Sprowston Road, Norwich, Norfolk, NR3 4HZ
An imposing post-World War II essay in the Early Christian style, Sebastian Comper’s church is a major architectural feature in this part of Norwich. The interior is well-lit, with a focus on the altar.
In 1896, not long after the church (later cathedral) of St John the Baptist was opened for worship, a partly seventeenth century former Boy’s Hospital and school was bought in Fishergate (then a densely populated and much industrialised part of Norwich) for Catholics in the northern part of the city. It was dedicated to St George. St John the Baptist replaced the chapel of St John in Maddermarket and many of the latter’s furnishings came to Fishergate; vestments came from Costessey Hall chapel. The church was initially served by St John’s until the Revd Henry Long took up residence nearby in 1897, and a mission was established in 1899. Slum clearance in the city meant huge new council estates (such as Mile Cross) came to be built in the 1920s and 30s and the working population of the parish moved further north and, after World War Two, northeast to Heartsease and east to Thorpe. Masses were said in various locations in these areas, with American airmen coming in from the airfields around the city to swell the congregations.
Fishergate church (particularly the sacristy) was badly damaged in 1942. The Revd Edward Watkis began to negotiate purchase of a former lime quarry site in Sprowston in November 1943. He moved to the quarry manager’s house in 1944, obtained planning permission for a church in January 1946 and completed the purchase in 1948. He also began negotiating for land in the proposed Thorpe estate in 1946 and his successor, the Revd Kevin Jones, purchased a redundant gym in Hellesdon and opened the St Boniface mission church in there in 1950. The parish therefore had three development projects, with a school projected at Thorpe. A Development Association was created in 1953 to coordinate fundraising.
By 1958, Fishergate had become much too small and after investigating the possibility of redeveloping the site or taking over the nearby redundant medieval church of St Simon and St Jude, Sprowston was confirmed as the parish’s priority in 1960 and the architect Sebastian Comper approached. The Buildings of England mistakenlyattributes the church to the local architect A. J. Chaplin, possibly because he was involved at an early stage. Comper was Bishop Leo Parker’s favoured architect, and his first sketches appeared in September 1960. Although supported by the Bishop’s Committee, the local authority planners would not accept them. After further negotiations, planning permission was given in September 1961. The Norwich builder R.G. Carter Ltd was awarded the contract for £47,575 in June 1962 and work started soon afterwards, volunteers having done much site clearance.
Almost immediately engineers had to be engaged, as there seemed to be no bottom to the subsoil, which was not too surprising as it had been a lime quarry filled with rubbish. Piling for the east end reached 89 ft, at the west 60 ft. In the end, 91 piles were driven, at an additional cost of £9,000.
On 22 December 1962, Bishop Parker of Northampton laid the foundation stone at the east end of the north nave aisle, returning to celebrate Solemn High Mass and bless the church on 18 March 1964. By the autumn, a cedar wood parish hall had been built to the south of the church. The total cost of the church was £76,500 and the hall £6,000. Remarkably, the whole debt was cleared by mid-1966, a substantial contribution coming from the popular ‘Turniptop’ fundraising scheme. The church was consecrated by Bishop Parker on 24 May 1966.
Worship continued at Fishergate, but it became unsafe, was closed in 1983 and subsequently demolished.
Ironically, Bishop Parker had only recently returned from the Second Vatican Council, and St George’s showed no sign of the reforms the Council wanted. The altar was brought forward in 1970 but it was the Revd Tony Rogers who created today’s sanctuary in 1986, replacing the original altar, removing the suspended canopy, taking the stone pulpit attached to the northeast nave arcade respond off its stem to be the ambo on the sanctuary floor, replacing the curtain and panelling behind the altar with the hanging crucifix (a memorial to Fr Robert Manley 1974-83) mounted on a shaped panel, removing the stone altar rail with its iron gates, and bringing the font out of the northwest baptistery into its present central position at the west end. The choir stalls were placed at the east end of the north nave with a new organ console. The central passageway was first carpeted about this time.
In 2000 Jubilee Year the colonnade below the north transept organ gallery was filled with engraved glass in memory of the Revd Anthony Roberts (parish priest 1958-74) and the equivalent wood and glass screen opposite was inserted in about 2006, when the weekday Mass chapel was dedicated to the Jesuit martyr St Robert Southwell, who was born in the parish.
The church is oriented northeast to southwest but conventional liturgical compass points are used here.
St George’s is a large, Early Christian-style basilica by J. Sebastian Comper, designed in 1961 to seat 450, with two transeptal chapels with polygonal apses, a chancel with polygonal apse, small polygonal northwest baptistery and a sacristy complex off the south transept. It has remarkably thin walls and big windows because there are reinforced concrete stanchions rising the full height of the walls to directly support the timber trusses of the open roofs. They are clad with reconstructed Clipsham stone for the internal arcades and with brick for the external pilaster buttresses. The external brick is handmade Abbey grey, the interior dappled light grey brick, the roofs covered with pantiles.
The windows are round arched throughout. Each aisle bay has two lancet windows of equal size, each clerestory bay one larger window and there are triple lancets to the east wall and the gable end of the north transept. There is only one lancet to the south transept gable end, above three two-light round-headed windows emerging above the south sacristies. The impressive west front is divided into three sections by buttresses that are polygonal between the large west windows, a three-light window between two two-light ones. The tracery is simple and of heavy section. Three arches lead to an open narthex with a central double door within a heavy square stone frame. Above it is a small stone roundel from the Dutch gable of Fishergate church, inserted in 2005. A raised cross is surrounded by the letters St G’s C C. The papal arms are above the central porch arch. The narrow aisles are set back from the west front, each have a single west lancet.
The seven-bay nave of round arches has quatrefoil piers with simplified classical detailing, standing on octagonal bases. The western bay is narrower, with a pointed arch and is filled by a west gallery accessed by staircases in the western aisle bays. Beneath the concrete gallery is the enclosed narthex and open porch. The gallery balustrade of reconstructed Clipsham stone has the same profiles as Comper’s altar rail and it extends a little in the centre to be held by two classical columns. The original baptistery was in a polygonal flat-roofed chapel off the penultimate north aisle bay; it is now a chapel for private devotion with two saints’ statues. As the windows throughout the building are filled with rectangular clear glass, the church is well lit. The simple king-post roof trusses were originally painted grey and so were not as visually dominant as now, painted black against the white underside of the roof.
The transeptal chapels have two storeys, with polygonal east apses for the St Robert Southwell Chapel (former Lady Chapel) to the south and Blessed Sacrament Chapel (north). The north transept gallery held the choir with the organ; the south was probably always intended for storage and now houses the speakers for the organ. Both transepts retain the original iron chandeliers, some with unshaded light bulbs.
The sanctuary is now carpeted with the marble altar and ambo sitting directly on the carpet. The polygonal apse has an ogee-arched piscina to the south flank and an aumbry cupboard to the north. If this is the original altar, it seems to have been shortened by a panel in the 1980s reordering. The 1962 dedication stone is set into the north east respond of the nave arcade.
The Gothic octagonal font similarly sits on carpet but has recently had a two-tier iron corona suspended above it to give it emphasis and better light. It came from Fishergate and would appear to be of late nineteenth century date. The sturdy timber nave benches were made in 1962 at the Mann Egerton factory in the parish.
Architect: J. B. S. Comper
Original Date: 1963
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed