Building » Tow Law – St Joseph

Tow Law – St Joseph

Smith Street, Tow Law, Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham DL13

A modest mid-Victorian Gothic Revival church in a simple Early English style. It was evidently built (in two stages) on a tight budget, to serve a mainly Irish community working in the local coal and iron industries. 

Tow Law grew rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century, with substantial numbers of Irish immigrants coming to work in the local coal and iron industries. In the 1850s Mass seems to have been celebrated in a house on High Street but then land was given to open a chapel; this was where a convent was later established, east of the present church. It appears to have been a temporary building and was opened on 21 June 1860. It was succeeded by a school-chapel which forms the nucleus of the present church: the foundation stone was laid on 17 July 1868 and it was opened on 30 June 1869. It measured 82ft x 28ft. Originally the dedication was to St Thomas but, as it was felt that this would cause confusion with the church of St Thomas of Canterbury at Wolsingham (opened 1849), this was changed to St Joseph in 1872 (the same year that the presbytery was finished). A new school was then built to the east in 1870, and the original school-chapel became devoted to chapel use only. Rebuilding would have been desirable but the site was awkward, being hemmed in on all sides except for the north. An aisle was therefore thrown out here, the foundation stone being laid on 2 October 1875 and the opening taking place on 9 April 1876. The church now accommodated 400 people.

Reordering of the church took place in 1987 under Richard Lyons of Dietz Lyons: the entrance and sacristy were enlarged, a screen placed under the gallery, the reredos and main altar dismantled and a new, marble altar installed: the work cost £27,000. The church was consecrated on 10 November 1987. A new school was built in 1988 and the presbytery and old school were sold off and became a retirement home.


The church is oriented to the west so all directions given here are liturgical.

The church, in a simple Early English style, is built of local stone and consists of two vessels, the nave/sanctuary and an aisle which runs the full length of the church. The two main visible elevations are the east end, with two gables, and the side wall of the aisle. The sanctuary has a grouped triple-lancet window; the east end of the aisle a two-light decoration window; the side wall of the aisle simple, broad paired lancets. The roofs are covered in slates and imitation slates.

The interior has plain lines. Its walls are plastered. The principal feature is the arcade with its unadorned pointed arches with their single-chamfers. At the west end is a large gallery. Unfortunately the space beneath the gallery has been partitioned up and divided off from the body of the church on the lowest possible budget. Over the nave is a four-sided roof, divided into panels and with its bays demarcated by simple hammerbeam trusses. The aisle has a three-sided ceiling.

There are two stained glass windows (dates of death 1872 and 1875) in the aisle. The seating is sturdy bench seating brought from elsewhere and no doubt of late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century date.

Heritage Details

Architect: Peter Seed

Original Date: 1869

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed