The Hill, Northfleet, Kent DA11
A dramatic and innovative brick church of 1913-16 by (Sir) Giles Gilbert Scott, built with funds donated by the Tolhurst family. Its monumental exterior is a precursor to Scott’s design for the west tower of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. The austere interior is little altered and retains many original furnishings by Scott. The tower is an important landmark in the conservation area.
The mission at Northfleet was founded from Greenhithe. The Greenhithe mission had been founded in 1863 by Fr Maurice of Cossato, a Capuchin friar from Piedmont, and the first Mass said on Christmas Day 1863 at the Carmelite convent. The church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was built in the 1870s by the architect J. Lewis Andre of Horsham, Sussex, with the builder, Mr Sharp. It was served by Capuchin friars until 1880, when the mission was handed over to the diocese. The first mission priest at Greenhithe was Fr Thomas Moynihan. In the 1880s the missions of Greenhithe and Northfleet were united. In 1904 they were separated again and Greenhithe was served first from Walworth, then from 1907 from Dartford. In 1970 the mission at Greenhithe was closed and the church demolished in 1973.
The first church at Northfleet was dedicated to Our Immaculate Mother and St Joseph; it was in Rose Street (now Station Road), and was built in 1867. It was used as a school during the week and as a church on Sundays. (The disused building still survives today.) The first resident priest, Fr Lancelot Scott, arrived in 1898.
The current church, Our Lady of the Assumption, was designed by (Sir) Giles Gilbert Scott in 1913. The new site was the former horse-drawn tram depot, which had closed in 1901. The former tram manager’s house became the presbytery. Alfred Tolhurst, a Catholic convert, lawyer, local politician and owner of the Red Lion cement works, donated a piece of adjoining land. A public appeal had been planned to raise funds for the building work; however, the children of Alfred (died 1913) and Sarah (died 1911) Tolhurst made a donation of about £8,000 as a memorial to their parents which covered the costs. Building work started in 1914 and was completed in 1916. The builder was J. B. Lingham.
The church was consecrated on 5 December 1929. Scott added several furnishings in the following decades, including the Lady Chapel altar and reredos (1923-4) and the main reredos (1953-4). There used to be a small hall between church and presbytery; however, this was demolished following the discovery of asbestos and was not replaced. Between 2000 and 2003, Thomas Ford & Partners carried out structural repairs. The church was reopened on 5 December 2003 by Archbishop Michael Bowen, the 74th anniversary of its consecration.
For some years, Northfleet had a chapel-of-ease, St Clement, in St Clement’s Close, Coldharbour Road, which opened in 1993. The final Mass was said in 2007; it has since been rented out to an Evangelical congregation.
After the closure and demolition of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Greenhithe, the former Anglican church of All Saints, Galley Hill, Swanscombe (built 1894) was used as a chapel-of-ease from c.1971 to c.1990 when it was converted to flats. (The Stations of the Cross were brought first to All Saints and are now at St George’s chapel, South Darenth.)
The list description (below) gives a good basic overview but includes some errors and omits several parts, notably the baptistery, the sacristies and corridors, the confessional, and the details of the west facade.
The church is facing west; however, this additional description uses the conventional, liturgical orientation.
The plan forms a stunted T in shape, of an aisled nave with projecting corridors flanking the side chapels, leading to the sacristies behind the sanctuary. A heating chamber is below the east end, with external steps down at the southeast. The bricks are laid in garden wall bond. Contrary to the list description, only the roofs of the aisles, the sacristies and corridors, the tower and subsidiary spaces at the east are flat, while the roofs of the nave and the two ‘transepts’ at east and west are pitched roofs with clay pantiles. The west facade of the tower has one large pointed opening with tracery and sound louvres. Below is an arcade of four pointed openings with a balustrade of tracery and panels of the Evangelists’ symbols. Below those is a niche with a statue of the Virgin and Child, placed centrally above the arch to the west doors, which is flanked by two low buttresses.
A small lobby leads into the church. Inside, on either side of the doors, is a storage room at the south, and the stairs to the gallery to the north. The organ of 1880 was built by Brindley & Foster of Sheffield. At the west end of the north aisle is the baptistery, with an octagonal stone font, a statue of St John the Baptist, and iron railings. On the wall above is a modern carving of St Clement, probably from the former St Clement’s Church.
In the north aisle is a large bronze Pietà, dedicated to the memory of Marie Josephine Tolhurst, with a plaque to the donors of the church, Alfred and Sarah Ann Tolhurst, above. Beside it hangs a large cross by Bob Smith (1998). Further east is a side altar with a statue of Our Lady of the Assumption on a large timber pedestal, carved with tracery. Beside it is a modern table with a tapestry of the Virgin and Child. The Stations are large, unframed carved scenes, with lettering on scrolls above them.
At the entrance to the Lady Chapel is a statue of St Anthony with the Child, beside the timber pulpit. The Lady Chapel in the northeast corner has a marble altar with some lapis lazuli inlay, with a Pietà relief in the frontal. The carved and painted reredos depicts the Nativity, with doors painted in blue with Marian symbols. A canopied niche above holds a statue of the Virgin. Both altar and reredos are by Scott, 1923-4. An inscription in the chapel steps dedicates the chapel to the memory of Philip Walmesley Tolhurst. Nearby is a modern statue of the Virgin and Child on a timber pedestal.
The corridor at the north, leading to the priest’s sacristy, has an iron gate with the inscription ‘requiescant in pace’. The walls are lined with different marbles, surrounding fine square timber panels with biblical scenes, and a large metal crucifix at the east. The corridor to the south is plainer with a door, leading to the boys’ sacristy.
The main reredos and altar are also by Scott. The reredos of 1953-4 depicts Our Lady of the Assumption with the dove of the Holy Spirit surrounded by angels. The high altar is of marble, with a large monstrance throne above the tabernacle. On either side are an aumbry and a piscina set into the east wall. The flat, panelled sanctuary ceiling is painted with a stencil pattern of rings of flowers. There is a modern forward altar and lectern, both of timber.
The south chapel is dedicated to St Joseph, with a similar marble altar to that in the Lady Chapel, here with a frontal of the Flight into Egypt, and a tabernacle whose doors feature the Pelican in its Piety. Above is a statue of St Joseph with the Child.
In the south aisle is a statue of the Sacred Heart, given by the congregation in memory of those who died in the First World War. There is a large sculpture group of the Death of St Joseph, given in memory of Francis Joseph Tolhurst (died 1958). At the west end of the south aisle is a built-in confessional, with a carved timber chair for the priest. Between the doors hangs a large crucifix given in memory of John and Hannah Hart and Mary Jane Nunan. To the side is a modern statue of St Theresa.
Roman Catholic church. Built 1913-16 to the designs of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Reinforced concrete, faced in brown Crowborough brick, flat roofs. Rectangular plan with west tower and door. Gothic vertical emphasis as used by Scott in Liverpool Cathedral, but here developed for the first time in monumental brick and reinforced concrete. Channelled base. Low aisles and bands of clerestory windows set against tall gabled west chapels and east transepts. Interior little altered, with three-bay brick and concrete arcades whose continuous mouldings are unbroken by capitals. High square vestigial sanctuary arch with hanging rood, high reredos by Scott of 1953-4 and high altar (a modern freestanding altar at the foot of the sanctuary steps has enabled the original arrangement to be retained behind. Choir stalls and pews, with pulpit to side. Chairs serve aisle chapels; the Lady Chapel altar and reredos by Scott date from 1923-4. A similar square frame to the tower arch, in which is an organ loft and alternative space for choir. Hanging pendant lights from trabeated ceiling.
Our Lady of the Assumption is significant in the work of this leading twentieth- century ecclesiastical architect in being the first of his brick churches to achieve a truly monumental, subliminal quality. Scott was later to further explore the medium in his secular work, notably at Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern, whose qualities are anticipated here. The use of concrete was experimental, while the interior is imaginative and cohesive in its simplicity.
Architect: Giles Gilbert Scott
Original Date: 1913
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*