South Benwell Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE15
An impressive Byzantine revival building of the interwar period. It was designed by Stienlet & Maxwell, a significant Newcastle firm, and this is their finest church in that style. The interior was reordered in the early 1980s, when the sanctuary arch was enclosed with a fine stained glass screen by Leonard Evetts (the suspended ceiling installed at the same time is less sympathetic). The church stands in a prominent position overlooking the Tyne Valley. Hadrian’s Wall corridor lies about 1 km to the north.
*Update: St Joseph’s closed for Catholic use in 2013 and is a now a Church of England church*
A mission was established at Benwell in 1903, one year before the area was incorporated into the city of Newcastle. At that time thousands of people worked in Armstrong’s nearby Elswick shipyards and armaments factory, and lived in the long brick terraces of Tyneside Flats which ran downhill to Scotswood Road. A small iron church was built and a house purchased to serve as a presbytery.
At the height of the depression, a site for a permanent church was acquired in Armstrong Road and the present church built; it was opened by Bishop Thorman in October 1931. The architect was Pascal J. Stienlet of Stienlet & Maxwell, and the church is in a free Byzantine style. As designed it had a rich interior, with much Italian marble in the sanctuary, paid for by an anonymous donor. The cost of the marble font and communion rail was met by contributions from the local schoolchildren. The debt was cleared and the church consecrated on 22 March 1938.
In 1982 the interior was reordered by Dietz and Lyons, architects of Newcastle, with Bell & Ridley of Durham the main contractors. This work included the infilling of the sanctuary arch with a stained glass screen designed by L. C. Evetts, formed over the (retained) communion rails; a separate chapel was created in the former sanctuary area. The marble altar was re-sited beneath the dome by Morris Marble works, who also designed the other liturgical furnishings, re-using much of the marble. Other alterations at this time included the introduction of a suspended ceiling in the nave, the introduction of an organ in the south transept (from St Mary’s College, Fenham), the relocation of the font to the Sacred Heart chapel and the creation at the west end of a narthex area and repository. The total cost of these works was about £70,000; the church was reopened and the new altar dedicated by Bishop Lindsay on 25 May 1982.
According to the Northern Catholic Calendar, in 1940 the parish population was over 3000. The parish now serves a population greatly reduced by the recent demolition of hundreds of council-owned houses. The Scotswood and Benwell Area Action Plan was prepared in 2009 by the City of Newcastle: it proposes building a shopping centre, schools, and in the area south-west of the church, many new houses. If the plan is realised, St Joseph’s will once again be part of a large community.
The external design is a subtle composition of many planes and domes. The walls are of pinkish-red brick and the roofs of the nave, transepts and chancel are covered in red tiles. There are domes over the crossing (with a plain cross finial), north-west entrance porch, and semi-domes over eastern and transept apses are felt-covered; flat roofs over aisles not visible. The dome of the octagonal crossing tower rests on eight high round arches, each face having three stepped windows. Gabled projections link the nave and transept roofs.
The building’s plan is a development of the traditional basilican plan, with seven-bay nave and aisles, crossing tower, and transepts. In addition, a short west transept forms the northwest porch facing Armstrong Road, and at the east end of the north aisle a smaller porch projects slightly under a pent roof extended from the aisle. The aisles have rounded tile coping to parapets. The nave has clerestory windows.
The south elevation and east and west ends have three storeys, because the basement is built into the hill. The northwest porch door has a recessed round-arched surround with a mosaic tympanum, in brick surround and dripmould. Other doors have round-arched heads (except for basements doors with lintels) as have the narrow windows, their size graduated according to position so that the pentagonal west apse has two rows of windows below the smaller top-floor openings. The only added decoration is at the northwest door, which has pilaster/jambs with wide, shallow, Byzantine-leaf capitals, and moulded crosses in small roundels above them. The transept gables have Lombard friezes over three narrow windows in large brick arches; long walls of nave and transepts have shallow projecting frieze with paler brick details.
The interior has plastered walls, painted white, to the church, painted brick to the towers. Windows and doors are in plain reveals. Against the east walls of the transepts are semi-circular chapels with painted and mosaic decoration, the southern one a baptistery since the 1982 reordering. At the same time the tall, wide sanctuary arch was infilled by L. C Evetts with subtle glass with plain pieces interspersed with tones from ruby to pale orange at the edges and leaf green to pale lemon at the centre, the shape of a central cross emerging gradually from them. A reused font and altar rails from an earlier church, possibly the predecessor of this one, enclose the baptistery and shield the base of the Evetts glass. In front of the stained glass is a marble stand with a simple domed brass tabernacle. The former sanctuary is now a chapel.
Plain arches form the nave arcades and frame the aisle and clerestory windows, and at the west end three arches are filled (presumably in 1982) with etched glass. Behind these arches is the repository and at the south end of this bay toilets have been built. Above the west arcade is an organ and choir gallery reached by stairs within the corner tower. The aisles have transverse arches to all bays. Short wall-posts support corbels for the flat suspended ceiling.
Architect: Pascal J. Stienlet of Stienlet & Maxwell
Original Date: 1931
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed