Lowestoft Road, Gorleston, Norfolk, NR31 6PF
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
A well-known and nationally important church by sculptor Eric Gill, architecturally assisted by J. E. Farrell, 1938-9, which fulfils Gill’s writings on the architectural setting of the altar. Built entirely of brick, the imaginative interior suggests knowledge of the use of concrete in contemporary English churches if not on the Continent. The 1939 hanging rood is Gill’s only artwork, but other sculpture and painting is to his designs.
In 1888 a malthouse in Church Lane was converted by Fr Edward Scott into the town’s first post-Reformation Catholic church, dedicated to St Peter and blessed in 1889. It is likely that priests had visited Gorleston in the intervening period and the Bedingfeld family’s Great Yarmouth summer residence had a chapel too. In 1906, the first Catholic marriage took place, of grocer Ambrose Page and a widow, Mrs Nellie Carson, and it was Page who left enough money for Fr Stanley to buy a new site around 1913 and to convince Bishop Laurence Youens to agree to the building of a new church in 1938.
Fr Thomas Walker had got to know Eric Gill when a priest in High Wycombe. He shared Gill’s views about the centrality of the altar in church design and the need for active participation of the congregation in the Mass from close quarters. Gill had set out his views in a pamphlet, ‘Mass for the Masses’ just before Fr Walker commissioned him to design Gorleston. One of Gill’s early patrons, Fr John O’Connor, had built the first centrally-planned Catholic parish church, Our Lady and the First Martyrs in Bradford in 1935. Gill carved the figure of St John Bosco for the porch (as well as Stations of the Cross for another church in Bradford). It is likely then that Gill had seen the pioneering octagonal church for himself.
Although he had started training as an architect in W. D. Caröe’s office between 1899 and 1903, Gill engaged the architect J. Edmund Farrell, another Wycombe resident, to help him, as he was ‘well acquainted with the whole business of labour and materials today’. The foundation stone (at the base of the altar) was laid by Bishop Youens of Northampton on 28 February 1939 and he opened the church on 14 June in the same year. Gill was concerned to build in traditional style; ‘one good thing about this job is that being in a country place, there is no need to have recourse to mechanical town methods. It will be just a plain building done by bricklayers and carpenters, though I suppose the Rector will insist on central heating and electric light’. An early design by Gill shows a porch at the west end rather than a baptistery as built. Photographs of the construction show bricklayers at work in a forest of wooden scaffold and arch formers. The contractor was H. R. Middleton & Co. of Yarmouth. Middleton’s bill of costs was £6,775 (the original was presented to the parish in 1969).
Gill designed a hanging rood as a wood relief with added colour, but he was now ill (he died in 1940). His son-in-law Denis Tegetmeier painted the tower lantern fresco and Anthony Foster carved the porch relief of St Peter and the Latin inscription around the altar plinth, all to Gill’s designs. Other stone items such as the font, stoups, piscina and altars were carried out in Gill’s Piggott’s Hill workshop to his designs. Some things were brought from the old church, such as the Stations of the Cross, benches and some statues and these have been gradually replaced, the Stations by Tegetmeier in 1962. In April 1939 the altar, reredos and altar rails from the old church were advertised for sale by Fr Walker in The Tablet, since they were ‘unsuitable for new church now nearing completion’; they were described as ‘over 140 years old, made from oak from the Costessey estate’. They may have come from the 1809 chapel at Costessey Hall; their fate has not been established.
Despite the central altar, at the time of opening Mass was still celebrated by the priest ad orientem, with the tabernacle and six candlesticks placed upon the altar.
In 1963 stained glass by J. E. ‘Eddie’ Nuttgens was placed in the east window, paid from the proceeds of bingo in the new church hall. It represents Christ the King, to complement Christ the Redeemer on the hanging rood. Gill had not wanted any coloured glass, but Fr McBride wanted the glare reduced (he was still facing east for Mass) and Nuttgens was said to be keen to redress a slight he claimed he had experienced for having helped Gill design the building. About the same time a canopy designed by Barry Hastings (of Wearing & Hastings, architects of Norwich who had designed the church hall in 1959) was hung above the altar at the bishop’s request, entailing the lifting of Gill’s rood. It may have been at this time that the Tegetmeier frescoes were overpainted in bright colours. The church was consecrated on 5 May 1964.
Gill’s hot air heating system and lighting scheme (that included uplighters) was replaced in 1959. The present system dates from 1992, when the porch was clumsily glazed-in to prevent draughts in the church. Various alterations were made to the sanctuary platform in the mid-late 1970s and the pulpit was dismantled from its northwest position; it still sits in a corner of the north transept. The tabernacle was re-sited from the altar to a shelf under the east window, allowing for west-facing celebration of the Mass.
In 1992, some of these alterations were reversed; the altar canopy was removed, the rood returned to its original height and the overpainting of the frescoes removed and the original scheme restored and conserved (by Andrea Kirkham). The Lady Chapel received a stained glass window of Our Lady of Walsingham by Chapel Studios, the gift of two parishioners in about 1994. The tower was re-roofed after a lightning strike in the late 1990s. Measures to comply with access legislation took place to church and hall in 2005 and the presbytery received new (uPVC) windows and pantiled roof about 2010.
Please see the list description, revised and expanded in November 2022:
Also in November 2022, the presbytery was separately listed (Grade II):
Architect: Eric Gill (assisted by J. E. Farrell RIBA)
Original Date: 1939
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*