Dowling Street, Rochdale OL11
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
A substantial town centre landmark church of Byzantine design, strongly influenced by Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral. The church was designed by Henry Oswald Hill of Manchester before 1917 but was not built until the 1920s, under the direction of E. Bower Norris. The intended campanile was never built, although in some views the 1930s drill tower of the nearby fire station groups with the church to fulfil a similar function in townscape terms. The vaulted interior has a concrete dome and is enhanced by fine 1930s mosaic decoration in the sanctuary by Eric Newton.
The first Catholic priest took up residence in Rochdale in 1824, and a church opened in 1830. This was replaced by a new brick church in 1860. During the second half of the nineteenth century the church’s territory gradually diminished in size as other missions were established in Rochdale. One of a number of distinguished priests was Canon Henry Chipp, priest from 1898-1937, who presided over the building of the present church.
The church is an ambitious design in the Byzantine style, clearly influenced by Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral. A perspective drawing, showing it very much as built but with a large campanile, is in the Diocesan Archives. This is inscribed ‘Oswald Hill Architect Albert Square Manchester’. Hill was killed in action in 1917, and his practice was acquired in 1918 by Henry Thomas Sandy, who was joined in 1920 by Ernest Bower Norris. Sandy died in 1922, leaving Norris in charge of the practice which was known as Hill, Sandy & Norris and continued in business in Manchester until 1969. The design for St John’s, without the campanile, was eventually built between 1925 and 1927, presumably under the supervision of Norris. The fine mosaic decoration in the sanctuary is by Eric Newton of the Ludwig Oppenheimer firm and was added in 1930-33 (cost £4,000).
In 1966 a presbytery was built on the north side of the church and linked to it (architects Desmond Williams & Associates). In about 1998 the presbytery was demolished and the lower part of the east transept was converted to provide residential accommodation.
The church is fully described in the list entry (below), which was expanded – and the church upgraded to II* – in 2015, following Taking Stock.
Summary: Roman Catholic church. Original design pre-1917 by Oswald Hill (d.1917), executed in 1923-25 by Ernest Bower Norris of Manchester architects’ practice Hill, Sandy and Norris. Mosaic scheme of 1932-33 by Eric Newton. Ferro-concrete dome and barrel vaults, red brick with artificial stone dressings. Early Christian Byzantine style.
Reasons for Designation: The Roman Catholic Church of St John the Baptist, Rochdale, original design pre-1917 by Oswald Hill (d.1917), executed in 1923-25 by Ernest Bower Norris, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons: * Artistic interest: the apsed sanctuary contains an encompassing mosaic scheme of powerful emotional intensity designed by leading mosaic designer, Eric Newton of specialist firm Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd, which is an exemplar of his artistic and compositional skills demonstrating both a real understanding of the medium and a deep art historical knowledge in its details; * Architectural interest: as an urban Catholic church designed in a Byzantine style with a large dome in the manner of Hagia Sophia and clearly inspired by the recently built Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral (1895-1903); * Materials: the church uses concrete to its advantage in the construction of the striking, 20m-wide central dome, whilst internally the quality of the sanctuary mosaic is further enhanced by the use of high-quality tesserae made of stone, coloured marbles and coloured glass, set off by a shimmering background of gold tessarae; * Architect: Henry Oswald Hill was a promising architect with a clear interest in contemporary church-building trends, as evidenced here and at the nearby RC Church of St Joseph, Heywood (Grade II), who was tragically killed in action in the First World War.
History: Canon Henry Chipp was Catholic priest in Rochdale from 1897 to 1936 and he presided over the building of the present church. Inspired by the example of Westminster Cathedral (1895-1903 by John Francis Bentley, Grade I), he wanted a new church in the Byzantine style of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. A perspective drawing survives in the Diocesan archives signed ‘Oswald Hill, Architect Albert Square Manchester’ showing the church much as built with a central dome, but also with a campanile. Hill designed several Catholic churches before his untimely death when he was killed in action in 1917. His practice was acquired in 1918 by Henry Thomas Sandy, who was joined in 1920 by Ernest Bower Norris. Sandy then died in 1922 and the practice continued to be run by Norris under the name Hill, Sandy and Norris. The church was built under Norris’s supervision between 1925-27. The builders were R & T Haworth of Rochdale. The church first appears on the third Epoch 1:2500 OS Lancashire map, published in 1930, when it has the same footprint as present. The campanile envisaged was not, however, built. The apsed sanctuary is completely covered in a mosaic scheme with the theme Eternal Life designed by Eric Newton. Newton was born Eric Oppenheimer, later changing his surname by deed poll to his mother’s maiden name. He was the grandson of Ludwig Oppenheimer, a German Jew who was sent to Manchester to improve his English and then married a Scottish girl and converted to Christianity. In 1865 he set up a mosaic workshop, (Ludwig Oppenheimer Ltd, Blackburn St, Old Trafford, Manchester) after spending a year studying the mosaic process in Venice. Newton had joined the family company as a mosaic craftsman in 1914 and he is known to have studied early Byzantine mosaics in Venice, Ravenna and Rome. He later also became art critic for the Manchester Guardian and a broadcaster on ‘The Critics’. Newton started the scheme in 1932 and took over a year to complete it at a cost of £4,000. It had previously been thought that he used Italian craftsmen, but historic photographs from the 1930s published in the Daily Herald show Oppenheimer mosaics being cut and assembled by a Manchester workforce of men and women. It is likely, therefore, that the craftsmen working on St John the Baptist were British. In 1966 a new presbytery was built on the north side of the church and linked to it. It was demolished in about 1998 and the lower part of the liturgical south transept was converted to provide residential accommodation. In the early C21 a meeting room was inserted at ground-floor level in the liturgical north transept.
Details: Roman Catholic church. Original design pre-1917 by Oswald Hill (d.1917), executed in 1923-25 by Ernest Bower Norris of Manchester architects’ practice Hill, Sandy and Norris. Mosaic scheme of 1932-33 by Eric Newton. Ferro-concrete dome and barrel vaults, red brick with artificial stone dressings. Early Christian Byzantine style. PLAN: Cruciform plan with central dome, narthex, vaulted transepts, apsidal sanctuary and sacristy, now partially converted to a flat.
EXTERIOR: Dome: part of a single, ferro-concrete structure with the barrel vaults over the transepts. It is 95ft (29m) high and 65ft (20m) in diameter, with a clerestory comprising 35 deeply-recessed round-headed lights with leaded and coloured glass set behind a clerestory colonnade of engaged square columns. The colonnade supports a shallow cupola with a crucifix finial. The exterior walls are faced in brick in English garden wall bond (3:1) Liturgical west elevation (south): the elevation faces Dowling Street. It has a deep artificial stone plinth and a tall, central, shallow-pitch gable flanked by lower, set-back, flat-roofed bays with low, single-storey, flat-roofed end bays. The gable has a tall window of five narrow, round-headed lights with a panelled, semi-circular arched head set within a semi-circular arched recess, both arches with banded heads and projecting keystones. The outer arch keystone supports a cross which rises into the gable apex. Flanking the window are wide pilasters with carved figures of angels to the angles of the pilaster heads. Beneath the window are a pair of three-light windows with shouldered heads. The flanking, lower bays each have a window with two narrow, round-headed lights and a semi-circular arched head set above double doorways with moulded surrounds. The timber doors have square panelling. The low end bays have banded quoining. Above the doors a plain band extends across the full width of the elevation. A narrower sill band links the window openings and forms the coping to end bays. Another plain band at the impost level of the central window extends across the width of the elevation. All the windows have leaded small-pane glazing with coloured glass details. Liturgical south elevation (east): the elevation faces Maclure Road. It has a deep artificial stone plinth and a tall, central, shallow-pitch gable flanked by set-back, flat-roofed bays behind low, single-storey, flat-roofed bays, that to the right extending to form the sacristy. The central gable is similarly treated as that to the liturgical west elevation with a tall, five-light window set in a semi-circular arched recess with banded heads and a cross set on the recess keystone rising into the gable apex. Likewise, wide pilasters have carved angels to the angles at the pilaster heads. Beneath the central window is a window with a narrower window set in each pilaster, all with shouldered heads. The outer corners of the low, single-storey, flat-roofed bays have banded quoining. That to the left has two windows with shouldered heads. That to the right has a doorway with a shouldered head and a square-panelled timber door with a window to each side, both with shouldered heads. All the windows with shouldered heads have modern brown uPVC window frames. Above these windows a plain band extends across the building, a narrower sill band extends from the large central window and forms the coping to the single-storey bays. Another plain band at the impost level of the window extends across the width of the elevation. Liturgical east elevation (north): the elevation has a tall, central, shallow-pitch gable with a lower, projecting semi-circular apse. This is flanked by set-back, flat-roofed bays. On the left is the end bay of the low, single-storey sacristy with two square windows. Liturgical north elevation (west): the elevation is plainer. It has a tall, central, shallow-pitch gable with a similar central window as the liturgical south and west elevations, though without the semi-circular arched recess or banded head. The flanking wide pilasters are not decorated with angels to the angles. Lower, flat-roofed bays are set back.
INTERIOR: the apsidal sanctuary is completely faced in mosaic panels designed by Eric Newton and executed by Newton and Italian craftsmen. The central design high in the apse depicts an imposing Christ the King with angels and twelve sheep at his feet representing the Apostles (an idea taken from mosaic in Torcello) offset by a gold background. The patron saint is commemorated in two panels to either side of the main scheme showing St John baptising Christ and awaiting his own beheading. Also depicted are Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple of Jerusalem and the Holy City of Jerusalem as well as symbols of the four evangelists, various saints, the Chi-Ro symbol, peacocks and the Papal coat of arms of Pope Pius XI and coat of arms of Bishop Henshaw. Perhaps the most striking images are on the arch where two angels are surrounded by jagged shapes and two panels showing the Resurrection of the Dead (squared-up watercolour sketches are held in the Stella Newton Archive, the Courtauld Institute, London). Satan consigning the Damned to Hell in particular shows a knowledge of William Blake’s engraving of the subject. Flanking the sanctuary are curved walls linking the transepts to the sanctuary. Within these are tall, round-headed openings with chapels and confessionals on the ground floor and balconies at first-floor level with curved, decorative iron balustrades. That in the liturgical north-west corner contains the stairs to the choir gallery over the narthex. Beneath the panelled front is a late-C20 screen enclosing the narthex. Some furnishings were brought from the C19 church which this church was replaced, including a font of 1830 by Lupton, and the altar and pulpit of 1898 by Alberti. The lower part of the side transepts have been infilled with rooms to the south transept and a single, large meeting room to the north transept.
This list entry was subject to a Minor Enhancement on 13/11/2019
Books and journals: Heywood, TT, New Annals of Rochdale – a short history since 1899, and a chronological view from the earliest times to the end of the year, 1930, (1931), 141, 145; Martin, Christopher, A Glimpse of Heaven, (2006, reprinted with revisions 2009), 182-183
Other: Architectural History Practice, Taking Stock (Diocese of Salford), St John the Baptist, Rochdale (W03(b)), December 2013; Manchester Guardian, 16 June 1925, 9
Architect: Henry Oswald Hill and E. Bower Norris
Original Date: 1927
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*