Building » Woolhampton – St Mary

Woolhampton – St Mary

Douai Abbey, Upper Woolhampton, Reading, Berkshire

Of considerable historic interest as the only executed work in England by George Jonas Wigley, a significant figure in nineteenth century Catholic life and ecclesiology. While the building is architecturally unremarkable, the west front is an impressive, if quirky design. The interior is altered, but contains furnishings by Pugin and glass by Hardman and Wailes.

Post-Reformation Catholic practice survived in the area under the protection of the Wollascott family, recusants who held the Manor of Woolhampton from 1544. The 1676 returns show almost 200 Catholics living within an eight-mile radius of the village. There were also Mass centres at other recusant strongholds, notably Ufton (the Perkins family), Mapledurham (Blount) and Whiteknights (Englefield), all of whom had resident Franciscan priests.

In 1755 William Wollascott’s daughter married Arthur James Plunkett, the seventh Earl of Fingal (of the family of St Oliver Plunkett). In 1757 William’s death marked the end of the male Wollascott line and the estate became part of the Plunkett property. The estate was broken up in 1786, but the family left their chaplain an endowment of a strip of land of nearly seven acres, intended for the purpose of establishing a Catholic mission. The site included various cottages and a building known as Woolhampton Lodge, which contained a chapel (registered in January 1792). This was described in 1829 as ‘a miserable place’ and ‘in a dilapidated state’. In 1832 it was replaced by a new church, a simple lancet Gothic chapel. In 1838 a school was established, which by 1854 had become St Mary’s College, with 130 pupils. A small preparatory school was established at Newbury (see Newbury, St Joseph).

The second church remained in use for only sixteen years. After the present church was built the 1832 chapel was turned into a refectory for St Mary’s school, with a dormitory over. It was demolished in the late-nineteenth century when a new refectory was built.

The present church was built also through the efforts of Canon Dambrine, priest here from 1829 until his death in 1855. He lies buried in the chapel to the north of the chancel, where there is a memorial tablet to him. The site was given in 1846 by Arthur, Earl of Fingal, and the architect for the new church was George Jonas Wigley, a pupil of J. J. Scoles. It was opened by Bishop (later Cardinal) Wiseman on 11 May 1848.

The design is said to have been modelled on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chapel at Croydon, which Wigley considered to be the last church to be built in Catholic England. Wigley is perhaps now little-known, but he is a figure of considerable interest, and some significance in the Catholic scene of the mid-nineteenth century. He had studied for the diploma in architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, when he fell under the spell of the Catholic apologist Bl. Frederic Ozanam, a professor at the Sorbonne. Wigley was one of a group of eight men who in 1833 established with Ozanam the Society of St Vincent de Paul, now an international charitable organisation of Catholic laymen and women. In 1844 an English branch of the SVP was set up, with Wigley its secretary. In 1847 he became an associate of the RIBA, about the time he was working on the designs for the church at Woolhampton. However he returned to Paris in 1848, year of Revolutions. In 1859 he founded The Universe, a Catholic newspaper whose primary purpose then appeared to be to defend papal claims against those of the revolutionaries. He was knighted by Pope Pius IX. He died in Rome in 1866, having contracted a contagious disease while attending the sick.

St Mary’s appears to be Wigley’s only executed design in England. He competed unsuccessfully against A.W. Pugin for the design of St Peter and St Paul, Cork, and his only other completed work is the church of San Alfonso in Rome (1855-59). This, the Redemptorist shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, is a rare example of a Gothic church in Rome, albeit a decidedly Italian Gothic church. It was built in honour of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorist Congregation.

In ecclesiological terms, Wigley is of considerable significance in the anti-Pugin backlash and the rise of Ultramontanism. In 1857 he translated St Charles Borromeo’s Instructions for Ecclesiastical Buildings into English. Borromeo’s text outlined the reforms of the Council of Trent, and Wigley’s agenda in translating it was made clear in the preface: ‘we hope […] to assist in removing from our English Catholic Architecture, the Anglican tendency with which it is threatened; as we should endeavour to impress upon ourselves the great fact that we are but a branch (almost a new shoot) from the ever prolific Roman stem’. While most of his illustrations, and his design at Woolhampton, are Gothic in style, the lack of chancel screens and the placing of high altars beneath baldachins are a clear rejection of Puginian principles.

By the 1880s St Mary’s College was established as a minor seminary, but by the opening years of the twentieth century numbers entering the seminary had declined, and the Woolhampton property was perceived as burdensome by the diocese. A solution arose in 1903, with the expulsion of the Benedictine community of St Edmund at Douai in France, as a result of the new French Association Laws. The Bishop of Portsmouth offered the Woolhampton property to the monks on a seven-year lease (they purchased the property in 1909). Until the building of the abbey church (started in 1928), St Mary’s was to serve as abbey church, parish church and school chapel. In 1913 a new and elaborate red alabaster high altar was installed, to the designs of S. Pugin Powell.

With the building of the abbey church, St Mary’s became less used. However, it was renovated in 1974 to provide a small place for parish worship, offering a contrast to the relative vastness of the abbey church. The interior was adapted and simplified by J.J. Frame of Sussex to conform to post-Vatican II liturgical practice, and included the removal of the 1913 high altar and the creation of a baptistery in the former Lady Chapel. The new altar incorporated part of this, but was replaced with a new stone altar in 1995, when the church was reordered. The font was also moved back to the west end. The church was consecrated by Bishop Crispian Hollis on 21 June 1995.


The church consists of nave and aisles, with a fairly short, square-ended sanctuary with flanking chapels. There is no tower, but a western bellcote. It is built of red brick laid in header bond (many of the bricks are blue, or vitrified) with stone dressings, under a slate roof. According to The Tablet (13 May 1848), the bricks were manufactured on site while the stone came from Prior Park, Bath.

The west front is the principal elevation, and is given an impression of great height by the two tall stepped buttresses that flank the central bay. Within this bay is the main entrance, with a four-centred stone archway and recessed porch, supported on corbel brackets and a machicolated cornice. The corbels are plain 1974 replacements for carved corbel figures of Adam and Eve, said to have come from Reading Abbey. Above this is a three-light window with lancets, enclosed by a Tudor arch. In the stone panels below the window is the inscribed coat of arms of the Plunkett family, with the motto ‘Festina Lente’ (roughly, ‘More haste, less speed’). The initials ‘AP, EF’ refer to Arthur Plunkett, ninth Earl of Fingal, who presumably contributed to the cost. The Angelus bell in the bellcote was cast by Mears’ foundry.

The other external elevations are more simply treated, with small lancet windows, which are paired in the aisles and in the chancel clerestory. The east window is of five lights. Adjoining the north side of the chancel is a passage leading to the school and sacristy.

The interior displays the same disregard for stylistic uniformity and obeisance to Middle Pointed as the outside. The five-bay nave, the two-bay chancel and the chancel arch are all Early English in character, with chamfered arches, moulded capitals and octagonal piers. The roof, however, is of Perpendicular character. There is a gallery at the west end of the nave, containing the organ. The five-light east window of the chancel dates from 1848 and is by William Wailes. It depicts the Crucifixion with Our Lady and St John. In the lower panels there is frieze showing the instruments of the Passion and the pelican, a symbol of Christ. In the bottom left hand corner is an initial ‘W’ for Wailes. The east windows of the flanking chapels (Lady chapel and Holy Angels chapel, now also the Blessed Sacrament chapel) are by Hardman. The east window of the Lady Chapel shows the Annunciation. The chapel also contains stained glass recording the Marian years of 1950 and 1986 (the latter with glass by David John). The Hardman east window of the Blessed Sacrament chapel shows a guardian angel and a Santiago de Compostela pilgrim. The small window in the north wall depicting St Joseph and the Christ Child is also by Hardman. Two 1970s windows in the porch are by John Hayward.

Other furnishings of note include:

  • Painted panels in the sanctuary and side chapels showing scenes from the life of St Benedict, by Gabriel Pippet, 1913. Pre-Raphaelite in character. They were originally part of the reredos and the sanctuary panelling, and were intended to be moved into an abbey church designed by the firm of Pugin Powell, but which was never built. Pippet worked with Mgr Hugh Benson at the artistic community at Little Gidding, Cambs.
  • Marble relief carving of the Madonna and Child on north wall at west end, Italian Baroque in character, in situ since 1848 and possibly from the old church, or perhaps acquired by Wigley.
  • Two Gothic stools in the Lady chapel, designed by Pugin for the chapel in old Douai, were brought to Woolhampton in 1903.

Entry amended by AHP 25.11.2023

The church was listed Grade II in August 2023. List description at:

Heritage Details

Architect: G. J. Wigley

Original Date: 1848

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II