Building » Wymondham – Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury

Wymondham – Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury

Norwich Road, Wymondham, Norfolk, NR18 0QE

A concrete frame church of 1952 by local architect Donovan Purcell, extended in 2000-1. It contains the only known memorial chapel to Far East Prisoners of War, created by a POW priest to honour the victims. The large 1952 panelled reredos portrays thirty-two English martyrs, most painted by John Henshaw in 1952 in a Festival of Britain style. The church lies within the Wymondham Conservation Area.

The church is aligned roughly southwest-northeast, but for this report liturgical points will be used, i.e. the altar at the east.

Wymondham was part of the parish of St John’s Norwich until erected as a separate parish in 1962. However, the first formal Mass centre was the chapel of the Sacred Heart of Our Lady and Jesus Christ in the top bedroom of 22 Church Street (now part of the Abbey Hotel), the home of Mr Newton, a solicitor. After he moved away in 1904 various places were hired or used, including the old Town Hall until 14 January 1912, when Mass was first celebrated in a rented organ builder’s workshop that had been built in 1879 as a small ‘chapel’ to test the acoustics of organs in the garden of 18/22 Cock Street. Worship here ceased about 1918, after which various buildings were used, including a school at Town Green.

In 1926, the Revd Thomas Phillips was appointed the first resident priest to what was now called the mission church of Our Lady and St Thomas of Canterbury. In 1937 the diocese bought for £950 The Elms, the extensive home of a brewery owner at the junction of the Norwich Road and Bridewell, from the estate of Mrs Leah Clements. It included a number of outbuildings and orchard for the brewery. The stables and adjoining buildings were converted for use as a church seating around 45 people, the house becoming the presbytery. This ‘stable church’ opened on 6 April 1938.

In 1940 Fr Ketterer asked A.S.G. Butler, architect of Our Lady Star of the Sea at Wells (1928) to design a church for Wymondham (and also for Dereham). Correspondence in the Diocesan Archive suggests that the bishop was not keen, essentially because ‘your plan may cost thousands but Fr Ketterer deals with hundreds’.

The Revd Malcom Cowin came to Wymondham in 1946, having spent much of the war in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. He had been profoundly affected by the waste of young lives in the camps, whatever their faith, and was determined to build a church in their memory. He launched a national appeal in November 1947 and turned for designs to a local Catholic architect, Donovan Purcell. After war service, Purcell had set up in practice in Wymondham in 1947, joining up with Fred Johnson the following year. He lived in a house that he had designed for himself on Back Lane. Purcell’s initial design for a church with a bell tower was too expensive, so he produced a simpler design to seat 150, with the possibility of extension in due course. Building began on the orchard site in January 1952 and the church was opened and blessed by Canon McShee, Vicar-General on 20 September 1952. It cost £8,059 13s 2d, of which Fr Cowin raised £6,500.

The present nave and sanctuary belong to Purcell’s church, but his cedarwood roof shingles were replaced with pantiles in 1979 and the Crittall metal windows by uPVC in 1985. The west gable included a cross of glass bricks and they also flanked the double doors which were sheltered by a semi-circular open porch on steel supports. Sacristies were sited behind the altar with a link to the presbytery at right angles to the church. A feature of the church was the large reredos, painted by John Henshaw with figures of martyrs. A Lady Chapel was to the south and the church was dedicated as ‘a memorial to those who died in Japanese prisoner-of-war and internment camps during the world war 1939-1945’. It is claimed that this is the only such church in the world and an annual service for Far Eastern POWs is held in May.

In 1970 a parishioner, P. Hawkins built a larger, D-shaped single-storey flat-roofed west porch that included a WC and storage. In the mid-1970s, the altar was brought forward from the reredos, requiring four new Norfolk saints to be painted by Tom McCaston to fill the gap and a recess created for the tabernacle. The pulpit against the south brick pier was removed, the short brick piers supporting the rail removed, the wooden altar rail and altar and the organ placed in the Lady Chapel, so allowing six rows of seats to be added. The new altar of Portland stone from Messrs Saunders of Ipswich was placed on a new tiled and carpeted dais.

In January 1982 the diocesan surveyor John Cullen declared the church unsafe after the reported failure of the foundations, and the northwest corner was shored up. The parish used one of aisles at Wymondham Abbey for their services. Following repairs, new heating was installed in 1984, carpet laid and the present wood benches from Ireland replaced the original seating.

In 1995 planning permission was given to replace the former pre-fab hall west of the church with a larger brick structure, and this was opened the following year. A 1997 reordering saw a step added to the altar, new Stations and the font (which reportedly came from a redundant church in Norwich) placed in front of the sanctuary. In 1998 the diocesan surveyor was asked to carry out a feasibility study for extending the church. Land behind the presbytery (including the former stable church, that had been used for storage) was sold and the narthex, centred on the font, but including a large meeting room, WCs and kitchen, was built by Sindalls, to the design of Paul Lucas RIBA of Real Architecture, Wymondham. The addition won the 2002 South Norfolk District Council Design Award, and cost £194,000. The whole church was consecrated by Bishop Peter Smith on 27 October 2001.

In 2000, the FEPOW Chapel replaced the former Lady Chapel, re-instating the full length of the 1926 altar rail, carved by Cecil Cross to a design by McLean Leach of Cambridge. The former wooden altar, also by Cross, was dismantled and its panels displayed in the narthex. A large Perspex screen was placed to the rear of a cabinet with quotations from the Bible.


The nave is a concrete frame structure of four bays with a lower square brick sanctuary and south side chapel. The frame is set within brick piers and the exterior is of rendered blockwork. The large 1985 uPVC windows apparently follow the original Crittall design. The sanctuary is of red brick, with three tall windows to the south wall, again uPVC repeats of the original Crittall windows, but has no other windows. An ‘L-shaped’ single storey wraps around this east end to link with the early nineteenth century presbytery (the former Elms). It is rendered and flat-roofed with some rooflights, housing sacristies and a small meeting room.

The 2000-1 red brick narthex has a dramatic slate roof tucked under the 1952 gable that almost reaches the ground on the south side. On the west side it is symmetrical to the main axial entrance, because the north side covers a kitchen and WCs. Beyond is a large meeting room in a pitched roof north extension. At the centre of the roof is a tall metal cross over a glazed hip, immediately over the font.

The church terminates in a curved panelled reredos with twenty eight original figures of martyrs painted by John Henshaw (1952) and four by Tom McCaston (c.1975). They are hard to tell apart, but the later haloes are gilded differently. The doors either side led to the two separate sacristies, but the c.1975 re-ordering revealed the door to the former confessional area behind the pulpit, now with benches. The south nave chapel houses the FEPOW Memorial, created in 2000.

Heritage Details

Architect: Donovan Purcell

Original Date: 1952

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed