Building » Highgate – St Joseph

Highgate – St Joseph

Highgate Hill, Highgate, London N19

A large Italian Romanesque design with a prominent dome, built for the Passionists. The interior is richly decorated with wall paintings, oil paintings, side altars and the baldacchino and high altar under the dome.  St Joseph’s Retreat, the house for the community, is attached to the east end. The church is a dominant feature of the local conservation area and, due to its elevated position, is highly visible from Highgate Hill, nearby Waterlow Park and further afield.

In 1858, the Passionists bought the former Black Dog Tavern, converting the ground floor to a chapel and the first floor into accommodation for the community. E. W. Pugin provided a sketch for a church which was rejected due to cost. (This apparently gave rise to the myth that E. W. Pugin did in fact build the first church. Cf. Cherry & Pevsner, Evinson, Hyland); this was in fact built to a design by John Bird of Hammersmith (1861, completed 1863). The monastery, by F. W. Tasker, was begun in 1857 and executed in stages. In 1880, the church was redecorated by Albert Vicars.

In 1888, the first church was demolished and temporarily replaced by a tin church, in order to make way for the present church. The corner stone was laid on 24 May 1888 and the building opened on 21 November 1889. The church is in the Italian Romanesque style and was built to commemorate the Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. The architect was Albert Vicars (whose work is usually Gothic), with Brother Alphonsus superintending the work.

In 1947, the organ of 1898 by William Hill & Sons was installed, as a memorial to parish members who had died in the Second World War. It replaced an organ of 1862 by Messrs Mechlin & Schütze of Brussels

In 1996, planning permission was granted for new gutters and downpipes for the dome (Rees Johns Bolter Architects). In 2001, planning permission was given for the construction of a single storey extension adjacent to the Lady Chapel to provide toilet facilities (Rees Bolter Architects). The following year, an amended proposal was approved, to include toilet facilities and also a meeting room and new boundary wall and railings to Highgate Hill.


The church actually faces northeast. This description uses conventional liturgical orientation.

The church is described in the list entry (below), which requires a few corrections:

  • The windows in the west gable are in fact a stepped arcade of five lights, not four.
  • The two pilasters at the east end are Ionic, not Corinthian.

In addition to the furnishings of the nave and chancel mentioned in the list entry there are many other furnishings and fittings of note:

  • Above the door to the repository (the original baptistery) at the northwest is a painting of St Mary Magdalen and the crucified Christ (attributed to Lord Leighton). Another painting in the north aisle depicts the Holy Family. 
  • In the north aisle is a chapel with a large pieta on a timber altar with timber rails, erected by Thomas Rock in memory of his son John (died 1871).
  • The Lady Chapel has a plain marble altar and rails with a marble reredos with mosaic scenes of the Annunciation and Coronation on either side of a Carrara marble statue of the Virgin (Evinson: post-war, Cherry & Pevsner: 1897, by Porter of Fulham). At the east end of the chapel is a large modern timber sculpture of St Dominic Barberi (John O’Rourke, 1999).
  • The Stations are large painted oblong reliefs by F. Devriendt (installed 1886). 
  • The northeast chapel dedicated to the Passionist saints has a painting of the St Paul of the Cross (by M.A. Laby) framed by an Ionic aedicule with a broken and open segmental pediment. 
  • The forward altar of marble and sandstone was erected in 1964 by Gerald Murphy of Burles Newton & Partners. The matching ambo was installed a few years later in memory of Sylvester Ijoma Oti (died 1988).
  • The wall paintings by Westlake between the clerestory windows depict the Mysteries of the Rosary (Evinson: figures of saints). The sanctuary wall paintings are by C. Langlin. 
  • There is a fine silver sanctuary lamp.
  • The Sacred Heart chapel at the southeast has a matching aedicule reredos to the other side chapel, and similar rails. On the south wall is an oil painting, possibly depicting the Agony in the Garden.
  • The marble rails and elaborate altar of St Michael’s Chapel in the south aisle were reputedly exhibited at the Paris Exhibition (Evinson: of 1889, Cherry & Pevsner: of 1900). Beside the altar is a marble portrait plaque to Rev. Michael Watts Russell (died 1875), in whose memory the chapel was erected. The reliquary is said to have been designed by Cardinal Wiseman.
  • The Martyrs Chapel in the south aisle also has a marble altar and rails, as well as an oil painting of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
  • The square stone font with chamfered corners has carvings of the Baptism of Christ, Christ and the Children and the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
  • The organ of 1898 (installed 1947) was listed at grade I in 2007 by the British Institute of Organ Studies, as a rare example of an instrument by William Hill & Sons in its original condition.
  • Several shallow niches in the south aisle used to be confessionals and their timber screens have been removed. (At the time of Rottmann’s visit in c.1926 there were ten confessionals in the church.)
  • The chancel arch is framed by large statues of a bishop and St Joseph. Another large statue of St Anthony is in the south aisle.
  • Three clerestory lights on each side are filled with stained glass: the Crucifixion on the south and the Holy Family to the north.

List descriptions



Roman Catholic church. 1888-9. By Albert Vicars. White brick set in English bond with dressings of stone, roof of slate. Chancel and nave under one roof, dome over chancel, north and south aisles, north-west tower. Two tiers of windows. Neo-Romanesque in style. Much of the east end obscured by the buildings of St Joseph’s Retreat (q.v.) The dome has an octagonal drum with pairs of round-arched windows set back under a segmental arch; machicolated eaves to octagonal roof topped by a domed lantern, ball and cross, all covered with copper. The south aisle has, behind a low parapeted range with circular windows, four pairs of round-arched windows between buttresses with offsets, and corbel table to the eaves; seven large round-arched clerestory windows with corbel table above. The north flank of the church has a low parapeted range with circular windows, a side chapel under a separate gabled roof with six pairs of round-arched windows to the north and a wheel window to the west; this chapel abuts the north aisle proper, of which only one pair of round-arched windows is exposed. Gabled west end with central round-arched portal having two flat-arched entrances flanked by red sandstone columns and the tympanum filled with statuary; rose window above, stepped back twice under a round arch of gauged brick, with plate tracery and flanked by pairs of red sandstone engaged columns; above this four-light round-arched windows set back in an arcade of sandstone columns; clasping buttresses to south side of west front rising to a pinnacle; the tower has a flat-arched entrance under a round arch to west side; second stage with three-light window set back under a round-arched arcade of sandstone columns; third stage has sandstone columns in re-entrant angles of corners and statues under canopies to three sides; blank fourth stage, after which the tower becomes octagonal with domed pavilions at the corners, round-arched louvred openings to the cardinal directions flanked by sandstone columns; Lombard frieze, cornice and octagonal copper dome. 

INTERIOR: . Chancel of two bays, the arcade and chancel arch broadly Romanesque in character, but integrated with a Classical treatment of Corinthian pilasters at the east end, cornice and panelled archivolt to three sides, under the drum of the dome. Painted panels to spandrels, pendentives and north and south tympana; elaborate baldacchino with Corinthian columns, intricate frieze of Renaissance ornament, dentil and modillion cornice, broken pediments and open ogee crown, by Sharp and Ryan of Dublin, 1904; altar of inlaid marble with alabaster reredos; floor of terrazzo work decorated with emblems in panels. Round-arched arcade to nave of six bays with naturalistic and emblematic capitals; six-bay arcade to side chapel with stiff-leaf capitals; painted panels between clerestory windows; panelled, segmental-arched, ceiling painted with angels and verses from the Te Deum by N.H.J.Westlake. Wooden pulpit of 1937 in a Renaissance manner.

Listing NGR: TQ2887387183

St Joseph’s Retreat


Built as the chief clergy house of the Passionist Fathers. The south and west wings of 1874-5, the east wing of a little later. By F.W.Tasker. White or grey and yellow brick set in English bond, roof of Italian pantiles. Three and four storeys over basement, eleven-window range to south. Modelled after an Italian country villa with towers to the outer bays on the principal, south side, and built to enclose the east end of the original Passionist church. On the south side, the ground floor has segmental-arched windows to centre, deeply recessed under segmental arches of gauged brick; one round-arched window at either end; first-floor windows flat-arched with a central bay of three-window range to first and second floors carried on thin columns with moulded stucco cornice above first floor; second-floor windows flat-arched except outer pair to tower bays, which are round-arched; two flat-arched third-floor windows to towers; deep eaves to hipped roofs; the return to Highgate Hill has a lower, apsidal wing running off east and forming a choir for the community; similar wing to the west; single-storey range to Highgate Hill of 1960 by Alex Watson: yellow brick with banded rustication to base, flat-arched entrance under a round-arch, and parapet coped with composition stone, shaped gable over entrance. (Building News 11 Aug 1874, 1 Jan 1875, 19 June 1875.).

Listing NGR: TQ2889287162

Heritage Details

Architect: Albert Vicars

Original Date: 1889

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*