Building » Orpington – Holy Innocents

Orpington – Holy Innocents

Strickland Way, Orpington, Kent BR6

A modern church of 1980-1 built to a striking design by Michael Blee, as part of a complex of church, parish hall and presbytery. The church replaced a chapel of 1907-09 by Benedict Williamson and paid for by Miss Frances Ellis.

In 1887 Bishop Butt founded the Southwark Diocesan Education Council and Rescue Society for poor and neglected children from South London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. In 1891 the Society acquired a 60-acre site at Orpington, large enough for an orphanage, a school and sufficient land to teach the children basic agriculture. St Joseph’s orphanage and school opened the following year, accommodating 200 boys. In 1893 the Presentation Brothers arrived from Cork to take charge of St Joseph’s. Initially, the building also housed the girls’ orphanage, under the care of the Sisters of Mercy.

The orphanage had close links with the Catholic Canadian Emigration Society, who had homes in Canada (including New Orpington Lodge) which helped English orphans to adapt, before placing them with Canadian Catholic farming families. In 1900 the combined orphanage and girls’ school of St Anne’s opened, just to the north of St Joseph’s. The same year, both orphanage schools were officially recognised by the local school board.

In 1907 Miss Frances Ellis, benefactress of the Diocese of Southwark, gave money for the building of a chapel at Orpington. Work started on site in August 1907, and the foundation stone was laid on 10 August 1908. The chapel, placed exactly between the two orphanage buildings, opened  on 17 March 1909. The architect  was  Benedict Williamson, with J. H. Beart Foss. A bell was donated by past pupils of St Anne’s, while the tabernacle and the large candlesticks were given by the boys of St Joseph’s. At the time the chapel served the orphanages as well as Catholic families in the Orpington area.

In the post-war years the need for orphanages declined and in April 1954 St Anne’s became a primary school. In 1971 Orpington was canonically erected as a parish. Shortly afterwards, however, serious subsidence was detected on the site of the chapel and the orphanages. The decision was taken to build a new church. The chapel and orphanage buildings were demolished and the land sold for housing (the St Joseph’s Estate). Holy Innocents Primary School was erected roughly on the site of St Anne’s orphanage and school.

In about 1978 a competition was held for a new church, parish centre and presbytery, under the auspices of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Six entries were received, and early in 1979, the winner was announced to be Michael Blee Whittaker Partnership, with a design concept by Michael J. Blee. The architects described the form as ‘a facetted random helix’, with overlapping roofs around a central cluster of columns, the ‘axis mundi’. The church was surrounded by ancillary spaces at the west, with the presbytery and the parish centre forming a three-sided courtyard at the east. On 11 May 1980 Archbishop Bowen laid the foundation stone in form of a slate plinth for the tabernacle stand. In October 1980 the 4m-high terminal cross was blessed and then raised to its position. On 3 August 1981 an inscribed slate stone was placed south of the west entrance, commemorating the completion of the church. The project partner was H. R. Whittaker, the project architect G. J. Baxter, and the contractors were Burren & Whitaker. The structural engineer was Steve Coultas of the Michael Barclay Partnership. The value of the contract (as of 1980) was £537,320. On 20 September 1981 the church was ceremonially opened and dedicated by Archbishop Bowen. The following day, work started on the demolition of the old chapel and the housing development around the new church.

The bell from the old chapel was installed in the belfry. The burials in the orphanages’ private cemetery – children, priests, brothers, sisters, staff and some parishioners – were reinterred in the garden of the new church, with a single large memorial.

In June 1981 the clergy moved into the new presbytery. However, within a month, watermarks appeared on the walls. A series of remedial works over twenty  failed to rectify the problems of damp and water ingress, and a new presbytery in a sympathetic style was built at the east corner of the complex, occupied by December 2000. In September 2009, Bromley Council gave planning permission for a new parish centre, replacing the current centre and the former presbytery. The church, too, has been subject of maintenance and repair problems.


The church is facing northeast; however, this description will use the conventional liturgical orientation.

The church was built between 1980 and 1981, to designs by Michael J. Blee of the Michael Blee Whittaker Partnership. The timber roof rests on concrete portals and a central cluster of timber columns. All roofs are covered in Westmorland slate, with the church being entirely clad in slate, down to the ground. In plan, the church is roughly a semicircle, with the liturgical east end at the straight side. Around the circumference are ancillary spaces in low, lean-to blocks, surrounding the central steeply pitched roof with a central belfry topped by a large cross. The main entrance at the west is between two concrete blocks, framing a top-lit corridor. A small slate stone at the base of the southern block commemorates the completion of the church, with the names of the architects and general contractors. Apart from the presbytery buildings, all the outer walls are blank and the spaces inside lit by skylights.

The west entrance leads into a corridor with lavatory facilities on either side. The worship space is ringed by three halls named St Joseph’s, Our Lady of Mercy and Trinity halls. They are divided from the church by curtains and sliding divisions and can increase the seating capacity in the church from 200 to about 500-600 people. Other ancillary spaces grouped around the semicircular edge are the servers’, flower, and priests’ sacristies, as well as a confessional. Some of these have their separate external entrances, whose corridors lead to six portals to the nave. At the northeast corner, a corridor connects to the parish hall and centre (the former presbytery). The Stations of the Cross, painted rectangular casts recessed into the walls, are distributed throughout the building, including corridors.

The roof structure is seven-sided, each side overlapping with the next with a narrow window in between them. Panelled in timber, the roof sections centre on a central cluster of timber columns, the so-called ‘axis mundi’. The sanctuary area surrounds the columns, with four blocks of benches in the auditorium radiating outwards. North of the sanctuary, on the east wall is a three-part bronze sculpture group of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents by parishioner Nesta McGavin. Just to the right is a shallow niche with a statue of the Virgin with the Child beside the east window. This has a memorial window to Fr Michael Phelan, priest-in-charge 1955-71, parish priest 1971-84. Depicting the Holy Innocents in the shape of birds flying towards the cross, it was designed by Margaret Traherne. Just below it is the Peace Window, a panel with the words ‘Pax Tecum’, designed by Hugh Wootton.

The sanctuary floor is tiled in light brown tiles. The altar is a solid block of Cumbrian slate set on a small pedestal clad in the same material. Behind the altar hangs a large timber crucifix. The chairs and the lectern are of timber. The tabernacle is set inside the ring of central columns, with an iron chandelier above. It is set on a black slate stone on top of a tiled pedestal. The slate is engraved with the inscription: ‘Love one another, as I have loved you. This stone was laid by Archbishop Michael Bowen on Sunday May 11, 1980’. To the right of the sanctuary are the organ and the timber font. Behind the organ is the small Chapel of Unity. Opposite, between the second and third porch from the southeast is a small shrine with an icon of Our Lady. Iron and glass lanterns are suspended from the roof throughout the worship space.

Heritage Details

Architect: Michael Blee Whittaker Partnership

Original Date: 1981

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed