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.
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 Kern. 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.