Building » Kesgrave – Holy Family and St Michael

Kesgrave – Holy Family and St Michael

Main Road, Kesgrave, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP5 2QP

A church built in three phases: 1931, 1955 and 1992-3. Its primary significance lies in its furnishings and artworks by members of the Rope family, particularly stained glass by Margaret Rope, and in its strong historical associations with the loss of the R101 airship in 1930. Architecturally, the modest original church is somewhat overwhelmed by later, albeit fairly sympathetic, additions.

On 5 October 1930, HM Airship R101 crashed near Beauvais in France, killing all 48 people on board. At the time it was built at Cardington (near Bedford) in 1929, R101 was the world’s largest ever flying craft. Amongst those who died was Lord Thomson, Secretary of State for Air, and Squadron Leader Michael Rope, its assistant chief designer. The present church was built on land given by W. O. Jolly, in memory of Rope and all who died on board the R101; a model of the airship hangs from the nave roof.

The original church, or ‘semi-public oratory’, consisted of a nave seating about 60 and a short sanctuary, with an entrance porch and sacristy. Work started in June 1931 and the church was opened on 8 December the same year. The architects were Brown & Burgess of Ipswich and the builders William W. C. Reade of Aldeburgh. The Tablet reported on 26 December 1931:

“On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception there was opened at Kesgrave, near Ipswich, the little church of the Holy Family and St. Michael, built in memory of Squadron-Leader Frederick Michael Rope, R.A.F., who perished in the wreck of H.M. airship R101, at Beauvais, on October 5, 1930. The Mass was said by his brother, Father Henry E. G. Rope, and the preacher was Mgr. Provost Ambrose Moriarty, D.D., V.G., of the Shrewsbury diocese, who told the story of the fulfilment of promises made in thanksgiving for conversions, and for the noble life of the late Michael Rope, in this addition to the Catholic churches of the land. Great indeed was the price of this building: the life of a devoted Catholic, and the anguish of the bereaved.

This Gothic church is of the best Suffolk brick; the altar, sanctuary rail and stools, designed by a brother-in-law of the deceased, and the doors are of unstained oak. The roof, of old tiles, harmonises admirably, and adds dignity to the whole. The windows and western door-arches are wrought in stone, and the striking three-ordered sanctuary-arch is of moulded brick. The richly-coloured east window, representing the Holy Family and St. Michael, and the single lights in the porch and the south sanctuary wall, representing St. Teresa, St. Catherine and St. Dominic, are the work of a sister of Michael Rope. The beautiful vestments worn at the opening Mass were given by Mrs. Michael Rope. Miss E. M. Rope, of Blaxhall, is designing a panel for the tympanum over the nave door; and Miss D. Rope, of Leiston, a statue of St. Michael to fill the niche over the west door. Messrs. Brown and Burgess, of Ipswich, were the architects. The church stands upon land generously given by Mr. William Jolly, Michael Rope’s father-in-law, of The Grange, Kesgrave.”

The ‘sister of Michael Rope’ was Margaret Agnes Rope (1882-1953), a Carmelite nun of Woodbridge and noted stained glass artist of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The church originally lay in a rural position on the edge of the village. Post-war expansion of Kesgrave necessitated the construction in 1955 of an addition to the east (liturgical north) of the original sanctuary, increasing the seating capacity to about 100. This was designed by H. Munro Cautley, Suffolk antiquary and consulting architect to the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. The builders were S. Knights of Kesgrave.

Continued expansion at the end of the twentieth century necessitated a further, more substantial addition in 1992-3. This involved turning the main worship space around by ninety degrees, with a new east-facing nave and north aisle with ‘Galilee’ chapel giving off. Cautley’s addition was incorporated as a south aisle, and the original church became a Blessed Sacrament/weekday chapel. The architect for the additions was Terry Norton of Wearing, Hastings & Norton, Norwich and the main contractor Carlford Construction Ltd. The extension was blessed by Bishop Clark of East Anglia on 5 October 1983, the 63rd anniversary of the wreck of the R101.

The church is owned by the Rope Charitable Trust and is served from St Mary, Ipswich (qv).


The church is of three phases, and while the later additions somewhat overwhelm the original, the separate elements are held together by common materials and detailing.  The style is broadly thirteenth century lancet Gothic for the original church, with a slightly Tudor, almost domestic character, to the later additions. All three elements are faced in wavy-textured bricks, with dressings of Northamptonshire (Weldon) stone and clay plaintile roofs.

The original two-cell church has a cross on the gable at the liturgical east end and a raised stone bellcote housing one bell at the west end (geographical north); the bellcote may be a slightly later addition (it is not shown in the 1932 illustration in The Tablet). In front of this is a gabled porch, also with a gable cross. The stone doorway has attached columnar shafts and a trefoil head. Above this a trefoil-headed niche contains a statue of St Michael in Stourbridge fireclay by Dorothy Rope, a cousin of Michael Rope. The flank wall (liturgical south) has two trefoil-headed lancets and a projecting porch, originally the sacristy but now forming a link to the modern parish hall. There is a further single trefoil-headed lancet on the side of the sanctuary, while the liturgical east end has three stepped lancets with stone panels below carved with the arms of Bishop Cary-Elwes of Northampton and Pope Pius XI on either side of a central panel with the arms and attributes of Michael Rope.  

The later additions are more plainly treated, with matching brick, stone dressings and flat-headed window openings with diamond leaded lights. The south elevation of the 1955 addition has a group of three and two single windows, and a triple light window at the east end. The 1992-3 nave has a three-light window at the east end, a Romanesque-Gothic hybrid so designed to accommodate two imported Margaret Rope windows (see below). A stone corbel at the junction of the original church and new addition on the north side is carved with the dates 1931 and 1993. Nearby is an entrance to the ‘galilee’, with a four-centred arch and carved foliate detail in the spandrels.

According to the parish history, the door in the original entrance porch has fittings made of salvaged metal from the R101. In the tympanum over the doorway within the porch is a panel of Our Lady with the infant Jesus and St John the Baptist, by Ellen Rope (1855-1934). Moving into the church, the original nave has an arch braced roof springing from stone corbels, with exposed purlins and secondary rafters. The internal face of the arch to the porch, and the chancel arch are of red brick, and apart from some other brick detailing (eg at wall plate level) the walls are plastered and painted. Statue recesses flank the chancel arch. The liturgical north wall of the original sanctuary has been opened up to allow a view towards the sanctuary from the 1955 addition. The 1993 nave is broader than the original one but has a similar roof structure, while the original sanctuary has a timber wagon roof and the aisles flat plastered ceilings. Supporting the latter at the east end and flanking the present sanctuary are two moulded brick half-piers.

The liturgical furnishings are plain, with a timber altar made by Philip Jolly in the original sanctuary (now a side chapel) and a timber table altar in the new sanctuary. Of greater interest is the collection of memorabilia associated with the R101 and the artworks and furnishings by members of the Rope family, particularly designs and cartoons by Margaret Rope. All windows in the following account are by Margaret Rope unless otherwise stated.

Starting in the porch, as well as the tympanum by Ellen Rope, there are two windows by Margaret Rope, depicting (left) Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, a Sister of Charity and other figures and (right) St Theresa of Avila. These were made in 1929 as wedding presents for Michael Rope and Doreen Jolly and subsequently adapted and installed in the church in 1931.

In the original nave, a window of Bl. (later St) Thomas More and Bl. (St) John Fisher was given by Francis and Kate Stevenson in 1931. Hanging from the roof near the chancel arch is a model of the R101 airship, made for the church at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington. There is a further display of R101 memorabilia at the back of the nave, over and alongside the entrance. 

In the original sanctuary, the (liturgical) east window depicts St Joseph, the Virgin and Child and the Archangel Michael, with R101 in the background. This was given by Agnes Maud Rope, Michael’s mother. A window on the liturgical south side of the sanctuary depicts St Dominic.

In the modern sanctuary, the central light of the east window is by Jonathan Messum (1994). It depicts the Risen Christ and was given in memory of members of the Jolly family. It is flanked by two fine windows of the 1920s, brought here from the former Franciscan convent at East Bergholt; they depict the prophet Isaiah and King David.

In the south aisle is a window signed ‘Lucia’, by Margaret Edith (Aldrich) Rope, cousin of Margaret Agnes and Michael Rope, in memory of Alice Jolly (d.1956). It depicts members of the Jolly family at Walsingham.

In the screen separating the north aisle from the Galilee is a window depicting the members of the Rope family in the Holy Saturday Exultet procession in Shrewsbury Cathedral at the end of the 1914-18 war (the Rope family came from Shrewsbury and there is an important collection of stained glass by Margaret Rope in the Catholic cathedral there).

In the north wall a rectangular stained glass panel set into a window is a memorial to Margaret Rope by Margaret Edith Rope. Nearby is a statue of St Joseph, holding a model of the church as it was in 1931.

In the Galilee is a reset window by Margaret Edith Rope, a thanksgiving for the safety of the church and Kesgrave in the 1939-45 war, depicting martyrs with East Anglian connections.  

In addition to these windows, the church contains several large framed stained glass cartoons by Margaret Rope.

Heritage Details

Architect: Brown & Burgess

Original Date: 1931

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed