Building » Ely – St Etheldreda

Ely – St Etheldreda

Egremont Street, Ely, Cambridge, CB6 1AE

A small grey brick church in the Decorated Gothic style with a presbytery attached, both designed by the local architect Simeon Croot of Brampton, and together making a good contribution to the Ely Conservation Area. The church opened in 1903, but looks more like a building of the 1860s or 1870s. The interior has a conventional plan and retains some historic furnishings, but the original sanctuary arrangement was lost in a reordering of 1975. The church holds a relic of the hand of St Etheldreda of Ely.

In the nineteenth century, Mass was said for the small number of Ely Catholics in a private house, by Jesuit priests travelling from Newmarket. A mission was established in 1890 under the Rev. John Freeland, an enterprising cleric who helped to raise funds through his writing. In 1892 he was able to buy a site in Egremont Street, where he built a small prefabricated metal school-chapel. In 1895 he purchased a house in Market Street for use as a presbytery, which he later gave to the diocese. By the end of the century he had sufficient funds to build a permanent church and attached presbytery. The commission was given to Simeon Croot, architect and surveyor of Brampton in Huntingdonshire, who was also architect for St Michael the Archangel, Huntingdon (qv). The foundation stone was laid by the Rt Revd Mgr Scott VG in February 1903, and the church was opened by Bishop Riddell of Northampton on 17 October 1903. The cost of the church was £2,600, of the presbytery £900; the builders were Messrs Howard of Huntingdon. The old tin church was removed, to be re-erected at Thorney Toll. 

In 1925 a sugar beet factory opened in Ely, employing a large number of Irish workers, thereby swelling the congregation. In about 1950 a new arched opening was made from the sanctuary to the northeast sacristy, which became a crèche. In 1953 the Sisters of the Dominican Priory at Stone in Staffordshire loaned the parish a relic of the hand of St Etheldreda, which was set into the wall behind a glass screen near the altar at the east end of the north aisle.

The sanctuary is pre-Vatican II in appearance, with a timber high altar. The church was reordered by Fr Brendan Peters in 1975, when the high altar and altar rails were removed and a stone forward altar introduced. In the north aisle the altar near the relic of St Etheldreda was also removed, and the font relocated here from the west end. In 1980 the organ in the west gallery was replaced by one purchased from the Baptist chapel at Isleham. A further minor reordering by Julian Limentani took place in 1986, and the church was dedicated on 22 May 1987.


The church is in a simple Decorated Gothic style. The walls are of grey brick, probably from Burwell, with Weldon stone dressings and pitched roofs covered with Welsh slate. The plan comprises a nave with north and south aisles, northwest porch and a sanctuary with a transeptal projection on the north side originally housing the sacristy. The west end wall has stepped buttresses dividing the nave from the aisles and a two-light window with ‘Y’ tracery under the nave gable. The nave is of four bays; the lean-to aisles have two-light windows with a quatrefoil in the tracery, and the clerestorey has small quatrefoil openings. In the west bay on the north side is a substantial brick porch with corner buttresses and a pointed doorway with a moulded arch. In the eastern bay of the north side is a lean-to projection with a single window on the west side. The sanctuary has two trefoiled lancet windows on the south side and a transept on the north side with a three-light window in the gable end. Its east end abuts the presbytery, which is contemporary with and in the same style as the church.

The interior has plain plastered walls, with a timber roof to the nave, boarded above the collars, and timber roofs to the aisles. In both, the principal trusses are brought down onto corbels in the walls. The aisle floors have red and black tiles and the benches rest on timber platforms. The nave arcade is of Ancaster stone, with pointed chamfered arches on octagonal piers with moulded capitals and bases. A small timber organ gallery occupies part of the west bay of the nave. At the east end there is a hanging crucifix in the tall pointed chancel arch. The sanctuary has a modern forward altar but is otherwise rather bare, with only a canopied stone piscina in the south wall serving as a reminder of its previous elaboration. Both the three-light traceried east window (St Wilfrid, Our Lady and St Etheldreda) and the two south windows of the sanctuary and one in the south aisle have stained glass by Jones & Willis. The southeast aisle window has coloured patterned glass and two windows in the north aisle have glass of the 1970s, otherwise the church is clear-glazed. The octagonal stone font on a marble column has been moved from its original position at the west end to the east end of the north aisle, close to the relic of St Etheldreda and watched over by a modern painted and gilded statue of the saint.

Heritage Details

Architect: Simeon Croot

Original Date: 1900

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed