incorporating a painting of the Sacred Heart flanked by St Margaret Mary and  Blessed Claude de la Colombiere, signed GFH and dated 1963
  • The Lady Chapel, refurbished in 1970, with curvilinear wrought iron railings/gates, Purbeck freestone floor and Ancaster stone altar. Oak reredos by A. J. Robinson, the statue of the Virgin and Child by Freda Skinner (1933)
  • Adjoining this, in the western bay of the north transept, a modern stained glass window depicting the Apparition of St Columba by Patrick Pye Studio, Co. Dublin (1970)
  • In the sanctuary, the relocated font, an unusual design, octagonal with fluted faces and a crown timber cover
  • Powerful carved timber stations of the Cross, 1929, by Anton Dupre
  • Statues of St Thomas More and St John Fisher in the nave, also by Dupre.
Heritage Details

Architect: Joseph Goldie

Original Date: 1927

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed