Eldon Street, London EC2
Stone-faced church built at the turn of the twentieth century, with a narrow, low-key street frontage which blends in with surrounding commercial buildings. The church replaced, and incorporates features from, the previous church near Finsbury Circus, an important design of 1820, which served as the pro-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Westminster from 1850 to 1869. This is the only Catholic church in the City of London.
A short-lived Catholic chapel was built at Lime Street during the reign of the Catholic James II, in 1686. This was demolished by a mob in the wake of the flight of James II in 1688. In the eighteenth century the Finsbury area was much populated with dissenters as well as Catholics. Several secret ‘Mass houses’ are recorded in the area; the Moorfields registers date back to 1763, and a Catholic chapel of 1736 in Ropemaker’s Alley was destroyed by the Gordon Rioters in 1780. After this, another modest chapel was built in White Street.
Nothing could contrast more with this furtive activity, borne out of the hostility of the non-Catholic majority, than the church which was built in 1817-20 from designs by John Newman (who was, as Pugin later pointed out when recording his disapproval of the building, a Protestant). Built by public subscription and from voluntary donations at a cost of £26,000 (plus £6,000 for the adjoining clergy house), this was opened by Dr William Poynter, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, on 20 April 1820. The church was located on a prominent site (figure 1) in the newly-developed Moorfields area, on Blomfield Street, on the corner with East Street, which led into Finsbury Circus, laid out in 1815. The frontage towards Blomfield Street (figure 2) was a chaste neo-Classical design with a Corinthian portico in antis and pediment bearing sculptured personifications of Faith and Piety with a cross. Inside (figure 3), the magnificent coup de théâtre was at the east end, designed by Giovanni Battista Comelli. ‘Here, for the first time in nineteenth-century London, the Mass was given a dramatic setting comparable to that in Continental churches’ (Colvin, 2008, 743). In the apse were six monolithic marble Corinthian columns, one at each end and two pairs towards the middle, after those of the Choragic monument of Lysicrates at Athens. These framed the backdrop, a painted panorama of the Crucifixion by Agostino Aglio, dramatically lit from above.
This was by far the largest Catholic church in London at the time. It became the permanent seat of the Vicars Apostolic and, with the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, the pro-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Westminster. This it remained until 1869, during which time it saw Cardinal Wiseman’s funeral in 1865. After this there was a decline, hastened by the building of new churches elsewhere and the decline in the residential population of the City. In 1899 the site was sold and the church demolished, with some of the proceeds of the sale of the land going towards the building of Vaughan’s Westminster Cathedral. A new and smaller church was built on a restricted site in Eldon Street to the north (figure 4), opening on 25 March 1903. The architect was George Sherrin and the builders Holliday & Greenwood. The new church had a narrow elevation to the street and the internal floor level was lower than that of the street, necessary owing to difficulties with ancient lights. The marble apse columns, altar and font were brought from the old church and incorporated in Sherrin’s building.
The church is orientated north-south, but this description assumes conventional liturgical orientation.
The building is described in the list entry, below. This is fairly brief, and does not mention all the furnishings brought here from the old church. It also states mistakenly that the church was built on the site of its predecessor.
Steps lead down from the main entrance vestibule into the nave. On plan the church consists of a nave of four bays, a north aisle with Blessed Sacrament altar at the east end, and an apsidal sanctuary. There is a gallery at the west end of the nave, housing an organ, by Corps and Son of Finsbury Park. The nave has an elliptical barrel-vaulted roof, pierced with lunette windows. At the west end is a small former baptistery with a screen of marble and bronze, and two confessionals with oak doors carved by J. Daymond & Son. The marble font (figure 5), dating from c1820 and brought here from the old church, is now placed towards the west end of the nave on the south side; a circular bowl with cherubs on a square pedestal, with cover of c1900. The nave arcade is of four Devonshire marble columns with Doric capitals. At the east end of the north aisle is the Blessed Sacrament altar, its mensa resting on squared legs with incised panels and foliage capitals. The frontal is recessed, with geometrical decoration. Behind this is a window depicting the Assumption (in memory of Mary Burton), and on the walls above is an incomplete painted frieze (photo bottom right) depicting the Regina Apostolorum, St Thomas of Canterbury, St Thomas More, St Edmund and angels, by G. A. Pownall, 1925-26 [Both St Thomas More and St Thomas Becket were born in the parish]. Around the nave and aisle walls are high dado panels of oak. The floor beneath the seating is of wooden blocks, with marble squares for the circulation areas. The pews are of pine, with arched and moulded ends.
The sanctuary is separated from the nave by communion rails of Pavonazzo and other inlaid marble panels, with central metal gates. The sanctuary floor and the walls of the apse are also lined with marble (the latter replacing or covering a circular wall painting which echoed in small part that in the old church). The six columns around the sanctuary came from the old church and are monoliths of Como marble, 18 ft high and 2 ft in diameter. Behind the columns is the sarcophagus high altar, brought here from the old church.
Architect: George Sherrin
Original Date: 1899
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: II