In the 1920s there were two Catholic churches in Bath; St Mary’s in Julian Road to the North which had been served by secular clergy for 60 years, and St John’s in the centre of the city which was served by the Benedictine community of Downside. With the Catholic population increasing, Dom Anselm Rutherford, OSB, the Father Prior at St John’s decided that a third church was required in the Southern area of the city. A site was selected in Oldfield Park between the Somerset & Dorset Ralway embankment and Oldfield Lane. This was a working class district built mainly in the early years of the century, serving the nearby factories and railway depots, but the local authority had plans for new housing estates on the other side of the railway.
The dream was Father Rutherford’s, but the realisation was the result of the generosity of the worshipers at St John’s. Father Rutherford had a desire to return to the simplicity of the architecture of the early Christian Church, the architecture of Rome, and to depart from the dominant Gothic style of the 19th century. The new church was to be named for St Alphege, the local saint who had been martyred as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1022.
The choice of architect was fortunate. Giles Gilbert Scott had achieved distinction at a very young age by winning the design competition for the very large Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, a project which was to occupy him for the rest of his life. He had continued to build many other imposing buildings. At the time of Father Rutherford’s dream Scott had been working on his extension of the nave at Downside Abbey. He had recently returned from a visit to Rome and gladly accepted Rutherford’s commission for St Alphege’s. The new Church became the architects first essay in the Romanesque style, inspired by a recent visit to the continent, and one of his most beautiful designs. In later years Scott described it as ” one of my favourite works “. The nave and chancel were completed in two years, with the opening ceremony in 1929. Work on the remainder of the church, the presbytery, and the hall proceeded throughout the 1950s, with completion in November 1960. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had died of lung cancer nine months earlier, his body being buried with his wife outside the west end of his great cathedral at Liverpool. He had been knighted in 1924 after the consecration of the first part of the Cathedral.
Scott’s design was inspired by the ancient church of St Maria of Cosmedin, Rome, and he distilled the main elements of that much larger building into a small parish church. The plan was for a rectanglar basilica church some 37m by 15m to seat 400. The nave was separated from the side aisles by six rounded arches and five pillars each side. The sanctuary was raised above the level of the nave and terminated in a shallow apse. The honey coloured stone contrasted with the rich blue of the flooring. Lighting was by decorative golden sunburst fittings suspended above the nave. The whole was dominated by the stately baldacchino above the altar.
Externally a three-bay loggia porch served entrance to the church. A tall campanile was to be constructed at a later date, together with the Lady Chapel, sacristy, west gallery, presbytery and hall. The external effect was severe in contrast to the warm interior. The foundation stone was laid in 1927, the builders being Jacob Long & Co. The church opened with a Solemn Blessing and High Mass in July 1929.
AEGIDIO ARCHITECTO (Giles Architect)
Shield and effigy of the architect carved on a pillar capital at St Alphege’s
by sculptor William D. Gough
Dr Gavin Stamp, Senior Lecturer in Architectural History, Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow School of Art, claims that ” Scott was, perhaps more than any other, the representative architect of the twentieth century, … his influence …bridges the century like no other in significance “.
Scott’s effigy in stone can be seen at St Alphege’s carved on one of the pillar capitals by sculptor William Drinkwater Gough; perhaps the only sculpture of the architect. William D. Gough (active c1915 – c1937). Architectural sculptor based in London. He practised alone until c.1933 after which he continued as W.D. Gough and J.H. Gough, taking on monumental as well as architectural sculpture. He carried out much work for the architect Ninian Comper.”
Giles Gilbert Scott’s Description
” The church was my first essay into the Romansque style of architecture. It has always been one of my favourite works; my only regret is that it has not proved possible to complete the exterior by building the campanile.”
” The design, though simple, gives no impression of cheapness, and this was largely due to the fact that the walls are of stone both inside and out, and the craftsmanship is of fine quality.”
” Bath stone, of which the church is built, is usually used in an uninteresting way with regular courses having a smooth face. At St Alphege’s I have used stones that came out of the quarry in rough shapes and needed little more treatment than knocking off the greater projections. Wide joints are not only necessary with this type of rough stone, but add to the beauty of the walling. “
“The floor was an interesting experiment in using small pieces of linoleum, in the same manner as marble is used to give a tessalated floor of rich colour and pattern. It follows the traditional effect given by the marble floors in some of the old Basilica in Italy.”
The walling stone came from the local quarries in Box, but that for the pillars, which have a polished surface, was from Leckhampton, near Cheltenham. The distinctive roof tiles were imported from the Lombardy region of Italy.
The capitals at the top of each pillar have “exquisite figuritive carvings”. Those on the north side depict scenes from the life of Our Lady, and those on the south side from the life of St Alphege. Those supporting the choir and organ loft depict persons associated with the design and building of the church, including Giles Gilbert Scott himself. In all there are carvings of 50 scenes on the 14 pillars. Scott used William Drinkwater Gough for this work, having worked with him on some of his other projects. (examples: Scott and Alphege).
The baldachino of gilded oak which covers the altar was carved by Stuflesser of Ortieo and decorated by Watts of London. The fine carving of the Virgin in the Lady chapel is by Theodore Kearn Some time during the early 1930s fourteen panels of the Stations of the Cross were inserted into the walls around the church depicting Our Lord’s journey to his Crucifixion. These bas-relief stone panels are beautifully carved in a simple style representative of that era. The identity of the carver is unknown and any information about the panels and carver would be welcomed.
Initially the church was used as a chapel-of-ease served by the Father Prior (parish priest) of St John’s, but the Benedictines left Bath in 1932 and in 1937 St Alphege’s was made a parish church and its first secular parish priest appointed.
Completing the Church
The years following the opening of the church were those of the Great Depression with much hardship, followed almost immediately by World War II. It was not until the 1950s that work to complete the church could recommence, this time under the direction of parish priest Fr James Kelly . The sacristy and Lady Chapel were completed in 1954, that year being the millenial anniversary of the birth of St Alphege and the Silver Jubilee of the opening of the church. The ceremony of consecration of the church could now take place. The presbytery and link corridor followed in 1958. Giles Gilbert Scott had retired by this time but he gave his time freely to oversee the design of the presbytery to ensure that the his church was not compromised by an inferior building. The parish hall was built in 1959 to a design by Bristol achitects. The west gallery was finished in 1960 enabling the organ to be installed – a fine instrument built in 1915 to demonstrate the quality of craftsmanship produced by its makers, Rushworth and Dreaper of Liverpool. Unfortunately, it was only possible to build the campanile to half its design height at this late date because of the nature of the soil, resulting from the proximity of the adjacent stream. In 1989 the church celebrated its Diamond Jubilee.
In 2007 a decision was made to construct a new building for St John’s Catholic Primary School on land next to St Alphege’s. To achieve this it was necessary to demolish St Alphege’s existing parish hall and replace it with a smaller hall closer to the church. The foundation stone of the new hall was laid in March 2009 and the building completed in 2010. Architects Benjamin & Beauchamp produced a design sympathetic to Scott’s church with a connecting cloister, using similar rough faced stone for the facade.
In spite of the quality of the design and construction, for many years the church was not widely known. Even in Bath itself many of the citizens were not aware of it, due in part to its location, tucked away in a corner of Oldfield Park. In 1958 when Nikolas Pevsner produced his book on the buildings of North Somerset & Bristol in the notable series The Buildings of England he failed to mention St Alphege’s.
In recent years, just as there has been a growth in recognition of Scott as one of the great architects of the 20th century, so has the world started to become aware of St Alphege’s. In 2003 Yale University Press published a book on Bath buildings in their Pevsner Architectural City Guides Series. In his description of St Alphege’s the author, Michael Forsyth, claimed “it cannot fail to astonish and delight”.
In 2006 the outstanding English Heritage volume on Catholic Churches in England and Wales, A Glimpse of Heaven by Christopher Martin, brought St Alphege’s to a wider public with its photograhs and description. Perhaps even more awareness has been brought about through the medium of the World Wide Web!
Official recognition came in 2010 when the the Secretary of State for Tourism and Heritage decided to upgrade the church to Grade II* status after consulting English Heritage. Grade II* is awarded to “particularly important buildings of more than special interest”
Like to know more?
A HISTORY BY CAROLINE SHAW
with a foreward by Gavin Stamp
a foremost authority on the work of Giles Gilbert Scott.
This history of St Alphege's tells the story of how a suburb of Bath, built largely for railway and factory workers in the late nineteenth century, came to have a Catholic church built by one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century. It draws upon previously unpublished documents, most notably Scott's correspondence and that of the Benedictines of Downside who commissioned the building. The book contains numerous illustrations, including many of Scott's plans and drawings dating from the church's inception in 1927 to its completion in 1956.
The book contains 120 pages , with 200 photos , drawings and plans,
and costs £9.99, plus £2.80 for delivery in the U.K.
Copies can be obtained from St Alphege's Parish,
St Alphege's Presbytery, Oldfield Lane, Bath, BA2 3NR
Telephone: 01225 424894
(Cheques payable to St Alphege's Parish)
The book is also available from
The Oldfield Park Bookshop,
43 Moorland Road, Bath, tel: 01225 427722.
The book can also be bought online from Amazon.
On the Amazon site you will see two sellers: Amazon Direct and St Alphege's Books. If you buy from St Alphege's Books much more of the money goes to the church towards the upkeep of the fabric of the building.
- Oldfield Lane
- BA2 3NR