Pyle Street, Newport, Isle of Wight
St Thomas of Canterbury is not only a fine example of a Georgian church with a complete galleried interior, largely unaltered in the Victorian period, but is also an extremely early, possibly the earliest, example of a purpose-built Roman Catholic parish church not associated with a private estate.
The church was built immediately following the Second Catholic Relief Act 0f 1791 and paid for by Elizabeth Heneage (nee Brown), an Island-born girl who married into the old Catholic Heneage family from Lincolnshire. It is reputed to be the first Roman Catholic parish church built after the Reformation. The architect has not been established, but may have been the Rev. Thomas Gabb, a Londoner who trained as a priest at Douai. A contemporary biography corroborates the fact that he was skilled in architecture, and he is credited with the design of the other Elizabeth Heneage church of St Thomas of Canterbury, at Cowes.
The presbytery faces the church across a garden and predates it. North of the church and presbytery a former school of 1859 and church hall complete the close-knit campus.
Bryan Little, in Catholic Churches since 1623 describes the church as ‘having little to mark it off from the almost contemporary Methodist Chapel down the street’. It is a red brick ‘preaching box’ as was the style of most church building in the late-eighteenth century. Externally it is of typical Georgian design, a single rectangle, three by five bays and two storeys with a pedimented gable to the street and a handsome Tuscan columned porch. The window openings are round-arched, sometimes blind, to complete the symmetry, and have timber sash windows. Apart from the stone porch and pediment the entrance front is given greater emphasis by the use of a continuous first floor string-course, keystone and impost blocks to the central window and a blind circular window with key blocks in the pediment.
The interior is charming and elegant with galleries supported on fluted Composite columns and a dentil cornice, and curved forward on the short side. The gallery has box pews and a front with turned balusters (Christopher Martin says in A Glimpse of Heaven that the gallery fronts are modern). Deep coving to the flat plaster ceiling. Below, at the liturgical east end the last bay is enclosed by partitions with round-arched windows of domestic character. These enclose the sacristy to the east and the benefactresses’ private chapel to the west. A shallow recess or apse beneath a round-arch terminates the sanctuary. This has an open altar table designed in late-eighteenth century style with the tabernacle set on a pedestal behind and the whole oversailed by a tester. The pews, arranged in collegiate fashion, are nineteenth century pine with open backs. The altar rails have been removed and placed on the wall at the back of the church. To the right of the side entrance is a marble wall tablet to Elizabeth Heneage who died in 1800. Elegant eighteenth century marble font with an oval basin on a pedestal, the basin with fluting to the underside; contemporary cover. Coloured or stained glass over the liturgical west entrance below the gallery and in the founder’s chapel and sacristy screens and elsewhere, including Victorian pictorial scenes and plain coloured glass, some of almost Art Deco character. There is a rudimentary Victorian Gothic organ case on the gallery.
Architect: Thomas Gabb?
Original Date: 1791
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: II*