Building » Hexham – St Mary

Hexham – St Mary

Hencotes, Hexham, Northumberland NE46

Hexham has a continuous history of Catholic activity from the early seventeenth century. The present church was built at the time of the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act, and is a fine Gothick design, apparently designed by the mission priest. The church has lost its original furnishings but the original plan, sanctuary and bell turret and the pretty internal plasterwork all remain. A sensitively-designed narthex was added in 2007. The church makes a notable positive contribution to the Hexham Conservation Area.

Hexham has a continuous history of Catholic activity since the early seventeenth century, initially based on two out of town sites. A chapel was built in 1616 at Dilston Hall, home of the Radcliffe family and (from 1688) the Earls of Derwentwater, who kept secular priests as their chaplains until 1722 when replaced by Benedictines from Swinburne. At Stonecroft, a Dominican mission existed from the later seventeenth century, briefly replaced by Franciscans 1686-93. 

By 1722, two missions were established in Hexham itself; the Dominicans settled at Battle Hill in 1721 and the secular priest from Dilston settled at Cockshaw in 1722. The former moved to the present Hencotes site in 1797, occupying Burn Brae House, thought to be the former presbytery (now named Middlemarch) and not the house with that name sold by the diocese in 2009. Cockshaw Chapel was rebuilt in 1757.

On 5 September 1827, a formal agreement signed by both parties merged the two missions on the Hencotes site under Fr Michael Singleton and Cockshaw Chapel was sold for £600 (the presbytery apparently still exists). A minute in the parish archive records; Mr Gibson is requested to return Mr Benomi’s plan with the thanks of the committee for the trouble he has taken and to inform him that the committee has determined to carry into execution the plan furnished by Mr Singleton.’ The architect referred to is actually Ignatius Bonomi of Durham. The foundation stone was laid ‘without ceremony’ on 22 April 1828 and the church opened by Bishop Penswick, Vicar Apostolic on 22 September 1830. The long building period is partly due to the collapse of the east gable bellcote during building.

In 1832, a school was built ‘up the hill’ to the church (presumably on the site of the present 1930 Middle School across the road to the south) and in 1858, a convent for the teaching Sisters of Mercy was built behind the church, the present presbytery. In 1874, Dilston Hall was sold and five Radcliffe bodies (including the first and second Earls) removed from the chapel to be buried in a vault to the south of the church marked by a standing cross. In 1957, the Sisters moved to a house on Hencotes and their convent was converted for use as a school for 11-15 year olds until 1975 when it was used as the Parish Centre. It was converted into the present presbytery by 2000 and the former presbytery (listed grade II) on Hencotes sold. 

From the style of the five-gabled reredos visible in a pre-World War II photo, the sanctuary appears to have been re-ordered c.1870-90, the altar placed up five steps and the sanctuary platform separated from the nave by a solid panelled altar rail (which like the altar could be of 1830?) However, the photographs are indistinct and the 1976 list description states ‘contemporary furnishings’. By 1979, the reredos had been painted white, the five panelled altar brought forward, the statues flanking the sanctuary moved from their elaborate plinths which, like the rail, were removed. 

In 1914, the ‘roof’ is reported to have ‘fallen in’, which presumably refers to an 1830 plaster ceiling, as the present segmental nave ceiling is matchboarded.  As a World War I war memorial, the altar of the Sacred Heart was erected in the northwest chapel (presumably the 1830 baptistery?) Distinctive Mackintosh-style panelling with a band of thistles was added to the walls in 1923. 

From August to December 1979 the church was closed for renovation and the sanctuary re-ordered by architect Jack Lynn. ‘Materials of the former reredos and altar were adapted and re-used as much as possible to retain the character of Fr Singleton’s church’(Nicholson). It was re-opened and consecrated by Bishop Lindsay on December 21 1979. A photograph of the appearance at this time is on p.xii of Down your Aisles.  The benches were shortened to create a centre aisle. The reredos had the two smaller gables removed and the altar was cut down to three panels of tracery (as now). The present sanctuary platform was created and statues placed in the doorways to the sacristy (north Virgin and Child) and confessional (south, St Joseph).The present wooden pulpit was added to the south side of the platform and similar wooden tracery panelling formed a bench on the north and two prie-dieus. ‘The sanctuary was re-ordered using the reredos and other timber in the making of the pulpit and presidential chair’ (Down your Aisles). However, there is too much of this timberwork to come from the two gables removed from the reredos, it is surely later nineteenth century in date than 1830.

Fr Michael Deegan undertook a further re-ordering c.2007 when what remained of the reredos was removed (to the presbytery garage) to be replaced with a single pointed arched stone framed tabernacle recess. He commissioned Vincente Stienlet to add the narthex building to the northwest, which leads into the Parish Centre filling the north side of the church site that can be subdivided into three separate spaces. A further chapel has been created out of the former northeast sacristy.


St Mary’s is at right angles to Hencotes, which means it stands north-south geographically. For this report, liturgical points are used i.e. the high altar to the east.

St Mary’s church was designed by the mission priest, Fr Michael Singleton in Gothick style and opened in 1830. Built of local sandstone, with ashlar to the west facade, and coursed rubble elsewhere. Slate roof. The west facade is divided into three bays by octagonal buttresses finishing in pinnacles. A crenellated central porch sits below a four-light west window with unarchaeological Decorated-style tracery. The studded double west doors are set within a multi-moulded crocketed ogee arch. The two flanking windows and those of the nave are of two-lights with curvilinear tracery. The upper facade is decorated with incised crosses and in the gable are the papal arms in high relief, the central mitre inscribed IHS. 

Three bay nave with northwest one bay chapel, shallow polygonal apse surmounted by an octagonal ashlar bell turret with a square ashlar bell cage, all crenellated. The three-light east window has Perpendicular-style tracery. Low square sacristies with pitched roofs extend out from the east wall, that on the north merging into the presbytery (former convent and school). The irregular narthex of 2007 by Vincente Stienlet is to the northwest of the west facade, of coursed rubble with timber framed glazed walls and a stainless steel monopitch roof. The flat-roofed Parish Centre beyond extends the whole length of the north side of the church.

Internally, the east end of the rectangular nave echoes the division of the west front with three large arches under a crocketed ogee hood mould separated by pinnacles (all in plaster). The larger central arch forms the sanctuary entrance. The flanking arches have small gabled doorways (north to the sacristy, south to the former confessionals) both now with statues standing in front of them. The blind arches of these flanking units are filled with applied Geometric-style quatrefoils. 

The wooden west gallery stands on three Tudor arches with shafted columns, all apparently of stone. It is now accessed by a staircase in the southwest corner, which appears to be a modern rebuilding incorporating some old wood; the organ fills the north part of the gallery. Another pair of Tudor arches running east defines a northwest chapel, apparently original, so possibly the original baptistery. It is now the Sacred Heart chapel, the altar erected as a First World War memorial (in a style that could be fifty years older); the wall panelling incorporating a frieze of thistles is a 1923 memorial. Three half moon windows in the north wall and a roundel to the east, the latter with glass of c.1920, light the chapel. A three foot high wooden statue of a bishop, said to have come from a local house, is apparently of sixteenth century date and would repay examination by an expert.

The nave has a segmental matchboarded panelled roof above a continuous foliage cornice. The side walls have deep panels containing roundels of laurel filled with sacred symbols and a further frieze of classical detail. 

The sanctuary platform extends into the nave, with a late nineteenth century wood pulpit to the south and similar style woodwork at the north edge. The two steeply canopied niches on the short sides are original, but the central tabernacle recess is of c.2007. The stone altar could be of 1830, but before 1979 had five gabled panels – the   missing two might be those now on the sides.  The east window glass is of 1878. The nineteenth century stone font is now awkwardly situated between the pulpit and a figure of the crucified Christ under a gable placed against the south wall, close to the statue of St Joseph.  

List description


1830. Gothick. Attributed, unconvincingly, to John Green. Set back from street. West gable end to road. Ashlar, 3 windows to west, separated by applied octagonal shafts. Shallow crenellated gable with Vatican arms at top. Decorated tracery windows. Lower projecting porch, also with crenellated gable, and with angle buttresses, central pointed doorway with crocketted ogee label. Blind merlons in main gable. 3 bay nave of rubble with dividing buttresses. East gable crenellated with 2 stage octagonal belfry above polygonal shallow chancel. High east window above vestries. Interior retains contemporary furnishings. Encrusted frieze with medallions containing Catholic symbols. Segmental wooden ceiling with ribs. Gallery at west end on 3 Tudor arches. East end has blind plaster tracery on walls with crocketted arches and pinnacles. Altar with 5 gables and icing sugar tracery.

Heritage Details

Architect: Fr Michael Singleton

Original Date: 1830

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*