Our Ladye Star of the Sea Visitor Guide

Welcome to Greenwich!

About Our Ladye Star of the Sea

Christianity in Britain has roots, even extending to the 1st Century. The tradition associating Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury connects Celtic Britain, to the Gospel of Jesus. St Augustine arrived at Canterbury in 597 with a new mission; he also drew together the dwindling Celtic Christians, unifying them with the church across Europe. Until Henry 8th broke with Rome (1535) Catholicism was the life blood of Britain for 1000 uninterrupted years. Thereafter it was suddenly abolished. With the reign of Elizabeth 1st (1558-1603) those who continued as professing Catholics were made outlaws and treated severely. Priests, and anybody who helped them, were hung drawn and quartered at Tyburn (Marble Arch). The “Test Acts” in 1673 & 1678, required everybody to receive communion in the CofE. For 300 years the Mass was illegal.

In the generations between, where a few aristocratic families were still sympathetic to the old faith, pockets of Catholic “Recusants” survived on remote country estates. From time to time such families would be arraigned with severe fines. This provided a useful source of revenue to the British establishment.

With the coming of the industrial revolution, and in the wake of the terrible famine (1845-52) Catholics from Ireland made their way to the UK in great numbers. They offered a cheap source of labour especially for the construction of roads, railways and canals. The advancing fortunes of the British Empire also brought new opportunities. Catholic seamen were arriving in Greenwich from the continent and other parts of the world. Many died at the Seaman’s Hospital. A Catholic ministry to seamen had discreetly existed in the late 1700’s. Officially it remained illegal to construct a Catholic Church, but from 1793 an inconspicuous Chapel of St Mary was created at Park Vista (where the 1878 railway tunnel now sends trains under the Queen’s House). 

The Catholic Emancipation Acts of 1829 saw the beginnings of a formal Catholic restoration. Gradually, alongside the Anglican system and The Non-Conformist chapels, Catholicism was re-organized across the UK. The return of the old faith brought resentment in many quarters. Catholicism was portrayed as an unwelcome intrusion, a foreign religion, “The Italian Mission”. At the same time however, there was renewed interest in Catholic Faith even within the Church of England.

Our Ladye Star of the Sea is the oldest RC church in Southwark Archdiocese from that period. The two architects who built this church William Wardell (commenced 1845) & AWN Pugin (completed 1851) were both converts from the CofE. They had a vision to recreate English Catholic worship as it would have been known on the brink of the so called “Reformation”. (Hence the mediaeval spelling “Our Ladye”) Committed to “Gothic Revival” they were making a bold reminder to say that “Catholicism is more English than the English actually remember!”

A visit to this Church will reveal references to the story of Catholicism in England. Alban the first Martyr, St George, Augustine of Canterbury, The Venerable Bede, Edward the Confessor, King Edmund the Martyr, St Dunstan (who wrote the Coronation Rite) Thomas a’ Becket & Julian of Norwich.

Once upon a time this church was full of colour and richly embellished as Catholic churches were once known across the land. Time and the sad effects of inappropriate improvements have diminished the vision of the first founders. With your help we may begin to restore the dignity of this lovely place but more important is to restore the dignity and loveliness of those living stones who form the Body of Christ in this generation.

Step inside and be at peace with God and the Angels
The Lord is present in this place! 

In 1793, the small St. Mary’s chapel was opened on garden ground behind numbers 16-18 Park Vista, close to the eastern end of the Royal Hospital, later the Royal Naval College, and now partly Greenwich University. The majority of the congregation were Naval pensioners. From 1828, the priest of the Catholic “mission” was Fr. Richard North (1800-1860) and in 1845 he moved into 68 Crooms Hill – now the Presbytery (Grade II listed). He was determined to build a larger church for the growing number of Catholics in the surrounding areas, which included many poor Irish immigrants.

The architect was William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), who took his drawings with him to Australia in 1858, but copies have been obtained. The land for the new church was taken from the garden of the presbytery and the first turf was cut on 20 November 1846. Exactly three years to the day, the shell was completed when a 24 ft. gilded copper cross was hoisted into place on top of the spire. Funds were exhausted, despite Fr. North’s regular appeals in the Catholic press, stressing the spiritual needs of the heroes of Trafalgar. It took until December 1851 for the church to be fitted out. Fr. North reported that £14,000 had been spent on the building and the adjacent property, plus stabling on the other side of Crooms Hill – hence the width of the road. Not a bill remained unpaid largely thanks to the Knill family.

The Fabric
The exterior is of Kentish rag with Caen stone dressings, dominated by the tower over the top of the main entrance door. (This is at the geographical east of the church, so the high altar is at the west end, to allow optimum use of the constricted site. The usual ecclesiastical directions are used here, i.e. chancel at the E end with the Lady Chapel to the N of the sanctuary). The square W tower has three of the corner buttresses terminating in crocketted finials. The NE corner has a polygonal stone stair turret, topped with a spire and iron cross finial. At the top of the tower is an open stone tracery parapet, from which rises the 150 ft high spire in dressed stone. The staircase leads to a ringing chamber and above to the belfry. This holds a 13½ cwt. bell, ringing F sharp, made by Mears and Stainbank in 1867; it was overhauled as a Millennium project and is now rung electro-magnetically.

The aisle roofs are lean-to, exposing the clerestory windows of four foiled circles and triangles, irregularly spaced over the six bays of the nave. The roofs were recovered in Welsh slate and stonework at upper levels was restored with the help of an English Heritage/Lottery grant in 2001.

The Interior
After passing through the 40 ft. high entrance lobby, the eye is properly focussed beyond the Rood Screen into the chancel. With the High Altar and the E window of five lights (with Marian scenes), these three features are major elements of the Puginian flavour of the church. Wardell was an admirer of A.W.N. Pugin and the structure of his interior is an early 1300 English Decorated style. Pugin himself took over the design of many of the internal features, after he married Jane Knill; she was a cousin of a prominent family in the parish – which was to provide two Lord Mayors of London. Wardell designed the High Altar and the three frontal compartments have Our Lady seated centre with the Infant, with scenes of the Annunciation and Visitation on either side. Originally, this altar had a reredos comprised of 12 niches for statues of the apostles with larger niches on each side for figures of Our Lady and St. Joseph.

Pugin’s input is very evident elsewhere. He is known to have designed the altar and tabernacle in the S chapel of the Blessed Sacrament as well as the galvanised iron gates to this chapel which were manufactured by Hardman & Co. of Birmingham. The wagon roof of the chapel which springs from a beautifully carved wooden cornice was also designed by Pugin; the stencilled decoration was probably executed by Thomas Early. This cornice is decorated with phrases in Latin from the hymn Lauda Sion, and the cedar panels between the ribs and bosses have a stencilled decoration which is characteristic of Pugin’s work. There are also wagon roofs over the sanctuary and above the N Lady Chapel. The carved cornices in the chancel are again of considerable quality and the words are, appropriately, lines from the hymn Ave Maris Stella – sung in honour of Our Ladye Star of the Sea. The chancel also has a Puginian stone sedilia and piscina of note.

The Lady Chapel was initially dedicated to St. Joseph and until 1860 seems to have been used principally by the choir. In 1851 it had a small, manually pumped organ, which Gray and Davison had exhibited in the Crystal Palace Exhibition earlier that year. One of Fr. (by then Canon) North’s last decisions before his death, was to establish the N chapel for special devotion to Our Lady. The splendid stone reredos with the Blessed Virgin and angels is within a large arch, and given the Pugin family’s links with the Knills, may well have been designed by A.W.N. Pugin. Certainly, he designed the tombchest with the recumbent marble figure of Canon Richard North sculptured by William Farmer, which lies under the arch separating the Lady Chapel from the chancel. It is a work of very high standard. Canon Richard was followed by his brother Canon Joseph Edward N. (1808-1885) as the Rector of the parish and a memorial brass – also well worth seeing – is under the modern Sicilian marble altar, recording that their remains both lie under that spot. Apparently Richard’s coffin was reinterred to be alongside his brother.

The Victorian Rood Screen is a rare survival in a Catholic church. A description of the grand opening ceremony of the church mentions the Caen stone screen. In fact, there is some evidence that the screen was raised about 1860 to give a better view of the high altar. The elegant marble columns which are part of the screen may date from that time, since they are evidently not Caen stone. The gates to the chancel through the screen have been removed and it is thought that the present outer communion rails were later additions, since it would have been a slow process for many communicants to receive the Host through the arches of the chancel. Above the screen is the traditional group of Christ on the Cross, with His Mother Mary and St. Mary Magdalene on either side. The crucifix was carved in oak with the two lower figures being in stone and all are painted. On the wall above and to the sides of the chancel arch, Enrico Casolani painted a large mural of the Coronation of the Virgin which was much admired, though difficult to see without strong lighting. It appears to have been covered with panelling so that a lighter paint could be applied without obliterating the fresco. It is high on the list of further investigations into the history of the church. On the left hand side of the arch is an important stone statue of Our Lady Star of the Sea, in a large niche with a pinnacled canopy above. An expert describes it as magnificent and notes that it resembles similar sculptures in other churches by Pugin, eg Ramsgate, probably the work of Myers.

Alterations in the mid 1960s included the erection of the organ loft and confessional in pinewood, which seemed appropriate modernisation at the time. A suspended ceiling was erected under the nave roof to reduce heat loss, and was painted to match the cork flooring laid over the tiles beneath. Unfortunately, the same colour was applied to the roof panels in the chancel. They had previously been stencilled with B.V.M. monograms. Copies of Pugin’s tile patterns for the chancel and adjacent chapels have been found, and it is presumed that Minton tiles were laid throughout the nave and aisles.

Other noteworthy features in the church
These include the Sacred Heart chapel in the S aisle, built in 1891 by Canon O’Halloran; he stayed to complete 61 years’ service here, dying in 1921. It has a Gothic detailed reredos, a secondary cenotaph altar, and became a memorial chapel. Pugin is believed to have drawn the low, lectern style pulpit for Myers to create in stone. The Purbeck marble piers of the nave arches have simple capitals, but the corbels in nave and aisles were chiselled in Caen stone with heads of Pope Gregory, St. Augustine and Anglo-Saxon saints and kings, such as Ethelbert, Dunstan and Winifred. The Stations of the Cross are thought to be of the 1890s and from Belgium. There is a nice font in the Baptistery, enclosed by open stonework and wrought iron gates. A range of interesting stained glass includes the “very fine” E window, as well as other Victorian and modern glass of good quality.

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