Building » Thetford – St Mary

Thetford – St Mary

Newtown, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 3AU

The oldest freestanding church still in use in the Diocese of East Anglia, built three years before Catholic Emancipation. It is in the low-key, Nonconformist style common for Catholic churches at that time. A priest’s house was built alongside the church shortly afterwards. The church interior retains much its internal character and fittings, the most significant change being the addition of a gallery in 1962.

Thetford was a major medieval centre, the seat of a bishop until 1096, the site of a Cluniac monastery, several churches and the shrine of Our Lady of Thetford. It was also the medieval burial place of the Dukes of Norfolk. After the Reformation the town was visited from time to time by travelling Jesuit priests. In about 1824 a banker named George Gardiner acquired The Canons in Brandon Road, a house which stood in the grounds of the former monastery of the canons of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1826 Gardiner’s chaplain John Holden issued an appeal for funds to build a chapel and school. The present church of St Mary was built that year, three years before Catholic Emancipation; it is the oldest freestanding church still in use in the Diocese of East Anglia. It was solemnly blessed by Vicar Apostolic Thomas Walsh on 6 July 1827. A presbytery with separate accommodation for a teacher was added at the liturgical west end of the church in 1829. George Gardiner died in 1831, and was buried with other members of his family under the high altar. Soon afterwards, possibly in 1835, a large altarpiece was installed, a copy (by James Parry, according to the parish website) of the Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Pittoni’s Holy Family resting on the Flight into Egypt, the original having been acquired for the chapel at Sidney Sussex College Chapel, Cambridge in 1783. Holden remained in charge of the Thetford mission until 1839, when he left to join the Society of Jesus.

In 1879 a new school building was erected behind the church, from designs by John Bond Pearce of Norwich (it is now a parish hall). Mrs Lyne-Stephens of Lynford Hall was a major donor (as at Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, and Our Lady of Consolation and St Stephen, Lynford, qqv).  

An early postcard view of the interior shows a sarcophagus-type high altar. Various alterations were carried out to the church in the 1960s by the Rev. Basil Walter Jones. These included the building of a gallery at the back of the church and provision of a new carved stone forward altar.

Even with the addition of the gallery, the seating capacity was found to be insufficient, and in 1980 a 99-year lease was taken from the Church of England on the nearby redundant medieval church of St Mary-the-Less, on payment of a rose at mid-summer. The church was repaired and adapted at a cost of £24,000 under the direction of Julian Limentani of Marshall Sisson Architect, and was opened by Bishop Clark of East Anglia on 26 January 1981. However, the arrangement ceased after only a few years and at the time of writing the Grade II* church is undergoing residential conversion.


The church is aligned roughly northeast-southwest, but this description assumes conventional liturgical orientation (i.e. as if the altar was to the east).

The list entry (below) is brief and contains an inaccuracy: the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829, not 1826.

The church was built in 1826, its architect not established. It is longitudinal on plan and is faced with knapped flint, with quoins, window surrounds and a dentil eaves cornice of gault brick. The roof covering is Welsh slate. The slightly later presbytery is attached to the west, and is faced in similar materials at the front and side; the rear has a more random appearance. The church is of four bays, with a projecting gabled south porch with double doors under a semi-circular fanlight. The north and south elevations both have four tall round-headed windows with glazing bars, the easternmost on the north side truncated to allow for an early twentieth century lean-to sacristy addition. The windows themselves appear not to be original, and the parish priest understands that the side elevations were originally windowless; the evidence for this is not clear. The east window however is blind, possibly blocked (in gault brick) at the time of the introduction of the altar painting in c.1835.

The interior is a single volume, dominated by the Corinthian columns and entablature framing the altar painting at the east end. The painting is a copy of Giovanni Battista Pittoni’s Holy Family resting on the Flight into Egypt, said to be by James Parry (1795-1871). The Agnus Dei in the lunette and the marbled bottom panel are by another, less accomplished hand. The cornice of the entablature continues around the church, above which is a deeply coved ceiling and a central rose incorporating the papal arms (the latter perhaps a later embellishment, possibly under Fr Walter Jones). Moulded rectangular panels on the wall are a relatively recent embellishment; a photograph shows smooth (ashlared) wall surfaces. The church retains its original perimeter timber dado rail and pine box pews (minus their doors), supplemented by some modern copies. The interior is fully carpeted, with some associated floor levelling. The sanctuary area is raised on two curved steps, with the stone forward altar placed on a third step between the columns. The altar dates from the 1960s and is nicely carved with harts at the water-brooks (Psalm 42) on the frontal and the Pelican in her Piety at the back. By the entrance to the church is a square wooden font bearing the arms of Leo Parker, Bishop of Northampton 1940-67. This is under (and possibly contemporary with) the gallery of 1962, which is sympathetically detailed if somewhat overlarge for the proportions of the interior. It has raked seating modelled on the original pews. Placed centrally over the stairs to the gallery is a marble monument to George Gardiner and other family members. The small Stations of the Cross are modern replacements for larger framed Stations.

List descriptions



Roman Catholic church. Built 1826 immediately following Catholic Emancipation Act 1826. Cut flint with gault brick dressings and slate roof. 4 bays, with a projecting gabled porch ending in double doors under an 8-vaned fanlight. Main wall pierced by 4 tall round-headed windows with glazing bars. Dentil eaves cornice and gabled roof. Rear similar. INTERIOR: gallery at north-east end stands on square posts. Wall panelling. South-west end (liturgical east) with pairs of projecting unfluted Corinthian columns and pilasters carrying entablatures and an arch. Deeply coved ceiling. (The Buildings of England: Pevsner N: North-west and South Norfolk, Harmondsworth, 1962, 342).



Pair of houses for Roman Catholic priest and curate. 1829. Converted to one house C20. Cut flint with gault brick dressings. Slate roof. 2 storeys in 3 bays. Central double-leaf C20 door under an 8-vaned fanlight. One unhorned 6/6 sash left and right under segmental gauged skewback arches. 3 similar to first floor. Dentil eaves cornice. Gabled roof with 2 gault brick ridge stacks. North return with a central 6-panelled door under a 4-vaned fanlight. Either side is a window with 6 panes, each under a 4-vaned fanlight. 2 sashes above and 3rd in the gable head are 1991. INTERIOR: both doors lead to halls with stick baluster staircases with ramped and wreathed handrails. Ground floors of former 2 houses now connected, but upper floors separate at time of Review. (The Buildings of England: Pevsner N: North-west and South Norfolk, Harmondsworth, 1962, 342). Listing NGR: TL8667282856

Heritage Details

Architect: Not established

Original Date: 1826

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*