Building » Welwyn Garden City (Digswell) – Holy Family

Welwyn Garden City (Digswell) – Holy Family

Shoplands, Welwyn Garden City, Herts AL8

A late design by the Louis de Soissons Partnership, architects and planners of Welwyn Garden City. The design is fairly functional in character, but well detailed; the tall and impressive bell tower forms a local landmark.

The building of Holy Family church was necessitated by northward expansion of the Garden City in the 1950s, around Sherrards Park Wood and the church and mansion of Digswell. A site for a Catholic church was allocated at Shoplands, half way down the slope to the Mimram Valley. Plans for a chapel of ease were drawn up in 1959 by De Soissons, Peacock, Hodges & Robinson, architects and planners for the Garden City.  These showed an asymmetrically-placed tower with spirelet on the south side of the church, as well as other variations from what was actually built.  

Louis Emmanuel Jean Guy de Savoie-Gravignan de Soissons was born in Montreal, Canada in 1890, the son of the Conte de Soissons. The family moved to England when Louis was still young, and he received his education in England before entering the offices of the architect J. H. Eastwood at the age of sixteen. He then had a brief spell in the École des Beaux Arts, Paris, before returning to England for war service.  He therefore obtained a thorough grounding in Beaux Arts classicism and planning, an influence which is clearly evident in his Masterplan for the Garden City.  After the war, de Soissons entered into a short-lived partnership with Philip Hepworth, followed by a longer, but more informal arrangement with George Grey Wornum, best known for the design of the RIBA headquarters in Portland Place, London.

Welwyn Garden City is de Soissons’s chief legacy. His main influences were the architecture of the Italian Renaissance and the classical Georgian vernacular architecture of England and America, especially the buildings of Regency Brighton and Nantucket. Perhaps because he wrote little and avoided controversy, he has never received his full due, and his work is generally less well known than that of his fellow Classical traditionalists Sir Albert Richardson, Raymond Erith, or even Marshall Sisson. Perhaps his achievement in town planning is more highly valued than his architectural achievements. He was chief planner to Welwyn Garden City from 1920, through the post-war establishment of the Development Corporation until his death, and he and his firm of Louis De Soissons, Peacock, Hodges and Robertson were to design many of the more important buildings in the town, including the Anglican church of St Francis (1934-35).  He lived in the Garden City with his family from 1922-48.

De Soissons died in 1962, after initial plans for Holy Family church had been prepared, and before construction actually took place.  The early designs have a spare Classical flavour reminiscent of the art of Giorgio de Chirico, whereas the design as realised is more functional and modern in character.  The church was opened in 1967.

Although the church was built after the Second Vatican Council, the lengthy gestation of the design meant that its internal arrangements had a pre-Conciliar character, with a longitudinal plan, railed sanctuary, high altar, and provision for a baptistery at the west end. In 1973 plans for re-ordering were prepared by Harold Barker (copies in Diocesan Property Services Archive), including removal of the high altar at the east end and provision of a smaller forward altar, removal of the communion rails (possibly not implemented; at any rate there are altar rails today) and removal of the Lady altar in the side (south) chapel. Curiously, this plan indicates aisles, which are not shown on the original drawings, and do not exist now.

The sanctuary floor was re-laid by James Keegan for the dedication church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor on 13 May 2007 (information from Chris Fanning).


Externally, the design is dominated by the tall bell tower, placed asymmetrically at the northwest corner, with a north-south saddleback ridge and pierced belfry openings on the shallow gabled north and south sides. Otherwise, the design is fairly utilitarian in character, with a plan consisting of a western narthex (incorporating the former baptistery), wide aisleless nave, narrow square-ended and side-lit sanctuary, and associated sacristies etc leading off the south side to the presbytery.  The elevations are faced in local golden brown stock brick laid in Flemish bond, while the roofs are copper clad. There is a projecting gabled porch at the west end with two entrances, and a further entrance on the north side. Above the entrance porch is a circular window in the west gable, while on the side elevations there are triangular headed clerestory windows.  The narrower sanctuary is side-lit on the north side only, with five tall, narrow lights separated by brick mullions. 

The entrances lead into a small lobby area with bare brick walls, into which are let two nicely-detailed stone holy water stoups. The main space is entered under a west gallery, which has an open ironwork and glass front.   Beneath this, iron gates to the former baptistery (now repository) give off to the right and the stair to the gallery to the left. At the west end of the nave on either side are confessionals. The main congregational space is wide and unaisled, but aisles are implied in the roof configuration, with a steeply pitched boarded central space, and a flat (indeed gently rising) treatment at the sides, penetrated by plastered embrasures to maximise light from the side windows. The present aisleless appearance may belong to the 1973 re-ordering. The boarded timber roof treatment does not extend to the sanctuary, which has a pitched white plastered roof. The walls are of bare brick throughout, and the floors of patterned black and white marble in the sanctuary and grey/green and cream linoleum in the nave. Furnishings include a stone open-fronted mensa, and matching tabernacle stand against the east wall, possibly of c1973, a square stone font with circular polished brass cover (located at the east end of the south ‘aisle’), simple communion rails (without gates), and gilded fibreglass statues of the Holy Family (south side) and Our Lady (north side), by Gordon Beningfield. At the west end are statues of St Patrick and the Sacred Heart, the latter by Mayer of Munich.  The seating consists of plain open-backed benches.

Heritage Details

Architect: De Soissons, Peacock, Hodges & Robinson

Original Date: 1967

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed