Building » Swaffham – Our Lady of Pity

Swaffham – Our Lady of Pity

Station Street, Swaffham, Norfolk, PE37 7HP

A ‘T’-shaped brick church designed by the parish priest Fr Gerry Langley and built in 1958-60, partly by parishioners. The large round-headed metal windows enhance the openness of the interior. Some furnishings come from a 1920 church on the site.

Swaffham is in the Brecks, with the Bedingfeld family at Oxburgh Hall a few miles to the southwest. Their chaplains reportedly said Mass at private houses in Swaffham and the Eyre family maintained a chaplain at Bury’s Hall in the town in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were often Jesuit priests and one, Fr Goldie, began to celebrate Mass in an upper room at Mr J. Devany’s home from February 1907 until moved to Preston in 1910. In the summer of 1911 the Motor Mission held lectures over a week in the Assembly Rooms. On the back of this, Mr Devany arranged to lease a former theatre and Salvation Army Citadel in Theatre Street and on 29 October 1911 the Bishop of Northampton opened the church and dedicated it to Our Lady of Pity, apparently because there was a medieval shrine of that name in the parish church.

In October 1917, the Diocese of Northampton bought the present Station Street site for £670. A stable block was converted to living accommodation for the priest while Ivy House became the home of some Austrian nuns, Daughters of the Divine Charity, who arrived in 1914. They moved to their present convent and school site in Mangate Street in 1920, when Ivy House became the presbytery. A temporary church was then built, seating 120; it was opened and blessed by the Bishop of Northampton on 20 August. There was only slow growth in numbers attending the church, though it was boosted by airmen from surrounding bases in World War II.

In 1949 Fr Gerry Langley came to Swaffham, and in the early 1950s began to plan and fundraise for a new church, which he designed himself. Parishioners contributed their labour and skills, but the shell of the church was built by Mickleburgh’s of Norwich, who quoted a cost of £3,050. Bishop Leo Parker laid the foundation stone on 14 May 1958 (set into the east wall of the north transept) but illness prevented him from attending the opening on 12 May 1960. The build quality is poor (hence the local joke ‘Gerry built’) and it is not clear why there are mortar filled slots inside each window, as though the lower metal frames were intended to go into them.

A presbytery designed by Anthony Rossi was built in 1969, which because of the steep fall in the land behind, has three storeys to the rear and a deep basement at the front. More recently its rear garage has been converted into a parish room.

In the early 1970s the sanctuary was reordered (completed by Fr Sketch in 1976), which included inserting a stained glass Annunciation by parishioner Alan Barlow in the east wall roundel and rebuilding the wall behind the altar. The narthex was opened up and a spiral stair installed in the late 1990s, with the disabled access ramp and door built in 2004.


Both church and presbytery are built of sand-faced red bricks with a concrete pantile roof. The church has big metal round-headed windows with the bays marked at the sides by stepped buttresses. Cast concrete trough gutters lead to few iron downpipes. The ground falls away to the east, so the church has a large boiler room and storage below the sanctuary and the presbytery has three storeys. The parish room in the former garage is approached from the rear car park and by stairs down from the sacristy. The presbytery basement at the front towards Station Street has its own entry and functions as a flat.

The church is T-shaped, with a shallow sanctuary set in front of a sacristy under the east wall and altars set against the east wall of each transept arm. The original sanctuary was a semi-circular platform filling the ‘crossing’, with brick piers supporting the altar rails. The east arm was essentially a large sacristy behind a wall decorated with brick arches that stretched across to the west side of the flanking windows. The altar on three steps was set against a large semi-circular arch, behind which was a central access to the sacristy beyond. When rebuilt in c.1975 this wall was replaced with a timber partition set to the east of the side windows, so bringing the sanctuary into the east arm and much reducing the size of the sacristy (as the priest’s sacristy was now in the link to the presbytery off the south transept). Two doors flank today’s altar, the left (north) door opening almost immediately onto the stairs down to the boiler house and storage space below.

The large arch to the west door encloses a porch with shallow concrete paviour steps into which an inscription has been cast: ‘Send out your light and your truth/There be my guide/to lead me/to your holy mountain/and to the place where you live/I shall go/to the altar of God’, the latter being on the threshold of the west door. The narthex is now one open space but was a number of rooms with a staircase. There is now a spiral stair to the gallery in the southwest corner, the window to the south converted into the disabled entry with a ramp outside. The brick arches between nave and narthex must originally have reflected the wall behind the altar and may not have been glazed as now.

There is no indication of frames (as used in many 1950s churches) or roof timbers (access to the roof space is from a ladder off the west gallery), so the walls are presumably solid and the roof trusses rest on them. The ceiling has no articulation, but there are four cants, so a ridge peak. The ‘crossing’ has a broad intersection, like a flattened groin vault. The walls are plastered with protruding brick frames to the windows. The nave has three windows to each wall, the east walls of the transepts two windows side by side, their west walls with just one window. All are of two metal panels, a semi-circular fanlight over a separate frame of rectangular panes. The transept and sanctuary windows have yellow tinted glass, the nave plain glass with a reflective film on the exterior. Photos of 2006 on the Norfolk Churches website show all the east walls painted dark blue.

The north transept Chapel of Our Lady has Gothic-style fittings brought from the 1920 ‘temporary’ church: the statue, a wooden altar, wooden Paschal candlestick, prie-dieu and a small octagonal stone font on a red marble stem given in memory of members of the MacSwinny family (Mary. d.1907, Felix, d. 1914 and Felix, ‘died of wounds near Ypres 6 June 1916’). The 1920 statue of the Sacred Heart is similarly on a brick corbel between the two windows of the south transept, now with no altar. In the corner of the transept is a chamber organ in a Gothic case, which also perhaps came from the 1920 church. It is labelled Fredk W. Jardine, Organ Builder Manchester and the BIOS Register gives it a date of c.1900. It was last restored in 1980. The pews have been given an attractive pale stain finish, but there are different dark wood pews in the gallery. There are cast concrete consecration crosses and wooden Stations of the Cross.

Heritage Details

Architect: Revd Gerry Langley

Original Date: 1960

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed