Building » Southwold – The Sacred Heart

Southwold – The Sacred Heart

Wymering Road, Southwold, Suffolk, IP18 6AH

A dramatically-placed church and presbytery by Fr Benedict Williamson of 1914-16, facing out to sea across the common. The big tower with its distinctive central stair turret rises above the sanctuary and the nave behind has a somewhat austere character, inside and out.

In the 1870s Masses were celebrated monthly at various private addresses in Southwold by the Rev. Arthur Job Wallace of St Mary, Ipswich, and his successors continued his initiative. In 1897 an Altar Society was founded and James Crimmen fitted out an extension to his home, the Manor House, to provide a chapel called St Peter’s Oratory (the extension survives at the private house called Manor Gate, comprising the former service range of the Manor House). This seated about fifty and was opened on 8 June 1897; the arcaded Gothic stone altar was designed by Mr Richards of Lowestoft (possibly the surveyor F.W. Richards, who later worked on Our Lady Star of the Sea, Lowestoft, qv). After Mr Crimmen and his brother promised funding, the Bishop of Northampton appointed the Rev. Henry St Leger Mason as mission priest in 1899 and he rented a house at 42 Stradbroke Road.

By 1901 the oratory was too small, particularly for summer congregations and the Crimmens were in financial difficulties. From 1902-16 services were held in the assembly rooms (now the library) on North Green, while a plot of land for a new church was sought. The stone altar was brought from the oratory chapel. The Rev. James Sloan’s history also reports the use at this time of a former Plymouth Brethren room in a fish net store in Black Mill Road. The site of the present church on the common was bought in 1902 from a Colonel E.T. Hughes with a £400 anonymous donation, and Fr Mason launched an unsuccessful appeal for funds. In 1908 he wrote to Bishop Keating of Northampton ‘I don’t think this Mission will ever be anything more than a visiting Summer Holiday place’. However, Miss Amy Auld, a wealthy Catholic convert of Blythburgh told Fr Mason that she would be leaving a substantial sum in her will, but was willing to start paying an annual sum before her death. Fr Mason must already have consulted the architect-priest Benedict Williamson, who in 1912 was considering building the church on an incremental basis. The bishop dissuaded him, not least because Miss Auld (now Sister Mary Vincent at East Bergholt Abbey) was in failing health. She died on 11 August 1912, leaving £3,000 for a church and priest’s house and £1,000 as an endowment for the mission.

Work began in spring 1914, and Fr Williamson’s plans were exhibited at the Royal Academy that year. The contractor, H.A. King of Beccles held his price despite the war, but there were inevitable difficulties with procuring materials and craftsmen. Fr Mason laid the final stone of the tower on 10 November 1915, the church was blessed and opened on 4 June 1916, and the first Mass was on the Feast of Corpus Christi, 22 June 1916. However it was not fully furnished; the altar of the Sacred Heart, a war memorial, was constructed in 1923 and a stone pulpit erected in front of it by Pentecost that year. On Christmas Eve 1924 the Lady altar was blessed and the east wall painting (a copy of Veronese’s Holy Family with the Child Baptist, Tobias and the Angel) was in position by the early 1920s. The other sanctuary painting, a copy of The Sleep of St John by Carlo Dolci, was given in 1975. The church was consecrated by Bishop Leo Parker on 6 June 1956 and Southwold became a parish soon afterwards.

At some point in the 1970s, the wooden altar was brought forward from the east wall and the iron gates removed from the stone altar rail, but otherwise no significant alterations have been made to the sanctuary. In 2015 a fabric inspection raised structural concerns for the tower and after a successful application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, repairs were carried out in 2018-19.


The church is oriented roughly north-south with the tower to the south, but liturgical points are used in this report, i.e. the altar (under the tower) at the east.

The list description (below) is broadly accurate, but has a number of errors and could give a few more details, as follows:

  • The church was built in 1914-16, and the presbytery in 1916. Both are Weldon stone-faced brick buildings, the facing stones barely more than 10 cm thick and rarely tied in to the brick. The architect was the Rev. Benedict Williamson (not ‘Benedict’), in association with his occasional collaborator/manager John Henry Beart Foss.
  • The five-bay nave has a square southwest baptistery with a gable to its south face. The ‘pointed sanctuary arch’ is also the west tower arch.  
  • The four-light sanctuary window faces compass east, but is on the liturgical north, so it floods the altar with light at morning Mass without glare.
  • The nave windows have curvilinear tracery, but the two large windows (the north sanctuary and west front) are Perpendicular in style. There is a segmental arched west door below the five-light window similar to the blocked north door but set within a square frame.
  • Internally, the nave windows are set high above the floor on a continuous stringcourse, beneath which are consecration crosses which had light fittings below. All four internal doorways are segmental under a square frame and the west and north doors have trefoil arched stoups; the roughly finished bowl to the west door is said to have come from a lost Dunwich church. The southeast door leads to the sacristy and on into the presbytery. All the doors are framed.
  • There is a timber draught lobby to the west door and small sets of organ pipes either side of the five-light west window.
  • The simple Gothic octagonal stone font sits in the middle of the baptistery, which has four trefoil-headed windows.
  • The stone pulpit has been dismantled and will be used to create a new ambo.
  • The sanctuary arch is flanked by small stone altars rather than credence tables, of similar Gothic design. A statue of the Sacred Heart stands on the 1923 north altar (also the war memorial altar); to the south is the later Lady altar. High above the latter is a small arched opening.
  • The sanctuary retains its stone arched altar rails with an alabaster top, a trefoil arched piscina and an aumbry. There are four small vertical lights in the east wall to north and south of the altar and a tall arched opening besides the sanctuary arch on the south, for the priest to see the tabernacle from the presbytery. The ceiling is panelled, one of which can be removed to haul items into the tower.
  • A painted wooden moulding on the east wall rises over a centrally placed framed oil painting, a copy of Veronese’s Holy Family with the Child Baptist, Tobias and the Angel. On the south wall hangs the larger painting, a copy of The Sleep of St John by Carlo Dolci, given in 1975. Steps remain behind the stone altar reredos, but the altar is now in the centre of the sanctuary.
  • The original simple benches with square topped ends remain, but there are two loose pews with unusual curving ends.
  • There is a loose bell in the tower, dated 1855.
  • The attached presbytery façade belies a modest rear elevation with small windows set in stone-faced walls.

List description (church and presbytery)


Catholic church and presbytery attached. 1914 by Benedict & Foss for Rev H. St. Leger-Mason. Both buildings of stone; Church has machine tile roof; Presbytery has slate roof and stone stacks to left end and right of centre.

CHURCH EXTERIOR: nave and sanctuary, oriented north-south, with tower over sanctuary. Square 2-stage tower with central polygonal stair turret to south face rising above parapet. Slit lights either side of turret. Two 2-light louvred belfry windows to south face, one similar window to remaining sides. Each face of otherwise plain parapet with 2 minimal recessed cusped panels. 4-light east sanctuary window. Nave with five 2-light side windows: blocked doorway to east side under depressed arch. Gable parapet to north front, with 5-light window. Windows are in the Perpendicular style. INTERIOR: austere with plastered walls. Pointed sanctuary arch with dying mouldings. Stone polygonal pulpit and square credence table against nave east wall. Depressed 4-centred doorway in west wall leading to presbytery adjoining. Altar reredos with painting of Holy Family. Panelled sanctuary ceiling. Nave roof of four king-post trusses.

PRESBYTERY EXTERIOR: 2-storey nearly symmetrical front. Central timber door with cusped panelling beneath moulded 4-centred arch. 2-light cusped window to right. Statuary niche above with ogee cusped canopy and carved tracery panels. One canted 2-storey bay window right and left fitted with 2- and 3-light cross casements. Parapet continuous over canted bays. INTERIOR: not inspected.

(Brown C, Haward B & Kindred R: Dictionary of Architects of Suffolk Buildings 1800-1914: Ipswich: 1991-: 39). 

Heritage Details

Architect: Rev. Benedict Williamson and J.H.B. Foss

Original Date: 1916

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II