Building » Stowmarket – Our Lady

Stowmarket – Our Lady

Stricklands Road, Stowmarket, Suffolk, IP14 1AP

A well-detailed Gothic school-chapel design of the 1880s by A.E. Purdie, all that was realised of a much more ambitious scheme. The worship space was originally the upper floor of the building, a fine space with an open timber roof, but in the late 1960s it was moved to the ground floor, as part of a general scheme of reordering and extension undertaken by Eric Sandon. The building makes a positive contribution to the Stowmarket Conservation Area.

Catholic life in Stowmarket revived in 1879, when a thatched tin chapel was erected in Milton Road, through the efforts of the Adelaide Clutterbuck, a convert and the sister of the strongly evangelical rector of the Anglican parish church. It is said that the land was given by the fifteenth Duke of Norfolk, and Mrs Clutterbuck was helped in her endeavour by the Rev. Job Wallace, mission priest at St Mary’s Ipswich. The chapel had since 1871 been in service at Kirtling, Cambridgeshire (qv), and when no longer required there was dismantled and transported by rail for re-erection at Stowmarket. A second prefabricated building provided a small school. Soon the Rev. Francis Warmoll, another convert, was appointed resident priest to the mission. In spite of strong anti-Catholic feeling in the town the mission flourished and the inadequacy of the tin chapel was soon apparent. Fr Warmoll acquired (piecemeal and with a degree of secrecy) the present site in Stricklands Road and instructed A. E. Purdie to prepare ambitious plans for a new church, convent and school; the church was in Early English style, with a tall spire, and would have been by far the largest Catholic church in Suffolk (not inappropriately, since the incipient parish was the largest in the county).  

However there was a dramatic mismatch between Fr Wormall’s ambitions and the resources at his disposal; this was, as he said, ‘the poorest of the poor missions in this poverty-stricken diocese’ (The Tablet, 19 April 1894). Although he committed his own resources, his plans for the church could not be realised. However, a school-chapel was built with a local builder, J. Crowe, the main contractor. The chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of Stowe or Our Lady of the Seven Dolours (contemporary accounts use both dedications interchangeably) and was opened by Bishop Riddell of Northampton on 28 April 1884.

Catholic ambitions provoked considerable local hostility, the Bury Free Press (quoted in The Tablet) reporting that

“Stowmarket has long been deemed the shining light of Evangelical truth in Central Suffolk, but it is now becoming notorious for the activity with which Roman Catholic propaganda is being pushed in its midst […] under the direction of a singularly able and, we might say, audaciously original mind.”

Fr Wormall replied:

“Allow me with all sincerity to say that you know nothing at all about the Catholic faith. You have heard things and read from your very childhood… but all this is from the enemies of the Catholic faith. You have never heard the other side. The Catholic Church is not a thing to be despised. It is something that has withstood the test of ages. Even look at our old church in the Market Place. Think of its history, and see how they have tried to efface Catholicity from its very stonework, and in doing so have struck out the name of Jesus.”

The East Anglican Daily Times provided this description of the school/chapel (quoted in Patey, 18-20):

The part of the building just completed, and though covering a comparatively small portion of the site, is a structure of convenient dimensions. It is built in the early decorated style, the material used being red brick relieved with Monks Quarry stone, with brick bands as dressing. The building is lighted with tracery windows at both ends and dormer windows at the sides. The tracery windows at the upper part of the building are filled in with quarry glazing of light tints. The building is covered in an open Gothic roof, stained and varnished and overlaid with Staffordshire tiles. Internally it is found to consist of two floors. The ground floor consists of a schoolroom and classroom on the Ipswich Street side of the building, and is connected with the upper floor by a stone staircase. The upper room has also a classroom attached to it, which, while the large room is used as a chapel, serves as a vestry. The dimensions of these larger rooms are between 80 and 90 feet by 21 feet. The flooring has been laid on the soundest principles, being tongued together and carried on substantial joists, the chapel having the additional support of cast iron girders. A matchboard dado runs round the walls and the fittings throughout are in pitchpine and yellow deal.   

Furnishings included a metal cast bas-relief altar frontal of the Last Supper, by Mayer of Munich (Patey, 20).

By the 1960s the upper chapel was increasingly inadequate and unsuitable for this vast parish, and did not meet new liturgical requirements. A proposal to build a new church on a different site came to nothing, and instead Eric Sandon of Ipswich (architect also of St Joseph, Hadleigh, qv) was invited to prepare plans to adapt the existing building. Sandon’s scheme involved the adaptation of the ground floor (which was no longer in use as a school and had been leased), with the formation of a large opening on the Ipswich Road frontage to provide an extruded extension. The contractors were Blackburns of Harleston. As well as more seating and a plan which met the post-Vatican II desire for more active participation of the faithful in the liturgy, the extension provided a narthex, Blessed Sacrament Chapel, sacristy, confessional and WCs. Some of the furnishings of the upper chapel were reused. The new church was solemnly blessed by suffragan Bishop Alan Clark on 11 May 1970. The upper chapel was made into a parish hall, but in recent years has fallen into disuse. Parish rooms were provided in a separate building in the 1980s.


The church was built as a dual-purpose school-chapel, as part of an ambitious but largely unrealised scheme. It is a two-storey building on a longitudinal plan, the chapel originally on the upper floor and schoolrooms below. In 1968-70 the church was moved to the ground floor, and the building extended on the east elevation, from designs by Eric Sandon.

The building is in Decorated Gothic style, of red brick laid in English bond with Bath stone dressings and a plain tile roof. A stair enclosure projects at the northwest corner, terminating in an octagonal bell tower with decorative carved stone detail to the belfry stage. The upper floor (original chapel) is lit by four-light windows with Geometrical tracery in the gable ends and at the sides by raised dormers incorporating tw0-light windows with plate tracery, alternating with flat-topped two-light openings. At the southwest corner a sacristy/schoolroom projects, with a stepped three-light window. The ground floor windows are flat-topped, with shouldered heads and set within brick relieving arches. Between the sacristy/schoolroom and stair/bell tower projections, the east elevation is infilled by Sandon’s ground floor addition, flat-roofed and also in red brick, with raised canted gables over three entrances/windows.

Entered from Sandon’s narthex, the ground floor worship space is T-shaped on plan, with the sanctuary placed on the west wall, parallel with rather than following the long axis. The seating is arranged around the sanctuary on three sides, and over the sanctuary is a large timber canopy. The space is architecturally plain, enlivened by a number of furnishings re-used from the upper chapel. These include the Mayer of Munich bas-relief panel, set into the front of the modern altar, the open-backed pitch pine pews, and a pair of two-light stained glass windows (The Annunciation, in memory of Sarah Jane Matthew and Kate Sarah Matthew, and St Francis, dated 1937); these are unsigned but look like the work of the Hardman firm. New furnishings include needlework by Isobel Clover (eg over the tabernacle plinth).     

A stone staircase leads up to the former upper chapel, now largely disused. This is a fine and well-lit space, with an open timber roof and large windows, traceried at the ends. It retains its original boarded dado and tongue and groove floor. Stained glass survives in the quatrefoils and arched heads of the windows, the main panels having been relocated below. The parish history (p.36) refers to a wall painting of the Flight into Egypt on either side of the sanctuary (geographical south) window, painted by the nieces of Fr Rudd (parish priest 1939-58), later overpainted.          

Heritage Details

Architect: A. E. Purdie

Original Date: 1883

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed