Building » Isle of Wight (Cowes) – St Thomas of Canterbury

Isle of Wight (Cowes) – St Thomas of Canterbury

Terminus Road, West Cowes, Isle of Wight

A late-eighteenth century church and attached presbytery, built by the Rev Thomas Gabb and paid for by Elizabeth Heneage. The church is of great historical importance as an early Catholic parish church, being built just five years after the second Catholic Relief Act. Architecturally it is a good example of a Georgian chapel, altered in the mid-Victorian period. The interior is notable for its superb original reredos enclosing an altarpiece.

As with Newport, the church at Cowes was paid for (£2,808) by Elizabeth Heneage (1734-1800). It was opened five years after Newport, work starting in 1796 and the church opening in June 1797, a very early date for a Catholic church. It is said to have been designed by the first priest, the Rev. Thomas Gabb, a Londoner who trained as a priest at Douai. A contemporary biography corroborates the fact that he was skilled in architecture.

Problems with settlement of the structure, exacerbated by being struck by a tornado in 1876, lead to repairs being carried out and it is likely that at this time the external buttresses and rather gaunt Lombard tracery in the windows were added, in an attempt to medievalise the structure. The church was re-roofed in 1967 (Lobb & Sweetmen of Cowes, architects) and the interior redecorated. Reordering took place in about 1975, when it is presumed that the altar tabernacle, described by Little (p.46) as a copy of that from the English College at Douai destroyed in the French Revolution, was itself destroyed. There was further restoration and redecoration in the 1990s. The church was originally dedicated to the Holy Trinity but the dedication was changed when an Anglican parish church dedicated to the Holy Trinity was opened in Cowes in 1832.


The church is set back from the road behind a brick wall, stepped up over a pointed-arched entrance to a flight of steps leading up to the porch. Two further arches give access to the presbytery.

The church is built of a buff brick, apart from the north wall which is of red brick, and a slate roof. The main façade faces south and has the appearance of a Georgian preaching box. It has five rounded arches with four windows set in, divided by stepped buttresses. The latter and the Lombard tracery in the windows probably date from the restoration in 1876. The entrance is in the right hand bay, with a pair of panelled doors beneath a decorative fanlight and set behind a handsome porch with Ionic columns and a dentilled pediment. On the blank wall above is a timber bellcote and a Della Robbia-ware plaque of the Virgin and Child. The whole façade has a dentil cornice and parapet, with a foundation stone centrally located at high level.

At the (geographical) west end the three-storey presbytery is attached. The ground floor has a round-arched window and doorway in typical Georgian domestic manner. An ugly modern porch has been added. Two tiers of tripartite windows above, set within a single all-embracing round arch. The other elevations of the building are largely blind with just two windows to the presbytery at the west end of the north wall and a circular window in the pedimented east gable. Small single storey extension to the north.

The interior is a single undivided space with a flat ceiling and an arcade of blind round arches on the north wall. It is memorable for the full-height reredos on the (liturgical) east wall, part of the original design of the church and said to be a copy of a reredos now in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Church of St Jacques at Douai, France. It consists of giant fluted Doric pilasters, a frieze with triglyphs and paterae, and a keyed arch framing a large a painted altarpiece of the Deposition, on canvas. Smaller round-arches on either side with recesses and round-arched doorways below, leading to the presbytery. (Liturgical) west gallery with triglyph frieze and balustrade, elegantly curving forward in the centre. Above it the organ, inserted in 1913 and rebuilt in 1953. The pews are simple Victorian pine with trefoil and quatrefoil motifs, as is the panelled dado around the walls and the octagonal stone font was given in 1874. The sanctuary area was reordered in about 1975.

List description (church and presbytery)


Roman Catholic. Built in 1796-7 by Mrs Elizabeth Heneage who was also responsible for building the Roman Catholic Church at Newport. Architect the Rev Thomas Gabb. Builder Thomas Young of Portsea. Built of yellow brick. Five bays with a buttress between each. Cornice and parapet. The north easternmost bay is blank but has a porch with Ionic columns and pediment. Doorcase with pilasters, segmental fanlight and 6-panelled double doors. Bellcote above. The other bays contain round-headed windows of 2 lights with stone mullions and transoms. The south-westernmost bay forms the Presbytery, which is under the same roof span as the church. This is of 3 storeys and has one window facing the street. Round-headed windows and doorcase with semi-circular fanlight.

Heritage Details

Architect: Rev. Thomas Gabb

Original Date: 1796

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II