Building » Wolsingham – St Thomas of Canterbury

Wolsingham – St Thomas of Canterbury

Rectory Lane, Wolsingham, Co. Durham DL13

A Gothic Revival church of the 1850s designed by a leading Catholic architect. The planning and motifs employed are conventional for their time but the design is handled with assurance and the building has a confident exterior and a dignified interior. The altar is said to have come from Pugin’s chapel at Ushaw. Although the tower was hardly started, the church makes a notable and positive contribution to the Wolsingham Conservation Area.

There was recusant activity in Weardale during the penal years, and it was at Wolsingham that the Catholic priest John Duckett was arrested in 1644, and taken to Tyburn for execution. A memorial cross on Redgate Bank marks the spot.

In 1849 a mission was started by the Rev. Thomas Wilkinson, later Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle. He was also the founder of Crook and Tow Law parishes. Mass was said in a rented house, then a plot of land with a hay-loft and stables was purchased; a chapel was formed in the former and a school established in the latter (the building survives  just to the southeast of the church). The present church was built in 1853-54 from designs by J.A. Hansom; this work was aided by Mgr Newsham, for whom Hansom was working at Ushaw (the church contains items from Pugin’s chapel there). The cost was £1600. An intended tower was never completed.

In 1899 the then mission priest Fr Taylor Smith came into an inheritance, allowing him to make improvements to the school (built to the southeast of the church in about 1864), and to purchase a building at Bridge End, which became a boarding school and convent of the Sunderland Sisters of Mercy (now converted to housing). A new school (now parish centre) was opened at the rear of the church in 1912.


The details of the fabric of the church are adequately recorded in the list entry (below), although it should be noted that the nave has five bays, not six. The clerestory is not mentioned: this has a series of lozenge-shaped openings with slight cusps with lobes at their apices: the rhythm is slightly unusual internally in that the windows are paired, not over the arches, but over the spandrels between them. The description also suggests there is stained glass in the east window but now at least this has plain glazing. The list entry does not describe the furnishings. Most notable amongst these is the altar and tabernacle, said (Morris & Gooch, p.259) to have come from Pugin’s chapel at Ushaw. The altar has been adapted to allow for westward celebration, using some wood from the former reredos. It was presumably acquired through the influence of Mgr Newsham. The Gothic ambo is a former pulpit, cut down. The rood cross hanging from the sanctuary arch came from the church of the Sacred Heart, Stockton. The church is seated with conventional Victorian pine benches, which are shown in photographs in the Northern Catholic Calendar (1905). Unusually the font has not been moved from its position at the base of the projected tower (this is because the floor in the preferred position at the east end of the south aisle is said to be too weak). There is a large painting of St Thomas of Canterbury by Sheila Mackie, c.1980, at the west end of the south aisle.

List description


R.C. parish church. 1854 by Joseph Hansom. Coursed squared sandstone with ashlar dressings; Welsh slate roof with flat stone gable copings. Decorated style. 6-bay nave with north aisle; south aisle and first stage of unfinished south-west tower; 2-bay chancel with north vestry. Boarded double door in second bay of south aisle in roll-moulded 2-centred arch; massive buttresses and chamfered plinth to first stage of tower in first bay. 2-light aisle windows, in bays defined by buttresses; 2-light chancel windows, 5-light east window; 4- light west window flanked by 3-light windows in aisle and tower under pent roofs; Decorated tracery of varied patterns. Small trefoil in west gable peak and cinquefoil in east, under steeply-pitched roofs with elaborate stone cross finials.

Interior: painted plaster with ashlar arcades; scissor-truss nave roof and panelled keeled chancel roof. Arcades, of 6 arches on north and 4 on south, have chamfered 2-centred arches on octagonal columns and cushion-moulded capitals. Very high chancel arch in similar style. Cusped 2-centred vestry door. Plain 2-centred tower arches on east and north. Late C19 glass in south aisle east window; earlier glass in east window.

Heritage Details

Architect: J.A. Hansom

Original Date: 1854

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II