Building » Woodford Green – St Thomas of Canterbury

Woodford Green – St Thomas of Canterbury

High Road, Woodford Green, London IG8

A large Early English Gothic church by Canon A. J. C. Scoles, who also designed the adjacent Franciscan friary. The benefactress was Henrietta Pelham-Clinton, Dowager Duchess of Newcastle, who is buried in the church. The church has a stately interior, with much stained glass (probably by Lavers & Westlake). A reordering in 1976 removed many of the principal furnishings. 

The Franciscan Annals of March 1878 include an appeal for help in serving the large area between St George’s, Walthamstow, and St Helen’s, Ongar. This is generally seen as the inspiration for the founding of the mission at Woodford Green. In 1893, Cardinal Vaughan mentioned the need for a mission in the area to Lady Henrietta Pelham-Clinton (1843-1913), the Dowager Duchess of Newcastle, who had been received into the Catholic Church in 1879. The duchess, who was also a member of the Third Order of St Francis, immediately offered financial help. Cardinal Vaughan and the Duchess made plans for a Franciscan Friary, a parish church, a primary school and a boarding school for girls, all of which were later realised. In 1894, the duchess bought several houses in the area, including a house in Stag Lane, Buckhurst Hill, for the Poor Servants of the Mother of God to teach local children; a house called Kenilworth on Epping New Road, where eight Franciscans initially took up residence; and most significantly, the Oaks, an eighteenth-century mansion on Woodford Green’s High Road. The mission was founded in March 1894 when a temporary iron chapel opened in the friary’s garden. Later Mass was being said in the Oaks. Part of the grounds of the Oaks was earmarked for the construction of a friary and parish church, while the duchess was to live in part of the house. In March 1895, tenders were received and in April the contract for both buildings was signed with the architect-priest Canon Alexander Joseph Cory Scoles, a member of the Third Order who had built two other Franciscan friaries at Clevedon and Ascot. In October 1894, the friars moved into part of the Oaks. The foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Vaughan on 18 May 1895 and the first Mass was held in the church on 24 May 1896. The contract price was £8,870, but the final cost was £10,000 due to problems with the soil, probably due to underground wells. The builders were Messrs Goddard & Sons of Dorking and Farnham. The duchess cleared the final debt, enabling the consecration by Cardinal Vaughan on 7 July 1896. When the duchess died on 8 May 1913 she was initially buried at St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cemetery at Leytonstone, following a service at St Thomas’s. On 2 June 1913 she was re-interred in the chapel of St Francis in the church. 

The parish was erected in 1919. In 1921 a skylight was installed in the retrochoir (the chapel for the Franciscan community) to improve the lighting. In 1931 Ivy Lodge was bought with an anonymous donation for use as a parish centre. In 1932 the church was redecorated and a new altar installed. In 1962, the statue of St Thomas in the gable was replaced and the statue of St Edward the Confessor over the north entrance removed. In return for the curtailing of the forecourt by the construction of the A104, the Borough Council laid out a church car park. In 1976, the church was reordered at a sum of £36,000. The dark glass in the retrochoir was removed and replaced with slightly tinted reamy antique glass, with six stained glass figures of Franciscan saints re-set (contractor Goddard & Gibbs Studios of Kingsland Road, London E2). The high altar ensemble and pulpit were removed and replaced with a new altar and lectern of sandstone and Westmorland slate. The three opened-up arches separating the retrochoir from the sanctuary were infilled with glass, with doors in each side arch, and a Blessed Sacrament chapel formed in the retrochoir. The sanctuary was levelled and paved with large green and white terrazzo squares and the altar rails removed. Two former chapels on the south side were converted to confessionals. The church reopened in October 1976 when the new altar was consecrated by Bishop Casey.

After the duchess’s death, the Poor Clares had moved to the Oaks. They left in 1970 and the building fell into disrepair; it was demolished in 1974, and the site sold for a housing development. Ivy Lodge was demolished in 1972. In the 1980s the old Franciscan House of Studies in the southwest wing of the friary, including the refectory kitchen and some accommodation, was converted to a parish centre, the Becket Centre.


The church is facing northwest. This description uses the conventional, liturgical orientation.

The church is built in the Early English style, using red brick in English bond with stone dressings and a pantile roof. The plan is rectangular, of an aisled nave and sanctuary with side chapels under one roof, with a bellcote on the eastern gable and an apsidal retro-choir. The bell of 1896 was cast by J. Warner & Sons. The aisles have pitched roofs. There are two polygonal side chapels (now confessionals) on the south side, possibly later additions. The central part of the tripartite west front has the west door with the emblem of the Franciscans in the tympanum, between two lancet windows. Above is a plate tracery window of two tall two-light windows with small quatrefoils with a sexfoil rose window above. The gable has a trefoiled niche with a statue of St Thomas between two blind niches with louvres. The west elevations of the side aisles have a row of three lancet windows on the ground floor and a two-light plate tracery window with a quatrefoil above. All three gables are topped by gable crosses. The two westernmost bays of the south aisle are blind and rendered, marking the site where the Oaks abutted the church with a connecting door between them 

The narthex has a north door beside the gallery stair and the repository at the south. There are two pairs of glazed lancet windows to the nave. The west gallery has a pipe organ of 1896 (given by Mrs Haslopp). Below the gallery are two freestanding marble stoups and a painting of St Thomas by Rod Green (1994). The six-bay nave has a pointed arcade with octagonal columns and two-light clerestory windows. Nave and aisles have canted timber ceilings, with a pointed barrel vault over the sanctuary. Although the division between nave and chancel is not marked externally, internally there is a chancel arch and the ceiling is lower than in the nave. The side aisles have cinquefoil windows with stained glass, high up on the walls. In the north aisle these have a Marian theme: St Mary as a girl with her parents, the Visitation, the Nativity and the Holy Family. A door at the northwest connects to the Friary. Near the Lady Chapel at the northeast is a statue of St Joseph, which before 1976 was set below a canopy on one side of the chancel arch. The Lady Chapel retains its elaborate altar with a pinnacled and crocketed canopy holding a statue of the Virgin Mary. Below is a diapered reredos with the inscription ‘altare privilegium’. The altar frontal has three trefoiled arches with the Coronation of the  Virgin, the Assumption and the Annunciation. To the right of the altar is a piscina. The chapel has two cinquefoil windows: Our Lady Queen of Heaven giving the rosary to St Dominic (east), and Bl. John Duns Scotus with the Virgin Mary. The raised sanctuary has an altar and lectern of Westmorland slate and Clipsham stone (1976). The chairs and font are of timber, the paschal candle stand of brass. There two sexfoil windows on each side of the sanctuary with Franciscan saints: Bl. Agnellus of Pisa and St Bernardine to the north, and St Leonard of Port Maurice and Bl. John Forrest to the south. Above the glazed triple-arched screen to the retrochoir (now Blessed Sacrament Chapel and weekday chapel) are three stepped lancets. The stained glass depicts: St Mary and St John on either side of the Crucifixion, and, in the lower panels, St Francis receiving the stigmata, St Thomas of Canterbury, and St Bonaventure. The windows may be stylistically attributed to Nathaniel Westlake of Lavers & Westlake, who worked with Canon Scoles on other church designs. In the 1976 reordering they were reset with clear glass surrounds, the work carried out by Goddard & Gibbs. The door to the sacristy is on the north wall. On either side of the glass doors to the retrochoir are the aumbry and the piscina.

The tabernacle of c.1976 has a gold mosaic front with the two fish and five loaves, and two peacocks as symbols for immortality. Above the tabernacle is a blind niche with a crucifix, flanked by single lancets. On either side of them are pairs of lancets, set in the canted sides of the apse. These six windows hold stained glass figures which in 1976 were reset within clear glass. From left to right these are: St Pascal Baylon, St Bonaventura, St Francis, St Clare, St John Capistrano and St Didacus. Two pairs of lancets on the south wall have plain glazing. Part of the roof has a central skylight of 1921. On the north and south walls are modern timber reliefs: the Annunciation to the north and St Francis receiving the stigmata to the south. The remaining furnishings are modern and of timber.

The southeast side chapel is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. Beside the chapel is a statue of St Thomas of Canterbury, like that of St Joseph originally under a canopy to one side of the chancel arch. The chapel has a similar altar and reredos to that in the Lady Chapel, with a statue of St Francis in the canopied niche. The altar frontal has scenes from the life of St Francis. A cinquefoil window to the east also depicts the saint on his deathbed. A pair of lancets to the south has clear glass. In front of the altar is a ledger slab to the Duchess of Newcastle, who is buried below. There is another marble tablet commemorating her gift and death in the south aisle.

The cinquefoils in the south aisle depict St Clare, St Rose of Viterbo and St Margaret of  Cortona. Two cinquefoils are filled with sculpted panels where the roofs of (possibly later) side chapels (now confessionals) obscured the windows. The first bay from the east has a stone panel with the Sacred Heart, to whom the chapel was dedicated. The stained glass in the confessional depicts Bl. Margaret Mary Alacoque and Bl. Baptista Varani. The third bay from the east has a stone cinquefoil of St Anthony and the Child Jesus. The corresponding confessional has stained glass scenes of St Anthony feeding the poor and the saint with the mule.

At the west end of the south aisle is a life-size Calvary, with St Mary Magdalene, modelled on the Duchess of Newcastle, who took this name on entering the Third Order. The Stations are painted timber reliefs in pointed frames.

Amended by AHP 03.04.2023

Heritage Details

Architect: Canon Alexander J. C. Scoles

Original Date: 1895

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed