Building » Wisbech – Our Lady and St Charles Borromeo

Wisbech – Our Lady and St Charles Borromeo

Queen's Road, Wisbech, Cambridge, PE13 2PH

A curious architectural hybrid: a small Gothic Revival design of the early 1850s by William Wardell, with a block-like west tower and other western additions of the early 1960s in a contrasting modern style, though with Gothic windows. The duality is slightly less evident inside the building. The church occupies a large corner site, with a contemporary presbytery by Wardell adjoining.

Many Catholic priests and some laymen were imprisoned in Wisbech Castle (then a possession of the Anglican Bishop of Ely) under the penal laws established by Queen Elizabeth I. This was the site of the so-called ‘Wisbech stirs’, a quarrel between Jesuits and secular clergy. The castle was demolished during the civil war.

In 1840 a chapel was established in a former carpenter’s shop through the efforts of a Mr Montegani, with a priest coming from King’s Lynn to say Mass once a month. The present church lies not far south of the site of the castle. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Wareing of Northampton in November 1853 and the church was opened in the following year; the presbytery was completed in 1856. The contractor was a Mr Bennett of King’s Lynn. Both church and presbytery were designed by William Wardell, a disciple of A.W.N. Pugin’s, who emigrated to Australia in 1858, where he designed the Catholic cathedrals at Melbourne and Sydney.

In the early 1960s the building was considerably extended at the west end, from designs by George Fordham of the Chelmsford firm O’Neill & Fordham. The nave and aisles were lengthened and a west tower added. All this work was done in a plain modern style, with flat roofs to the new parts, but with Gothic windows reset or replicating those of Wardell’s church.


William Wardell’s 1850s church is in the Decorated Gothic style, and as first built comprised a four-bay aisled nave and a short chancel. To this was added in 1961 a westwerk with a central tower and flat-roofed projections on the north, south and west sides, all in a blockish modern idiom but re-using or replicating the Gothic windows of the original building. Wardell’s church is built of yellow brick with stone dressings and an ornamental banded slate roof. The westwerk is of yellow Coalville brick with stone dressings.

The west elevation has a pointed moulded central doorway, also possibly re-used from the older church but now set in a projection forward of the west tower. The return walls of the projection each have a Gothic window of two cusped lights with a quatrefoil in the tracery. Projections of similar height north and south of the tower have a single two-light Gothic window in their west sides and two tiers of similar windows in their north and south sides. The tower itself has a three-light traceried window in the west side, again possibly re-used from the west elevation of the original church. At the top of the tower on each face are wide rectangular perforated belfry openings. According to the Catholic Building Review, the tower was provided with a 9 cwt Angelus bell cast by John Taylor of Loughborough.

The original nave is of four bays, the divisions marked by stepped buttresses on the lean-to aisles, with a Gothic window of two cusped lights with a quatrefoil in the tracery in each bay. The clerestorey has three small quatrefoil openings on each side. On the north side immediately east of the tower is a substantial porch. At the east end of the north aisle is a projecting sacristy and on the north side of the chancel is a two-storey link to the adjacent presbytery, with a turret in the corner with the chancel. The chancel east window is of three lights, with Geometrical tracery.

Inside the church, the walls are plastered and the original nave has four-bay arcades of pointed chamfered arches on octagonal stone columns with moulded capitals and an open timber roof with braced collars. The aisles have timber lean-to roofs. At the west end the aisles have two additional bays within the 1961 extension and the tower contains an extension to the nave below a deep gallery with a plain pointed tower arch.  At the east end is a tall pointed chancel arch with octagonal responds. Within the arch is a rood beam with a crucifix placed upon it. The chancel itself is shallow, with a three-light traceried east window. The side walls are now blind, but the south side wall has two pointed arches, now blocked and the north side has a blocked pointed arched opening at upper level.

The sanctuary has been reordered and the altar brought forward, but the timber reredos with painted figures of the dedicatees remains in place. Above this, the three-light east window contains glass by Hardman, installed in 1854, and some of the aisle windows also contain figurative stained glass. The octagonal stone font, now at the east end of the north aisle is a simple design without ornament, probably dating from the 1850s. Stations of the Cross are large framed painted tableaux in high relief. The benches with their rounded ends are probably original to the church.

The presbytery to the northeast of the church and set at right-angles to the chancel is also by Wardell, contemporary with the church and similar in style and materials. It is joined to the church by a double-height link building, also part of the original design.

Heritage Details

Architect: W.W. Wardell

Original Date: 1849

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed