St John Street, Tamworth, Staffordshire B79
A large neoclassical town church of 1829-30 by Joseph Potter (architect of St Mary’s College, Oscott), which was remodelled and extended and given a distinctly post-War character in 1954. The building is more of historical interest as an ambitious town church of the time of Catholic Emancipation than for its heavily compromised architectural qualities, although it does have a strong presence in the Conservation Area.
2018 UPDATE: The church has undergone a reordering since the writing of this entry.
Catholics in this area attended Comberford Hall until the family moved away in 1671 and were then served by visiting priests from Pipe Hall (Weld family) and Oscott. When the Rev. Dr John Kirk of Holy Cross, Lichfield (qv) took on what was called the Hopwas Congregation in 1801, they met in houses until 1815, when Mr Birch gave a small plot of land at Coton on which Fr Kirk built a small chapel. This opened on 15 August 1815, when Dr Weedall of Oscott preached.
For fifty years from 1826 the Rev. James Kelly was in charge of the Tamworth mission. According to his obituary in The Tablet (1 April 1876), a new church and presbytery were built in 1829-30 ‘entirely through his exertions’, although other accounts suggest that the energetic Fr Kirk also remained involved. A piece of land in central Tamworth was acquired from Sir Robert Peel, about 500m west of the medieval parish church of St Editha. Fr Kirk’s friend the architect Joseph Potter (Senior) of Lichfield was commissioned to design a rather severe neoclassical church with a presbytery attached to the northeast corner, as seen in the black and white photograph of about 1920. It is possible that it was actually designed by Joseph Potter Jnr. The foundation stone was laid on 17 April 1829 (Good Friday), and the church was opened on 24 June 1830 (the feast of St John the Baptist) by Bishop Walsh, Vicar Apostolic for the Midland District, when a choir from Oscott sang. The church cost £2,294, of which all but £98 had been raised by the time it opened. The former farm track became St John’s Street.
A school was begun in 1837 and a schoolroom with a diapered tiled roof was built by 1870. The Rev. Harry Norris renovated the interior for the church’s fiftieth anniversary, re-opening on 27 June 1880; his successor, the Rev. Joseph Kearny ‘removed an old wooden reredos’ in 1907, replacing it with a grand alabaster reredos and throne. The stone panel carved with the Coronation of the Virgin is all that seems to survive of that high altar, which filled the east recess and was top- lit. It is claimed to have been the work of A. W. Pugin, blessed by Cardinal Newman and brought here from Haunton Hall (The Tablet, 23 November 1907). Fr Norris was very popular and after his death in 1906, a memorial cross by H. Y. Mitchell and Son was erected in the churchyard.
Fr Yeo (1910-18) bought the large house on the corner of St John’s Street and Orchard Street for use as a presbytery and converted some of the ground floor rooms of the original presbytery into sacristies. He ‘tidied up the burial ground’ (Banks) and erected the low wall and railings around the site.
Fr Walsh (1928-33) enlarged the church to the north in 1929-30 with a flat-roofed aisle, with large north windows to better light the church, and a west baptistery. The eastern bays of the present north arcade are presumably of this period. He further altered the 1830 presbytery, creating meeting rooms and a choir room over the sacristies. He also erected a single storey west porch with flanking rooms that obscured the lower half of the 1830 facade.
Fr Yeo’s railings disappeared in World War II but railings were later reinstated by Fr Gaffney. In 1954, the church was extended by about a third to the west and given a new brick facade with a northwest main entrance. The 1929 north aisle was also extended west and its outer wall rebuilt/re-faced to match. At the east end a passage behind the sanctuary was removed and a new Lady Chapel built to the southeast, filling in a yard between church and school. The 1907 high altar was brought here. The sacristies were again ‘rebuilt’, that on the north with a meeting room above. The church floor was relaid with tiles and West African mahogany, new oil fired heating and lighting installed. The architects were Morris & Whitehouse, the contractors Maddocks & Welford Ltd and the total cost about £20,000. New pews were made by J. F. Gorting of Ludlow and these are still in the church.
In 1967 a new school was built on a new site and by 1978 the former school to the north became a youth centre. A parish hall was built about the same time in the back garden of the presbytery facing Orchard Street. Major repairs were carried out for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 1979, principally addressing a large crack that had developed at the junction of the 1830 and 1954 work (which crack is once again visible at ceiling level). Internal works included redecoration and work in the sanctuary. It has been suggested that the west end of the church stands in the ‘King’s ditch’, part of the castle defences; in 1954 the foundations went down seven feet and these had to be underpinned in 1991 in a restoration project that cost over £100,000. The sanctuary was also reordered, roofs repaired, new lighting introduced and the church re-decorated. The former school was demolished about this time.
In 2000 a glazed screen was erected between the 1954 southeast Lady Chapel and sanctuary to create a meeting room and reconciliation room and a WC was added to the west, stretching out across the base of a nave window. In 2005 a disabled access ramp and entrance with WC was added in brick to the southwest corner and the area below the west gallery glazed in.
Joseph Potter’s church is most readily seen on the exterior, as the 1830 eaves (and presumably the roof?) can be seen on both sides. His stuccoed south wall also survives, showing that its five bays were divided by simple pilasters, with cast iron eaves brackets above. No windows survive, but as the presbytery extended along four bays on the north, the church must have been lit from those on the south side. Small high level round-headed windows light the sanctuary (four south, three north), but as they interrupt a string course above the pilasters, they may be secondary or at least extended down. The stucco east gable pediment is also visible with a raised cross in a circle at the apex; there was no east window and the present flat-roofed altar bay below is the result of ‘renovations’ in 1880; it probably had a top light then (as now).
The 1954 work is distinguished by its Blockley rustic brickwork and the thin round-headed windows with concrete frames and wooden eaves brackets that maintain the deep 1830 eaves line. The 1830 windowless stuccoed west front had a central tapering door (fronted by a wide single storey porch from 1929) and this was replaced by the present arrangement: a large arched recess containing three tall windows and stone lined arch to the recessed northwest door. The bricks of the 2005 southwest slate roofed extension for disabled access and WC are a good colour match, but are laid in stretcher bond.
The purchase of the presbytery on the corner of St John’s and Orchard Streets meant that the 1830s presbytery that extended along the north side of the church was gradually removed and reconfigured for parish use. From the exterior change in materials from stucco to brick and the internal ceiling crack, it is clear that the two west bays of the church are of 1954. The west bay of the north arcade is therefore of that date, but it now looks identical to the remaining three and a half bays which apparently replaced part of the presbytery in 1929. The widths of the arcade bays are irregular and the eastern arch is lower than the rest. The plasterwork appears to be of 1954, but may be repeating that of 1929. Similarly, the 1954 west bays have the same classical plasterwork to the ceiling and cornice of the rest of the nave which may well be of 1830, but the roses (once ventilators?) are late nineteenth century.
The present three-bay two-storey building on the northeast corner has a 1954 brick skin and windows, but the interior suggests some of the 1830 or later fabric remains. The ground floor is sacristies and the upper meeting rooms. The small apsidal Sacred Heart chapel at the east end of the north nave aisle was probably once within the presbytery.
The 1954 two-bay southeast chapel was a Lady Chapel until 1991, when its arches were glazed and a false ceiling inserted to create a meeting room. A kitchen has been created to the east flanking the sanctuary and a reconciliation room and WC added to the west in a flat-roofed single storey extension that awkwardly extends below a south nave window. The statue of Our Lady is now at the east end of the north aisle.
There was a west gallery in 1830 with an organ on it. The present gallery is of 1954, the three round-headed arches below filled in with glazed timber frames in 1991 when the ground floor narthex was formed. The organ on the gallery was built by Thomas Pendlebury, organ builder of Leigh Lane and installed by Fr Duffy in about 1995. The benches are of 1954 fixed to a mahogany parquet finished solid floor; all the sanctuary fittings are late twentieth century. The two big brass chandeliers are a late twentieth century attempt to re-introduce a classical character but they don’t hang from the roses and look out of place in this post-war interior of somewhat austere character.
Architect: Joseph Potter
Original Date: 1830
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed