Building » Wolverhampton (Snow Hill) – St Mary and St John

Wolverhampton (Snow Hill) – St Mary and St John

Snow Hill, Wolverhampton, West Midlands WV2

A large and important Gothic Revival church in the style of c. 1300 built in the 1850s by one of the leading church architects of the time, and reflecting the confidence of the Catholic Church at the time of the restoration of the hierarchy. The fine polygonal, gabled apse was added later, but the intended tower and spire were never built. The church interior is a fine space, notable for the quality of its carved stonework. It has largely escaped major post-Vatican II alterations. With the adjoining brick presbytery, the church makes a noteworthy contribution to the St John’s Square Conservation Area. 

In 1850, year of the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales, it was decided to build a large new church on land belonging to the Duke of Cleveland. The prime mover was John Hawksford, a local solicitor and the Duke’s agent (later to become the first Catholic mayor of Wolverhampton). The church would be built in two stages, beginning with the nave, side aisles and transepts. The designs were prepared by Charles Hansom of Bristol. The foundation stone was laid on 6 October 1851 and the contract signed with the builder, Richard Wullon, on 25 March 1852 (at a price of £3,428). It was opened on 1 May 1855 by Cardinal Wiseman. A tower and spire 225 feet high were planned at the junction of the south transept and chancel, hence the thickening of the pillars supporting the structure on the south side of the chancel arch. Some felt that the spire would be more imposing towards the west end of the church near Snow Hill and Hansom widened the aisle buttresses on either side of the south door for such an eventuality. In the event neither was built (had the western tower and spire been built the front of the church would have closely resembled Erdington Abbey).

The ornamental carving on the arcades was left incomplete in 1855 but was finished by 1869. Also in 1869, a schoolroom with meeting room over (St Mary’s Hall) was built.

In 1872 plans were put in train by Hansom to build the chancel with side chapels, but these were not executed until 1879-80; the builders were Bradney & Co. of Wolverhampton. Furnishings include a central stained glass window by Hardman & Co. (eight others were to follow), and a Caen stone high altar by Boulton of Cheltenham. Two of the carved timber side screens, also by Boulton, were installed at this time. The carved stonework in the chancel was by a Mr Sheppard of Bristol. The Lady Chapel was fitted up by 1892, and the Sacred Heart chapel in 1893-4 (the latter by the Harrison family, with a Caen stone altar by Wall of Cheltenham and glass by Hardman & Co.). The church was consecrated on 8 June 1905, for which marble altar rails were installed.

Due to decaying stonework, there was much replacement of the fabric in 1907, involving widespread use of ‘metallic cement’. In 1912, the presbytery was extended. In 1917 the quarry tiles on the church floor were removed and replaced with wood blocks.  In 1923 the sanctuary floor was replaced after it was found that poor drainage had caused extensive damage. In 1928 a new organ was blessed by Cardinal Bourne; this had been installed at the west end, the gallery being extended to accommodate it (a previous priest had moved the organ to the chancel). Two further timber side screens were installed in the chancel at this time. Also in the late 1920s and early 1930s, alterations carried out by Fr A. T. Sammons included a new altar and stained glass in the south transept, new entrance doors to the church with a Calvary with mosaic background in the tympanum, and a replica of the statue of St Peter from St Peter’s in Rome introduced.

In the 1990s the old school was altered to provide a parish hall on the ground floor and student flats above. The chancel was redecorated and the church re-roofed. Alterations and repairs were made to the presbytery. This extended programme of work lasted until 2001.

See list entry, below, where the church is described fairly fully. Some of the gaps can be filled from the account above. The church has largely escaped major post-Vatican II alterations, retaining its high altar, communion rails and nave pulpit. The baptistery is now placed in the former St Joseph’s chapel.

List description


Catholic church. 1851-5; enlarged east end, 1879-80. By Charles Hansom. Ashlar with slate roof. Decorated style. Apsidal chancel and flanking chapels and sacristy to south, nave with lean-to aisles and transepts. 3-bay chancel has flanking 3-bay apsidal chapels, all with gabled 2-light windows; chapel to north has 3-light east and north windows; single-bay outer chapel to north has 3-light north window; similar chapel to south masked by sacristy, which has gabled straight-headed windows to east. Transepts have 4 small gabled projections with lights under 4-light windows; 2-light west windows, north-west entrance. 5-bay nave has gabled buttresses and paired 2-light windows to clerestory. Aisles have gabled buttresses and 3-light windows; 2-light west windows; 2nd bay from west on south side has pointed entrance with large flanking buttresses, one with entrance: signs of projected tower. West facade has entrance of 2 orders, Crucifixion to tympanum over enriched paired doors, 6-light window above and flanking gabled buttresses; gable has Crucifix and flanking figures of SS Mary and John. INTERIOR: chancel has 3-bay arcades with rich foliate capitals, traceried parclose screens; vaulted roof on wall shafts; east end has stencilled patterns and rich cornice; chancel arch has hood mould and headstops. Inner chapels have pointed tunnel vaults, cut through for arcades; all chapels have double-chamfered arches to transepts. Nave has 5-bay arcades and higher arches to transepts with quatrefoil piers and rich foliate capitals; deep-arch-braced boarded roof with corbelled shafts and stencilling; west organ gallery with 2 traceried organ cases and overthrow. Fittings: High Altar and reredos enriched with niches and angels, end statues in pinnacled niches, tabernacle has throne above with pinnacle; traceried alabaster panels to altar rail; stone pulpit has traceried panels and relief angels. Chapels have altars except for outer north chapel, which has rich panelled octagonal font with smaller bowl to side. Good stained glass, particularly to east end, probably by Hardman; north aisle has monument to B. Clark (died 1916) with statue on plinth next to copy of famous seated statue of St Peter at St Peter’s, Rome.

A good example of a mid-Victorian Catholic church notable particularly for its rich interior fittings and the excellent naturalistic carving of corbels and capitals.

(Shell County Guides: Thorold H: Staffordshire: London: 1978-: P.186; The Buildings of England: Pevsner N: Staffordshire: London: P.316).

Listing NGR: SO9160698206

Heritage Details

Architect: Charles Hansom

Original Date: 1855

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*