Balham High Road, Tooting Bec, London SW17
An interesting design, fusing elements of Classical, Gothic, Romanesque, Byzantine and Romanesque design, symptomatic of the ‘chaotic eclecticism’ of much interwar church design (so described by Peter Anson). However the design holds together well, and the interior is notable for its spatial qualities and for the quality and completeness of its fittings.
After the Norman Conquest the manor of Totinges was conferred upon the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy and the abbey sent some monks to establish a small priory, hence Tooting Bec. St Anselm, Abbot of Bec, came to England in 1092 and was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093.
In 1905 a Catholic mission was established in a former Baptist chapel in Balham High Road, initially served from Holy Ghost, Balham. The mission became a separate parish in 1909, with Fr Charles Donovan the first resident priest. 1909 was also the 1,800th anniversary of the death of St Anselm, to whom the church was dedicated. In 1928 Fr Cornelius Le Warne was appointed rector, and inherited a church in an advanced state of dilapidation. He formed a parish committee to examine plans for a new church and the designs chosen were those submitted by John Bernard Mendham. Mendham (1881-1951) was brought up in Buenos Aires, and his designs show the influence of Spanish and Mudéjar architecture. His design for Tooting has been compared to that for Zaragoza Cathedral in Spain, although the similarity seems to be limited to some Mudéjar-influenced external detail; in other respects it is a hybrid design, showing Gothic, Classical, Byzantine and Romanesque as well as Spanish influences. Work began in 1932, and the church was ready for use by Easter 1933. The design included a hall beneath the church, which was used by various parish organisations established by Fr Le Warne.
In 1952 a large and handsome baldacchino was added in the sanctuary as a memorial to Fr Le Warne by his successor, Canon Alfred Gilliard; the designer of this addition has not been established. The baldacchino was retained in the reordering of 1979 by Kendal Building services. The church was dedicated and the new altar consecrated by Archbishop Bowen on 21 April 1980.
In 1988 the undercroft was remodelled by Michelmore Associates. A separate parish hall was also built to the rear of the church, facing Tooting Bec Road. More recently (2009) this area has been externally remodelled and re-landscaped by Baxter Phillips Architects to facilitate disabled access and provide an attractive outside meeting space. A large new figurative mosaic bearing St Anselm’s aphorism ‘Faith seeks Reason’ was blessed by Archbishop Kevin McDonald on 11 June 2009, marking the centenary of the parish and the 900th anniversary of the death of St Anselm.
The church was built in 1932-3 from designs by J. B. Mendham. Its design is an eclectic fusion of Gothic, Classical, Byzantine, Romanesque and Mudéjar elements. The church is built over a raised undercroft/parish hall, and on plan consists of a nave with western narthex, side aisles and sanctuary with side chapels. The elevation facing Balham High Road is built of red brick, with white stone dressings. The rear elevation and the raised central octagonal dome are faced in London stock bricks. The roofs are of slate except for the dome, which is copper clad. There are no east or west elevations, the church being hemmed in by other buildings on both of these sides.
The main north elevation to Balham High Road has a projecting bay at its centre, with a statue of St Anselm under a canopy, the detailing of which (and that of the windows on either side and in the flanking bays) is a fusion of Mudéjar and Gothic elements. Above the canopy and between the flanking windows are small inset pierced quatrefoils. The central bay has a balustraded parapet, while the flanking bays have corbelled brick eaves with arched Romanesque detail. Running the length of the elevation below the parapet and eaves is a frieze bearing the inscription DEO OPTIMO MAXIMO IN HONOREM SANCTI ANSELMI ARCHIEPISCOPI CANTUARIENSIS in Roman lettering. There is a sunken basement area giving light to the parish hall below with a low brick boundary wall in front, interrupted towards the west end where steps lead up to the main entrance, through a Classical Corinthian doorcase with broken segmental pediment framing the papal arms and the date 1933.
The south elevation facing towards Tooting Bec Road is plainly treated in stock brick, and is largely hidden by the later parish halls. The approach on this side is via steps and a curved ramp designed, with associated landscaping, by Baxter Phillips Architects in 2009-10.
The entrances lead into a narrow narthex with grey brick arches and low plastered groin vaults supporting a choir/organ gallery above. At the centre of this narthex is a canted recess flanked by stone columns with Romanesque capitals, the detail of the latter possibly inspired by the capitals in St Anselm’s crypt at Canterbury; the recess is top-lit and has iron gates and presumably originally served as a baptistery. Polished hardwood doors lead into the main space of the nave, which consists of two large square bays separated by grey brick piers with transverse arches. The first bay is barrel vaulted, with half columns with capitals to half height indicative of supports for an intended gallery. The next bay opens up to an octagonal dome above, supported on squinches, reminiscent of the domed Romanesque churches of the south west of France. One of the bays of the aisles has conventional groin vaults and the other curious interrupted groin vaults. The aisles are lit by narrow lancet windows of Gothic/Mudéjar character. The sanctuary beyond this and the flanking chapels are barrel vaulted, with clerestory windows penetrating the curve. There is a large sanctuary arch and triple arcades on each side of the sanctuary with elaborate Romanesque capitals; one arch (the easternmost) is blind while the other two open onto the side chapels.
Chief amongst the furnishings is the baldacchino over the high altar, of Early Christian character, raised on grey marble columns with Romanesque capitals. Beneath this, the old marble high altar and its tabernacle survive intact. These all date from 1952. The other main sanctuary furnishings are a Bath stone suite of forward altar (inscribed in gold lettering ‘Christ is Risen’), ambo (‘The Good news’) and font (‘New Life’), dating from the reordering of 1979 by Kendal Building Services. The Lady Chapel to the south has a marble altar within a shallow apsidal recess. The Sacred Heart chapel to the north has a stone altar with a marble panelled reredos behind.
Other fittings of note include:
The church was listed Grade II in 2014, following Taking Stock. List description at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1418431
Architect: J. B. Mendham
Original Date: 1932
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II