Building » Oulton – St Mary’s Abbey

Oulton – St Mary’s Abbey

Church Lane, Oulton, Staffordshire ST15

An important design by E. W. Pugin, built in 1853-4 for an order of Benedictine nuns that came to Oulton from Ghent, via Caverswall Castle. The church was designed early in Pugin’s career, and displays his father’s influence. It contains fine furnishings designed by Hardman, Powell, Pugin and others. With the presbytery and abbey (Oulton House), the church forms an important historic group in an attractive, sheltered setting on the edge of the village. 

The rambling house at Oulton Abbey was built in several phases, originating in 1720 as Oulton House, built by Thomas Dent, a solicitor. This was added to in 1822, and in the 1830s it was occupied by the Duke of Sutherland while Trentham Hall was under construction. From 1838 the house was a private asylum known as Oulton Retreat, until 1853 when it was acquired by an order of Benedictine nuns previously at Caverswall Castle. The Order had been founded in Brussels in 1597 by Lady Mary Percy, and re-established in Ghent in 1624 by Dame Lucy Knatchbull, for English nuns. In 1794 the nuns were forced to flee the continent and initially settled in Preston, before moving to Caverswall Castle in 1811. There, A. W. Pugin was consulted on a new church, but the moated site proved too small, and the nuns moved to Oulton House in 1853. The abbess, Lady Juliana Forster commissioned E. W. Pugin, then aged just nineteen, to design the abbey church, one of his first designs. Pugin’s sisters attended the school, along with daughters of Hardman. The church opened in 1854, and was consecrated in 1856 by Bishop Ullathorne. A chapter house, presbytery and sacristy were added in 1892. In 1925 a chapel to St Benedict was built between the chapter house and the sanctuary, on the south side.

Historic photographs show a typical E. W. Pugin bellcote on the west gable but this was removed at some time in the twentieth century. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the nuns ran a small boarding girls’ school in the house; after this closed in 1968, the house was used as a retreat centre and after 1989, as a nursing home. The community is now greatly diminished, and at the time of writing just two sisters remain. The church is served from Stone.


The church is constructed of coursed local grey sandstone, with steeply-pitched roofs with coped verges, laid with clay tiles, including fishscale tiles in courses. Rainwater goods are cast iron. The church is aligned with the sanctuary to the northeast, but in this description liturgical compass points will be used.  The plan consist of a five-bay aisleless nave and a two-bay sanctuary expressed by a lower pitched roof to the east end, with a single-storey lean-to cloister wrapping around the south, north and west ends of the church. The extern chapel is to the north of the sanctuary, linked to the presbytery, with St Benedict’s chapel to the south, adjacent to the chapter house. The style is fourteenth century Decorated Gothic Revival, the preferred style of A. W. Pugin.

The elevations are articulated by deep chamfered plinths, moulded string courses and buttresses. The east end of the sanctuary is lit by a large five-light Decorated pointed window, the hoodmould terminals are unfinished. The sanctuary north wall has a two-light pointed window with hoodmould above a small pointed doorway. On the north side of the sanctuary, projecting at right angles, is the extern chapel with two trefoil windows above the string course; this connects to the presbytery to the north. The cloisters have lean-to roofs, hipped to the west, with pilaster buttresses, chamfered plinths and are lit by three or four-light square headed mullioned windows with cusped lights. The west end has set back gableted buttresses and a large five-light pointed window with similar tracery to the east window. The nave side walls are lit by three-light pointed windows between gableted buttresses. All windows are protected by external Gothic-style iron grilles, probably original, and are glazed with diagonal leaded glass, expect for the east and west windows. The square tower on the south wall contains the organ loft, with a canted stair turret against its south side.

Inside, the five-bay nave is arranged in collegiate fashion, with fitted pews and choir stalls along the north and south sides, designed for the community. The roof has a pointed barrel vault springing from deep coving, both with moulded timber ribs and plaster panels with stencilled decoration. The upper walls are lined with ashlar with vertical tongue and groove boarding, a later addition, below the string course. The bays are defined by roll-moulded pilasters carried on angel corbels, rising to a gilded frieze. North, west and south pointed doors lead into the cloisters, all with double doors. The west wall is dominated by the large west window. The nave floor is laid with oak boards, and the variety of fitted seating includes richly carved oak choir stalls with foliated bench ends, and canopied rear panels). The stone organ loft high on the south wall is carried on five angel corbels, with a cusped arcaded stone balcony front, and a wide perpendicular arched recess for the organ.

The pointed moulded sanctuary arch has gilded carved capitals to the pilasters, and is flanked by stone canopied niches containing statues. The plaster wall above the arch is painted with angels and a depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin, by J. A. Pippet. The elaborate ironwork screen in the sanctuary arch was designed by J. H. Powell. The sanctuary walls are lined with ashlar, with a piscina on the south wall and wide arch to the extern chapel to the north. The richly carved Gothic stone reredos, gilded tabernacle and high altar were designed by E. W. Pugin. The stepped sanctuary floor is laid with encaustic tiles. The south chapel, dedicated to St Benedict, was added in 1925, and has an ironwork screen, Gothic altar and oak panelled walls. The plainer extern chapel to the north has plain plastered walls, pews facing south, external doorway to the east wall, red and black tiled floor and a crucifix and statues on the east wall.

The stained glass is by the Hardman firm, with a particularly fine west window depicting six Anglo-Saxon abbesses, installed for the Golden Jubilee of Abbess Juliana Forster in 1868. The east window has faded. The statue of St Benedict over the west door is reputedly from the Cistercian monastery at Brabant.

List descriptions



1854. Roman Catholic. Architect: Edward Welby Pugin, as successor to his late father, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, whose style predominates. Attached to the south side of St Mary’s Abbey Convent. Gothic Decorated style. Nave and chancel with good wrought iron screen. Fine panelled and painted chancel ceiling. Chapter house and sacristy added 1892.

Listing NGR: SJ9081935616



Presbytery to St Mary’s Abbey. 1892. Coursed rock-faced stone with freestone dressings. Clay shaped tile roof with stone coped gable ends with apex cross. Stone axial stacks with weathered caps. PLAN: Central entrance/stairhall with cross-wing on left [W], and attached to Chapel of St Mary’s Abbey on right [E]. Gothic style. EXTERIOR: 2 storeys. Asymmetrical 3-bay south front. Projecting gabled cross-wing on left with 3-light stone Gothic windows with cusped pointed arch lights; similar 2-light window on first floor of gable on right, single storey wing projecting below; central porch with wooden braces supporting lean-to canopy, and two circular cusped windows and triangular dormer above. West elevation, on side of cross-wing, 2-light Gothic windows, first floor in small gables. At rear, north, projecting gables left and right with stone Gothic windows and two circular cusped windows between with triangular dormer in roof above. INTERIOR appears to be largely intact. Entrance hall has moulded wooden pointed arch doorframes, and open-well staircase with turned balusters and newels with finials and pendants.

Listing NGR: SJ9081035630



House, now occupied by Benedictine abbey. Circa 1840 remodelling of circa earlier C19 house; extended in 1913. Red brick with stone dressings. Slate roofs with lead roll ridges, stone coped parapeted gable ends and parapets. Axial and lateral stacks with brick diagonally-set shafts. PLAN: Long circa 1840 south front range with entrance to centre of 3-bay block on left [W] and 5-bay wing to right [E]. Extensive circa earlier C19 ranges at rear. Wing set back on right [E] added in 1913. Tudor style. EXTERIOR: 2 storeys and attic. Long 5:4:1 bay south front. 5 bays to left with gabled outer bays with 2-storey canted bay windows and 2-storey porch at centre with moulded 4-centred arch doorway; narrow single-light windows between porch and gabled outer bays; 4-bay range set back on right with projecting gabled bay on right with 2-storey canted bay window. 3 storey red brick ranges and wings at rear, around a small courtyard, and attached lodges to NW flanking a carriageway arch which serves as the main entrance to the Abbey. INTERIOR: Much of the circa 1840 interior remains intact, including panelled doors and architraves, moulded plaster ceiling cornices, chimneypieces and a staircase with brass balusters and moulded mahogany handrail. NOTE: The Benedictine community was founded at Ghent in 1624. In 1794 they returned to England and eventually set up in Caverswall Castle. In 1853 the community moved to Oulton, into this house, where a monastic church [qv] was built in 1854 and the Presbytery [qv] added in 1892.

Listing NGR: SJ9086535584

Heritage Details

Architect: E. W. Pugin

Original Date: 1854

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II*