Building » Tower Hill – The English Martyrs

Tower Hill – The English Martyrs

Prescot Street, London E1

A late town church by Edward Welby Pugin, completed after his death by his younger brothers. The establishment of this East End mission and the building of a church in the vicinity of the Tower of London, place of execution of many martyrs, were highly significant for the Catholic community. The design makes the most of a small site, with added seats in the galleries.

In 1864, Cardinal Wiseman authorised the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate to set up a mission at Tower Hill. It was founded by Fr Robert Cooke, the Vicar Provincial, the following year. A temporary corrugated iron building was erected at the back of the present site, serving as both church and school. This was opened and blessed by Archbishop Manning on 12 December 1866. In 1870-72, it was replaced by a school building with a chapel on the top floor.

On 18 May 1873, Archbishop Manning laid the foundation stone for the current church, designed by Edward Welby Pugin. Building work was delayed due to difficulties in acquiring the freehold title for the site. Building resumed in 1875 and was continued after Pugin’s death on 5 June by his brothers, Cuthbert Welby and Peter Paul, trading as Pugin & Pugin. The church was opened and dedicated by Cardinal Manning on 22 June 1876. Site constraints and the size of the mission – in the 1870s some 6,000 people – dictated the maximising of space by the insertion of galleries. The builder was Mr Lascelles of Bunhill Row, and the contract sum was £10,000. The northwest tower and the spirelet are very similar to those at E. W. Pugin’s St Alexander, Bootle (1866-67).

In 1881, the presbytery at 26 Prescot Street was rebuilt (by Pugin & Pugin) and fitted out with a donation from the Carthusians in memory of one of their brethren executed in 1535. In the 1890s, the school behind the church required some alterations and additions which resulted in the demolition of the original sacristy which was then incorporated in the presbytery.

In 1930, in anticipation of the canonisation of Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, the high altar became a shrine to the English Martyrs, with additional statuary, a wrought-iron grille with the arms of ten martyrs, and the east window with thirty two martyrs. In 1940, the church was damaged by a 500kg bomb which fell through the roof, damaged the side wall and destroyed the pulpit (1877, Pugin & Pugin) but did not explode. In 1970, the school moved to a new site in St Mark Street and the old school became a community centre.

In 1985, the Holy Family Sisters left. Their convent at 24 Prescot Street (listed grade II), an eighteenth-century house at no. 25 (also listed grade II), the former presbytery at no. 26 and the  1870-72 school building to the rear were all demolished. The site was redeveloped as part of Juno Court at 24-26 Prescot Street, initially an office block later converted to hotel use (now a Premier Inn). The parish priest moved into an early nineteenth-century house on the west side of the church, no. 30 (listed grade II) (visible in the photo top left).

In 1991, the sanctuary was restored and the church redecorated. In 2007, the church received a grant of £123,000 under the Repair of Listed Places of Worship scheme which paid for the repair of the roof and the painting of the interior

The current Crypt Bar below the church evolved from a club formerly in the buildings to the rear of the church.

The church is facing south. The following description uses conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was at the east end.

The list description (see below) briefly describes the plan, exterior and interior. The compact plan on a constricted site is more than compensated by the height of the interior, the carved capitals, the rich furnishings and the effects of light on the alabaster altar rails.

The main furnishings are:

  • Above the double portal are twentieth-century mosaics of St Thomas More and St John Fisher and other martyrs by Arthur Fleischmann

  • The seven-light east window with rose above is by William Earley of Dublin (1930), depicting Christ crucified surrounded by thirty two English Martyrs. (The west window, different in its tracery from the east window, has clear glass.)

  • The south transept has a rose window of six cinqfoils surrounding a sixfoil, all filled with flower-pattern stained glass. (The north transept has an identical rose window but with clear glass.)

  • A stone and marble monument to Fr Robert Cooke (died 1882), the founder of the mission in the north aisle.

  • The shrine to Our Lady of Graces in the north transept (photo bottom left) was given by Susannah Walker (died 1883), whose brother Charles had donated £1,000 towards the acquisition of the site for the church. A statue of Our Lady of Carrara marble (by Boulton) surrounded by angels in stone and alabaster in a grotto-like space with concealed lighting. Below is the alabaster altar carved with lilies and the words of the Hail Mary. The votive ship and the mosaics on either side (by Arthur Fleischmann) are dedicated to the memory of Theresa Hanley (died 1978). The mosaics commemorate the Abbey of Our Lady of Graces which was founded by Edward III on the site occupied by the former Royal Mint, following his surviving a storm at sea.

  • The Sacred Heart chapel (at the northeast) has alabaster altar rails, a painting of St Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Oblates, and a carved stone altar and reredos with two reliefs of King David and St Margaret Mary flanking a statue of the Sacred Heart. Above is another rose window with the Sacred Heart with four saints and areas of plain red colour (attributed to Lavers & Westlake).

  • On either side of the chancel arch are canopied niches with statues of Our Lady and the Child (north) and St Joseph.

  • Within the east end a stone screen forms a three-sided apse. The high altar of 1930 by J. S. Gilbert comprised wrought-iron grilles in the screen’s three arches with a crucifix and armorial bearings of ten martyrs, and statues of twelve martyrs in canopied niches on either side. The high altar is of stone and marble with a gradine decorated in mosaic and a frontal with gilded tracery and the escutcheon of the Oblates and the IHS and XP monograms.

  • The marble altar rails to the sanctuary have been shortened. The timber lectern, a forward altar and lectern are all modern.

  • The southeast chapel is dedicated to the Holy Spirit. It has alabaster rails like the northeast chapel, an elaborately carved altar and reredos (attributed to Boulton) (photo bottom right) and a rose window with yellow glass and a central dove (same style as Sacred Heart chapel window).

  • The circular stone font, carved with floral decoration and the IHS monogram, stands in the south transept.

  • The pieta in the south aisle is by Mayer of Munich. The Stations are framed reliefs.

Heritage Details

Architect:

Original Date: 1873

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: II