Building » Pontefract – Holy Family

Pontefract – Holy Family

Chequerfield Road, Pontefract, West Yorkshire

An impressive church of 1961-4 by Derek Walker, designed to reflect and anticipate contemporary liturgical trends. It retains its architect-designed furnishings and fine art works, although the original internal character has been compromised by later alterations.

A parish was founded in 1957 from St Joseph’s Pontefract, by Fr John Hudson. He offered Mass in a presbytery built by Fr Donald Backhouse on this large site in the middle of the new Chequerfield estate, established on the other side of the Aire valley to historic Pontefract. A hall was built the following year (on the present car park site) and used until the present church was opened in November 1964.

Fr Hudson commissioned Derek Walker of Walker & Biggin in 1961, seeking a building of the new ‘functional Catholic architecture’. He thought ‘the end product is a church of beautiful proportions, liturgically correct and truly functional’. It cost £43,000 including the furnishings and works of art and seats 400. Derek Walker wrote:

‘What was, and for that matter still is, wanted in a church building is a workable and congruous setting for a quite analysable function, rather than a vague and indefinable devotional atmosphere. It was this strict functional approach that laid the foundation for the design of the Holy Family Pontefract… The task of the architect is not to design a building that looks like a pre-conceived image of a church but to create a building that works as a place for liturgy’.

Derek Walker designed a few other churches in the early 1960s (e.g. Sacred Heart, Hyde Park Road, Leeds) before working on larger developments such as Newton Garth (1969) that led to him becoming the first Chief Architect and Planning Officer of Milton Keynes (1970-4) where he also built churches (e.g. Our Lady of Lourdes, Coffee Hall). He went on to become the Head of Architecture at the Royal College of Art; late works include the Royal Armouries at Leeds (1996).

It seems that the earlier presbytery was subject to subsidence and damp and was  later demolished leaving a large gap between the church and its car park, now scrubby waste land behind a wall and gates. The temporary hall on the car park site has also been demolished. At about the same time the interior brickwork of the church was painted white and the decorative cast concrete frieze painted pink. Possibly at the same time the original tabernacle was removed. The tall timber and glass lantern over the altar (similar in design to the west doors) leaked and was removed c.1998; it was replaced with an elliptical plastic rooflight. The font was taken out of the north baptistery to sit centrally at the west end of the nave, its sunken surround filled in and with the repository made into a social area. In 2007, in response to antisocial behaviour, the recessed main porch doors were brought forward, and one of the doors had to be replaced. A member of the congregation faithfully copied the original. The lower half of the windows flanking the altar have also been infilled (and covered by modern fabric). There have been three heating systems; the original underfloor heating was replaced by a noisy hot air blower system, recently superseded by a hot air system.


The church is oriented to the north but liturgical compass points are used throughout this report.

The loadbearing walls and piers are of 2in. ivory-coloured sand lime bricks, with exposed concrete and stained and lacquered Iroko joinery. The floor is paved in pre-cast concrete, the main ceilings are of rough off-white tyrolean render and the subsidiary spaces ceiled in dark Douglas fir. The central hall of nave and sanctuary is rectangular, with the nave flanked on the north by a single-storey range with a continuous  band of wall-top windows, containing the ‘repository’ (Mass book shelves and cupboards), the baptistery and Lady Chapel (whose full-height glazing links it directly to a walled devotional garden beyond). The deeper single-storey block to the south side once linked to the presbytery and contains a covered external ‘shrine’ space, two confessionals and a range of sacristies. There are brick piers between the nave and these lower areas, with tall clear glazed clerestory windows above.

The southern half of the west wall has two small floor-to-ceiling recesses (intended to house shrines dedicated to St Joseph and the Little Flower) flanking a floor-to-ceiling window depicting the Creation by Roy Lewis, of predominantly dark blue glass. The northern half contains the glazed inner porch screen, echoing the four panels of the main entrance doors. There is also a southwest double door and both entrances lead into a space that has been enlarged by moving the main doors further west. The sanctuary itself is flanked by ‘transepts’, the north below a blank wall and the south below a choir gallery reached by a broad staircase to the west. The east wall is dominated by a ceramic reredos of Christ in Majesty by Bob Brumby, said to be of more than 3,400 pieces. At Christ’s feet is the tabernacle shelf, apparently larger than originally and the tabernacle itself is a replacement too. The Portland stone altar stands on a broad podium, its top lighting  acting as a canopy as well as a light filter. Below it is a pierced terrazzo block containing a circular ceramic of the Last Supper. The six candlesticks now at either end of the altar were designed to stand on it; the sanctuary retains its original Grosvenor Green carpet.

The furniture was designed by the architect in Afromosia and Iroko, and although some pieces have been moved all appear to remain. The font is another block of off-white terrazzo with a cross-shaped recess containing a bronze by Ray Arnatt, the Shattered Cross. It was originally in a sunken floor in the baptistery, below a circular rooflight and copper light fitting, which remain in place. The Lady Chapel has a granite altar slab on a cruciform column. A glass mosaic ‘reredos’ in rich reds and vermilions by Roy Lewis dominates the space, which bleeds into the devotional garden outside. The other ceramic by Bob Brumby, the Holy Family designed for the west wall, was under repair at the time of writing.

Amended by AHP 22.01.2021

Heritage Details

Architect: Walker & Biggin

Original Date: 1961

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed