Building » Greenwich (east) – St Joseph

Greenwich (east) – St Joseph

Pelton Road, Greenwich, London SE10

A tall, mainstream church of the later Gothic Revival by Henry John Hansom, son of the better-known church architect J. A. Hansom. It was built in 1880 to serve a mainly Irish Catholic population, which had moved into the East Greenwich area in the years after the Great Famine. The church has a lofty interior with some furnishings of note. Its high roof is a significant landmark in the East Greenwich Conservation Area and the church is locally listed.

The mission at Greenwich was established in 1793, making it one of the oldest in south London. Catholics at Greenwich were in a unique position due to the presence of around 500 Catholic seamen in the Greenwich Hospital, to whom the country had a sense of obligation. The first chapel was built by the architect James Taylor in the back garden of his own house in Park Vista. It was accessed from the north via a covered pathway between two houses, 12 and 13 Clark’s Buildings; the latter was used as presbytery and later by the chapel’s caretaker. These two houses were also owned by Taylor who in 1824 granted a 960-year lease for them to the bishop. The chapel was opened on 10 November 1793 by Bishop Douglass, Bishop of the London District. Subscriptions had raised only £260 of the building cost of £1,453 and the shortfall was provided by Taylor. In 1795 a 999-year lease on the site and building was signed, as well as a deed of trust. The latter stipulated that when no longer in use as a chapel, the building should revert to Taylor, his heirs or assigns. In 1823 a school opened at 8 Clark’s Buildings.

In 1851 Our Ladye Star of the Sea at Greenwich opened and the old chapel was closed. However, this happened just as a large Irish population moved into East Greenwich following the Great Famine. They mainly worked at the market gardens beside the river, in factories and the building trade. In order to provide for this community, the old chapel was reopened in 1868 for the East Greenwich Mission, with Fr John Cunningham Robertson as its priest.

In 1870 the old school was condemned by the School Board for London, and a new one was erected between 1871 and 1873 at the corner of Pelton Road and Commerell Street. The architect was Henry John Hansom (1828–1904), son of Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803–1882), church architect, inventor of the Hansom cab and founder of The Builder. Henry John Hansom was in partnership with his father in 1859-1861 and then District Surveyor for Battersea. Shortly after the completion of the school, the site of the reopened chapel was required for the extension of the London to Greenwich railway line. It was part-demolished in 1873, with the last baptism taking place in 1876. Mass was said in the upper rooms of the school. Plans for a new building began to be formulated immediately, supported by a Pastoral Letter of 1874. In about 1875, the presbytery was built at the street corner opposite the school. (The area was part of the Morden College Estate in East Greenwich, developed between 1842 and 1869 to plans by George Smith to provide artisan housing.)

By November 1879, the plans of the church were in the hands of the surveyor for the purposes of taking estimates. Work started in 1880, the foundation stone being laid on 20 May by Bishop Dannell. The architect was again Henry John Hansom. The builder was W. Smith of Kennington and the clerk of works Mr Cunningham. The cost of the church was £4,350, without the furnishings and the unfinished tower, which was to remain a stump. It is not clear how the parish raised this sum, as most parishioners were poor and no list of subscribers survives.

On 25 May 1881 the church was opened by Cardinal Manning. In October that year the Sacred Heart altar was consecrated, a gift from the local Butler family. In 1883, a new high altar of yellow marble and a reredos with painted panels of the Nativity, Trinity and Redemption were installed. The work was executed in fifteenth-century style by M. Zeus, a sculptor and painter of Ghent, with a gilt brass crucifix by the Belgian Gothic revival architect Baron Jean Bethune. The cost of high altar, pulpit, confessionals, and the decoration of the sanctuary and side chapels was largely met by family members of the mission priest, Rev. Augustine Marie Boone, originally from Belgium. The church not only served a largely Irish neighbourhood and the Hospital pensioners but also the Greenwich workhouse nearby.

In 1920 the parish bought a site with old workshops adjoining the school in order to create a parish hall. In 1940, the church was severely damaged by a nearby bomb, which lifted the roof off the building. Mass was said in a convent chapel in Mycenae Road, and later in a temporary chapel in the school and in the presbytery. A year later, three incendiary bombs fell on the school and two on the church; the fires were swiftly put out and greater damage avoided. After temporary repairs, the church reopened for worship in August 1942. In about 1959, an extensive restoration took place, repairing the war damage. The faded and damaged frescos in the sanctuary were painted over; the reredos was replaced by a gold mosaic with two angels; and a new timber forward altar (made by John Kent), new altar rails, a lectern and seats were installed. In 1962, a new organ was installed, replaced an organ by Sweatman which had been destroyed by bombing. The new organ was a reconditioned one, originally  built  in  c.1905  by  Conachers  of  Huddersfield.  It  was  found  in  the workshops  of  Messrs  J.  W.  Walker,  who  sold  it  to  the  parish  for  £3,950.  It  is reputedly one of the finest organs in the diocese. In 1964 a suspended ceiling was installed (since removed), possibly in connection with the repair of the roof structure.

In 1963 St Anne’s School on Croom’s Hill was closed and amalgamated with St Joseph’s school. Subsequently the school moved to a bomb site just to the north of the  church,  initially  in  temporary  classrooms. The  old  school  buildings  were converted to a parish club and social centre. In 2008, a planning application for the demolition of the old school building and the site’s redevelopment with a new parish centre and fourteen flats was refused and a subsequent appeal dismissed. Since the publication of Evinson’s description of the church, the altar rails have been removed.


The church of St Joseph was built in 1880-81 by the architect Henry John Hansom. It is built in brick, laid in Flemish bond, with Bath stone dressings and roofed in slate. The style is Early Decorated Gothic. The plan is longitudinal with a three-bay nave and a tall pitched roof, with lean-to aisles, an outer south aisle and an apsed sanctuary flanked by chapels. At the northwest corner is the only executed portion of the planned tower, which is two storeys high and has a pyramidal roof. There are entrances in the tower and the western bay of the north aisle.

The imposing west front is divided into three parts by unequal buttresses; the northern one being much larger because of the tower. The central part, at the west end of the nave, has two pairs of windows at the ground floor, flanking a shallow lean-to addition which now houses a confessional, but was originally the site of the main entrance. Above is a large four-light window with geometrical tracery, with a smaller triangular window above and a Celtic cross on the gable. (There are further Celtic crosses on the east gable and the apex of the apse roof.) The southern part of the west elevation has one two-light window, and the tower’s west elevation a single-light window with two smaller windows above. The north elevation clearly shows the unfinished state of the tower with its southern wall projecting upwards beyond the eaves. The doorway into the north aisle has a recessed arch with columns under a gable with a cross. The tower doorway is recessed with one column on each side and cusped tracery in the arch.

Entering via the tower doorway, there is a glazed narthex at the west end which does not include the westernmost bay of the south aisle. On the window sills in the narthex are statues of St Patrick, the Virgin and Child enthroned, and St Joseph. There is also a brass plaque commemorating the donors of the Station of the Cross in the 1870s. The Stations, possibly copies of Belgian work, are painted on metal and hang on the aisle walls. Above the narthex is an organ gallery, accessed through a stair off the north aisle. The nave is divided from the aisles by three tall pointed arches on each side with circular columns with four colonnettes. The clerestorey has a pair of two- light windows per bay. All windows are filled with clear glass, apart from three in the apse. The nave has a wagon roof. There are two rows of benches in the nave and projecting into the inner south aisle, with simple, carved ends. (They might date from the late nineteenth century.) The whole interior is carpeted, with only the tiles near the tower entrance exposed. On corbels on either side of the chancel arch are statues of Our Lady and St Joseph.

The plan of the apse consists of five sides of an octagon. The corbels of the apse roof feature the letters ‘JOSEPH’. Three clerestorey windows have stained glass, depicting the Annunciation, Noli Me Tangere and the Adoration. Below the central window is a gold mosaic of c.1959 with two angels in shades of blue on either side of a carved timber crucifix, below which stands the marble altar. On either side are niches with piscinae. On the north side of the sanctuary are two tall pointed arches towards the Lady Chapel with two clerestorey windows; on the opposite side is one arch to the south chapel, a blind arch, a door to the sacristy, and above, a glazed small arcade with two truncated clerestorey windows. The timber forward altar, the lectern and the pulpit are all modern. All the capitals in the sanctuary and side chapels are carved with foliage.

The north aisle has two small statues on its window sill, of St Augustine and St Pio. The Lady Chapel at its east end has a marble altar with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in a niche with a crocketed canopy. Below is a tabernacle flanked by marble panels. The frontal has the letter ‘M’ and the opening words of the Hail Mary. The corresponding side chapel to the south is dedicated to the Sacred Heart. A marble altar – with the pelican and the instruments of the Passion on its frontal – supports a large carved timber reredos with statues of two musician angels and the Sacred Heart in the centre.

The outer south aisle is much lower and narrower than the inner aisle. In the spandrels of the arcade between them are small quatrefoil windows. A door at the east end of the outer aisle leads into the two-storey sacristy. The original marble font is placed at the west end of the outer aisle. It has a square base and an octagonal stem and an octagonal bowl decorated with the symbols of the Evangelists and an inscription of the Christ’s parting words to the disciples (Mt. 28,19). At the time of the visit the bowl was lying on the floor. (It had been dislodged when the font was moved during refurbishment works.) A modern, cylindrical, tiled font in the nave is currently used instead. In the west end of the inner south aisle hangs a large carved crucifix.

Heritage Details

Architect: Henry John Hansom

Original Date: 1880

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed