Building » Birmingham (Sparkhill) – English Martyrs

Birmingham (Sparkhill) – English Martyrs

Evelyn Road, Sparkhill, Birmingham B11

A finely-detailed Basilican design of the 1920s by E. Bower Norris, with a landmark campanile and a simple and little-altered interior adorned with fine marble and mosaic decoration.

A mission was established at Sparkhill, then a fairly rural area, in 1908. A room over a bank in Stratford Road served as a church and presbytery. In 1911 a school with an upper chapel was built, from designs by J. B. Powell of Moseley (on the site of the present school and destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War, when the current presbytery was also damaged).

The present church was built by the Rev. Michael O’Hagan from a design by E. Bower Norris that ‘was evolved by study of the Byzantine churches of Rome at the express wish of the client […] All unnecessary features were eliminated in order to get an effect of extreme simplicity’ (Architectural Review). A presbytery was built at the same time. The builders were James Moffat & Son. Archbishop McIntyre laid the foundation stone on 30 September 1922, and the church was opened by Cardinal Bourne of Westminster on 19 June 1923. The Tablet reported on 30 June:

‘The new church is a beautiful building in the Romanesque style, with a noble campanile. The decoration of the interior is contemplated in mosaic and marble. This fine church is in remarkable contrast with the humble beginnings at Sparkhill fifteen years ago, when Father Michael O’Hagan said Mass in a small room above a shop, with an attic for his presbytery.
To-day the proof of his zeal is to be seen in schools, presbytery, and the beautiful new church’.

The church was designed to seat about 500, and was the first in the Archdiocese of Birmingham to be dedicated to the English Martyrs.

The church was consecrated on 11 July 1946 by Cardinal Griffin of Westminster, a former parishioner. In September 1946, new mosaic work by Elphege Pippet in the Sacred Heart and Lady Chapels was unveiled by Archbishop Williams.

The church was reordered shortly before its golden jubilee in 1973, when the pulpit was moved into the sanctuary, the font moved into the main body of the church and the baptistery turned into a shrine to the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Large-scale Irish immigration in the post-war period meant that by the 1950s English Martyrs was the second biggest parish in England, with four or five curates helping the parish priest and up to 10,000 people attending the church and other local Mass centres. A new school was built in 1950 to replace that which was bombed in 1940. By the 1980s large-scale Irish immigration was over, and many parishioners were moving away from the area or returning to Ireland. Recent decades have seen large-scale Asian immigration.


A large church in Romanesque Basilican style, 1922-3, by E. Bower Norris of Sandy & Norris, Stafford. The building is of two-inch multi-coloured stock brick with a rustic finish and stone dressings, under Roman pantile roofs. On plan it consists of a nave with western narthex and gallery, side aisles with apsidal side altars, and apsidal sanctuary. Sacristies give off the south aisle, confessionals off the north. A three-stage bell tower is placed at the southwest corner, housing a peal of bells on which are inscribed the names of parishioners killed in World War Two. The round arched central entrance has a stone surround and a mosaic tympanum with Christ blessing. In the gable, a five arched opening with stubby columns lights the west end. Similar paired openings light the west end of the aisles, that on the north side formerly to the baptistery space (apsidal at the side).

The entrance leads into a narthex area, and immediately the quality is apparent, with marble dadoes, nicely-detailed holy water stoups set into the wall, and a stone memorial tablet to the parish dead of the First World War. A side entrance under the tower and stairs to the gallery are to the south, the former baptistery (now enclosed and not inspected) to the north. The interior of the main space is of seven bays and is characterised by architectural simplicity and high quality materials and finishes. The roofs are of open timber construction, in the Basilican fashion, with unmoulded arches and plain plaster walls. The arcade columns are of polished Siena marble with grey marble cushion capitals. The apse is lined with coloured marbles with blue mosaic and gold rays in the vault, with an inscription around the arch TE MARTYRUM CANDIDATUS LAUDAT EXERCITUS (‘The noble army of martyrs praise Thee’, from the Te Deum). In the spandrels above, two gilded crowns with martyrs’ palms. A crucifix hangs from the roof truss over the forward altar; the original marble high altar remains in place, with its central tabernacle throne with gold mosaic back. Also in the sanctuary, a marble ambo and font, the latter with domed bronze cover, relocated from the baptistery. The sanctuary area has received a domestic-looking carpet. The side altars (Lady Chapel to south, Sacred Heart to north) also have marble altars and marble-lined apses with mosaics vaults, this time with figurative mosaics, by Elphege Pippet, unveiled in 1946. There is further mosaic enrichment at the west end of the nave, over the entrance and below the gallery front – Saints Thomas More and John Fisher in the centre, St Charles Borromeo (with Milan Cathedral and figures in contemporary dress) to the north and St Philip Neri and kneeling Oratorians in front of the Oratory church, Rome to the south. These were made by the Gianese workshop, Venice (the St Philip mosaic is signed). The small round-arched windows of the clerestory have original leaded patterned glazing while those in the aisles have blue modern figurative glass on various themes. The church retains its fine original oak benches with delicate fretwork panels set into the backs.

Heritage Details

Architect: E. Bower Norris

Original Date: 1923

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed