Building » Esh Laude – St Michael

Esh Laude – St Michael

Esh, Esh Laude, Co. Durham DH7

The oldest church in the diocese still in use, built in 1798 on land given by the Smythe family (who also owned the land on which nearby Ushaw College was built). As originally designed, the group of church, presbytery and stables was designed in a deliberately low-key way, with a farmhouse character. Later alterations increased the ‘ecclesiastical’ look of the church. The interior contains several features of note, including a wooden Gothic balcony looking towards the sanctuary from the first floor of the presbytery, and an altar in memory of Cardinal Wiseman. 

The ancient manor of Esh passed to the Catholic Smythe family in about 1560, and Esh Hall was rebuilt by Sir Edward Smythe in about 1687. The house had a chapel on an upper floor and a priest hide. It was later abandoned by the family for their Acton Burnell estate and was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century. The original gate piers survive and, outside, the sandstone Esh Cross, inscribed 1687 on one side and IHS on the other.

In 1651 the Smythe family endowed a mission at Newhouse, in the parish of Esh. This remained active until 1798, when the church of St Michael was built at a more convenient location (for the Smythe family) at Esh Laude, on land given by Sir Edward Smythe, fifth baronet. Around the same time, Sir Edward sold another larger parcel of land nearby to William Gibson, Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District, upon which was built the great Catholic seminary of Ushaw College.

The foundation stone for the church was laid in June 1798 and the first Mass said on New Year’s Day 1799. The presbytery and stables were completed in 1804 (according to most sources; Pevsner says the presbytery is 1802). A gateway and lodge, or what Pevsner calls ‘a general factotum’s’ cottage’ was also built about this time. The design of the church, presbytery and stables was deliberately self-effacing, resembling farm buildings around a courtyard, with the church windowless on the more public north side. The first resident priest was the Rev. John Yates, who died here in 1827; he is commemorated in a marble tablet in the church. He was succeeded by the Rev. William Fletcher (later the first Provost of the diocese) who also served the mission at Brooms, before taking up residence there in 1837.

In 1841 the Rev. William Thompson took over the mission, and remained for forty years. Fr Thompson was a friend of Cardinal Wiseman, in whose memory the high altar was installed after Wiseman’s death in 1865. He built new schools and is credited with the enlargement of the church. The date of these additions is not clear. Pevsner dates the apsidal sanctuary and the north porch to c1850, while the list entry dates the porch to c1910 (i.e. contemporary with the date that both sources give for the south aisle). However, there is a reference in the Northern Catholic Calendar for 1882 (by which time Canon Thompson had retired) to the ‘enlargement of the church’, and although no further details are given, it is suggested that this might refer to the building of the south aisle and the formation of new window openings on the north wall of the nave. The design of the window tracery in these additions is very similar to that in the rebuilt church at nearby Newhouse (1883, qv), in which Canon Thompson maintained an active interest although no longer at Esh, donating an altar and stained glass. This might suggest that William de Normanville or William Fox, architects at Newhouse, were responsible for the additions and alterations to St Michael’s. The porch is more of a mystery; its round-arched stone entrance is more 1798 in character.

Canon Thompson’s successor, Fr Samuel Harris, was in charge of the mission/parish for over fifty years. As well as the additions of 1882, it was probably during his time that the two-storey bay window was added on the front elevation of the presbytery.

Fr Harris’s successor was Fr Hugh Cogan (1933-55). He rebuilt the nave roof in its present form, rebuilt the schools and made further alterations to the presbytery. Undated (but probably early 1950s) drawings in the presbytery by the Newcastle architect Robert Burke show the refacing of the west and south walls of the aisle with cast stone, repointing of the other walls, a new ceiling in the aisle, a new internal lobby at the west end, small round-arched openings in the north wall of the nave at the west end for confessionals, the bringing forward of the sanctuary step (and associated blocking of a door from the presbytery, with new doorway to the sacristy formed slightly to the west). Alterations shown to the presbytery include the removal of an old back stair, replacement of the presbytery windows with leaded mullion and transom casements and the addition of dormer windows. Burke’s windows have more recently been replaced in uPVC, but his front door survives.

The church is now part of the West Durham group of parishes, and is served from Ushaw Moor. The presbytery is currently unoccupied.


The church is described in the list entry, below, where it is incorrectly dated 1789-90. Additional points:

  • The date given for the south aisle is given as c1910. However, 1882 may be a more likely date. More research is needed
  • The north porch is dated also c1910 in the list entry. Pevsner gives a date of c1850 (i.e. contemporary with the date he gives for the apse). However, the round-arched stone entrance is more 1798 in character. Again, more research is needed
  • The two two-light windows on the north wall of the nave appear to be contemporary with the south aisle, possibly c1882
  • The nave roof was rebuilt by Fr Cogan, probably in the 1930s
  • The central window in the apse by Atkinson Brothers of Newcastle is in memory of Peter and Ellen Seed and family; previously a painting of the Crucifixion occupied this position
  • The Visitation window in the south aisle is in memory of two parish priests, Canon Harris (who built the aisle, d.1933) and Mgr Cogan (d.1955). It is signed by the Hardman firm
  • The south aisle was rendered with cast stone in the 1950s; this explains the curious and unsatisfactory external detailing around the windows
  • Memorials not mentioned in the list entry are the two floor slabs in encaustic tile surrounds in the railed baptistery enclosure at the west end. These are to John Francis Leadbitter Smith, who died at nearby Flass Hall in 1879 and Ann Leadbitter Smith, d.1910. Mrs Leadbitter Smith had paid for Bentley’s refurnishing of the Lady Chapel at Ushaw, and it is likely that she financed the aisle addition at St Michael’s, possibly as a memorial to her husband – the family arms are in windows over the altar in the Sacred Heart chapel (not Lady Chapel, pace list entry)
  • The organ in the west gallery is by Harrison & Harrison, Durham
  • The contemporary presbytery is not included in the listing, and moreover is described as ‘altered and not of interest’. Altered it may be, but as part of the ensemble it is of considerable historical interest.

Entry amended by AHP 4.1.2021

List description


Roman Catholic parish church. 1789-90, with additions of apse c.1850, and south aisle and north porch c.1910. Coursed sandstone rubble with ashlar dressings and quoins; roof of Lakeland slates with stone gable copings and kneelers.

Nave with north porch and south aisle; 5-sided apse. In porch, double boarded doors and radial fanlight in round-headed surround with imposts and keystone, under low-pitched gable with statue of St. Michael in niche, and large square bellcote with arched sides and cross finial. Round-headed windows in bay to west of porch, paired and one larger single light; 2-light windows with cusped tracery, in 2 bays to east of porch. South aisle has groups of stepped lights, the central pair of even height, in 4 buttressed bays. One 2-light south sanctuary window; taller 2-light windows in apse under gables with fleur-de-lys finials; sill string to apse. West front has 3 round-headed lights, the central at higher level. Roof: gablets on east kneelers; half-octagonal lower apse roof; roll-moulded parapet on aisle and roof not visible.

Interior: painted plaster over boarded dado, with ashlar dressings; arch- braced panelled roof on coved cornice with wood-corbelled brackets. Arcade has wide chamfered 2-centred arches on hexagonal piers, and narrower fifth arch to Lady chapel at east. High double-chamfered sanctuary arch without capitals; thick-ribbed vaulting in apse with many mouldings and elaborate bosses on shafts with chamfered plinths. Glass in east window by Atkinson Bros., Newcastle; flanking windows in style of Hardman; other C19 glass in west window and Lady chapel. Altar in richly painted patterns in style of mosaic, in memory of Cardinal Wiseman, with low-relief roundels. Early C20 west organ gallery. Gothic-style carved wood balcony in north wall gives on to room in presbytery. Memorials include plain marble slab to Rev. John Yates – pastor of the congregation for 33 years – died 1827; and to Mary Consit, wife of Lt. Com. R.N., who died at Sorel, Lower Canada in 1824, by Fisher of York.

Presbytery attached altered and not of interest.

Heritage Details

Architect: Not established

Original Date: 1798

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II