Building » Poplar – St Mary and St Joseph

Poplar – St Mary and St Joseph

Upper North Street, London E14

A post-war church dating from the time of the Festival of Britain, when Lansbury was chosen as the site of the Festival’s ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition. A monumental design built of brick with concrete vaulting, this is probably the finest of Adrian Gilbert Scott’s churches.  Its plan form and layout anticipated later liturgical reforms, and Scott also designed most the furnishings and fittings. The church is a powerful feature in the post-war Lansbury estate, now designated as a conservation area. The contemporary presbytery was also designed by Scott.

The mission was founded in 1816, when a chapel and school were opened in Wade Street. It served the workers at the West and East India Docks, most of them Irish. In 1821 a site was bought for a new chapel and burial ground. In 1835, a new chapel attached to the school opened. Work on a church designed by William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899) started in September 1850. The foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Wiseman in May 1851. Work was suspended until December 1855 when it continued with different contractors. The church was opened by Cardinal Wiseman in September 1856. The overall cost was £9,000, which may include the £1,000 paid for the site. The church was cruciform in plan with a battlemented crossing tower. The presbytery and the western half of the church were destroyed by bombing in 1940.

The site of the old church and presbytery was compulsory purchased by the London County Council (LCC) who provided a new site. The replacement church was one of the first churches to be funded by the War Damage Commission. Adrian Gilbert Scott (1883-1963) was commissioned in 1948 and presented preliminary designs for a church of longitudinal plan to the LCC in February 1949. Revised designs were approved by the LCC in January 1950 and the foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Griffin on 7 October 1951. The church was first used on 13 June 1954 and formally opened in September 1954. The consulting engineer was Albert Burnard Geen (1882-1966) and the contractor John Mowlem & Co. The cost was £18,000, most of which was covered by the War Damage Commission. The church was consecrated by Cardinal Godfrey in October 1960.

In 1948, Lansbury had been chosen as the site of the ‘Live Architecture’ Exhibition of the 1951 Festival of Britain. Employing some of the foremost architects and planners of the day, the development used real building projects to illustrate new ideas in architecture, town planning and construction, with the intention of leaving permanent and useful ‘legacy’ structures. Scott’s church was one of these buildings, and although considered old-fashioned by some at the time, has perhaps endured better than some of its neighbours.

Due to site constraints, the presbytery was constructed (also to designs by Adrian Gilbert Scott) on the opposite side of Pekin Street. The proposed covered way linking it to the church was never built.


The building and its furnishings are fully described in the list description, below. The following are a few additional points:

  • Within the porch over the central west door is a crucifix supported by angels sculpted in Hopton Wood stone.
  • The underside of the baldacchino has the dove of the Holy Spirit within a gold star. The same motif recurs on the ceiling of the central lantern.
  • The list description does not mention the chapel to St Joseph in the south transept, balancing the Lady Chapel. This too has a timber reredos with statue and a stone and marble altar.
  • The original  baptistery in the (liturgical) south corner of the narthex retains its metal rails, stained glass window and aumbry. It is now used as a children’s chapel.
  • The benches (attributed to A. G. Scott) were originally set out in east-facing blocks. After the Second Vatican Council, they were given a more centralised arrangement. The resulting surplus of benches is      either in store or on loan to St Edmund, Millwall (qv).
  • The stone and  yellow marble altar rails have been cut down to widen the central opening.
  • A processional cross survives from the Victorian church.
  • The stained glass is signed and dated: ‘Designed and made by W. Wilson, W. Blair, D. Saunders, C. Whalen, Edinburgh 1954’.
  • The weekday chapel has modern furnishings and abstract coloured glass to its three windows.

List description


Roman Catholic Church. 1951-4 by Adrian Gilbert Scott as part of the ‘Live’ architecture exhibition of the Festival of Britain. 2″ Leicestershire brick construction with concrete vaulting, while short concrete spire is carried on steel plate girders over 18m long. This has a copper roof, the lower roofs with Lombardic tiles. Greek cross plan with central lantern, and liturgical east end with forward baldacchino faces west. Liturgical west gallery. The style of the church is inspired by its camel vaulted arches, a motif inspired by older brother Giles’s unbuilt designs for Coventry Cathedral made in 1945 and derived from ancient Persia via buildings like Clemens Holzmeister’s Vienna Crematorium of 1922. It has also been described as`Jazz Moderne Byzantine’. Stepped profile, with moulded brick banding to cornices at each of the 3 main levels, and strong eaves or parapet mouldings. Tall aluminium windows, most distinctive of which are those placed in the splays of the composition. Projecting porch to Upper North Street with camel arch opening, behind it a bellcote over narthex within.

INTERIOR: narthex/nave, transepts and sanctuary of equal length with splayed sides to high central crossing. Sanctuary paved in marble and with baldacchino, sacristies to either side – the priest’s sacristy converted to weekday chapel in memory of Canon John Wright, parish priest 1946-70, in 1979. Pulpit of Hornton stone placed across one of the splayed angles of the central space and raised about 3.7m above floor level. Altar to Our Lady is a memorial to Canon Bartholomew O’Doherty, parish priest 1920-46 with life-size statue of the Madonna and timber reredos. Octagonal font also in Hornton stone at liturgical west end. Above is choir gallery, originally also containing the organ but this has been brought down to the nave. Pews have been reorganised to reflect liturgical changes, though the lack of alteration required shows how liturgically advanced was Scott’s Greek cross plan. Around the inside walls is a dado of Blue Hornton stone, which incorporates stone reliefs of the Stations of the Cross by Peter Watts. Stained glass by William Wilson of Edinburgh. Scott himself donated the light pendants, which were to the same pattern as those he designed for the rebuilding of the House of Commons. Regarded as old fashioned when it was built, SS Mary and Joseph can now be appreciated for the handsome quality of its workmanship, materials and design. Its massing is among the most ambitious and satisfying of any post-war church, and it is now recognised as Adrian Scott’s finest church designed independently of his brother. The Survey of London (1994) points to the special care with which every element was designed. In addition, as one of the very first Roman Catholic churches designed after the Second World War it is remarkable for a plan-form which from the first was designed to allow all the congregation to be close to the altar, and which anticipated many of the ideas of De Sacra Liturgica in 1963. In 1981 Lord Esher confessed that `the fortress like Catholic church that once seemed so old-fashioned is now so functional’ and recognised the building as an important local landmark (A Broken Wave, 1981, p.120).

(Sources: Architects’ Journal: 15 June 1950-:749; Architect and Building News: 24 December 1953-:774; Architecture and Building: September 1954-: 330-5; Architectural Review: October 1954-: 263-4; Lionel Esher: A Broken Wave: 1981-: 120; Survey of London; vol. XLIII: Poplar Part One: 1994-: 236-9)

Listing NGR: TQ3745281090

Heritage Details

Architect: Adrian Gilbert Scott

Original Date: 1951

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II