5 Post-war Churches That Broke the Mould

Gareth Powell, our Enriching the List Officer, explores some of England’s most innovative 20th century churches.

The post-war era saw an architectural breakthrough in churches, with a clear shift in design and the materials that were used.

Here are five examples that paved the way for how churches were built, and that helped form a stronger sense of community for those attending.

Our Lady and the First Martyrs, Bradford

Interior of Our Lady and the First Martyrs church, Bradford
Our Lady and the First Martyrs, Bradford © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP032931

On the continent, radical ideas were gaining currency in the interwar years, with innovative designs using modern forms and materials, often placing the altar among the people.

England was more conservative, but some churches were notable for their liturgical innovation.

Our Lady and the First Martyrs in Bradford was built in 1934-5 from designs by architects Langtry-Langton. Whilst the exterior of the church is fairly conservative, inside it was pioneering – the first centrally-planned Catholic church in England.

St Monica, Bootle

Exterior of St Monica's Church, Fernhill Road, Bootle
St Monica’s Church, Fernhill Road, Bootle © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP234525

Architect Francis Xavier Velarde’s church of St Monica in Bootle, built about the same time as the First Martyrs, is even more modern in its architectural design.

A temporary church first opened on the site in 1923 but after the parish outgrew it, fundraising started for a permanent replacement. In 1935 the foundation stone for St Monica was laid and the church was finished in 1936.

St Monica is inspired by the brick expressionist churches of Dominikus Bohm in Germany, and was built by LH and R Roberts of Islington. The tower features a sculpture by Herbert Tyson Smith.

The art and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described St Monica’s as ‘an epoch-making church of England’.

Our Lady of Fátima, Harlow

Interior of Our Lady of Fatima church, Howard Way, Harlow
Our Lady of Fatima, Howard Way, Harlow © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP158593

When church building started up again after the Second World War, it was largely just a repeat of what was done before the war: longitudinally planned churches with a large high altar at the east end, side altars, and a baptistery at the west end.

Among the first to break away from the traditional format was architect Gerard Goalen, whose church Our Lady of Fatima is T-shaped on the plan, with the sanctuary at the central crossing.

The dale de verre stained glass by Dom Charles Norris was the first commission for such windows in Britain. The church was extremely influential and led to Goalen setting up in private practice designing Roman Catholic churches and schools across England.

Our Lady Help of Christians, Birmingham

Exterior of Our Lady Help of Christians church, East Meadway, Birmingham
Our Lady Help of Christians, East Meadway, Birmingham © Historic England

Architect Richard Gilbert Scott’s church Our Lady Help of Christians bears a resemblance to Gerard Goalen’s design at Harlow – also on a T-plan and containing large areas of coloured glass.

Scott’s aim was to instil the church with the sense of Gothic found in his father Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s works, but using modern ideas and materials.

The church of Our Lady is one of several churches commissioned in the 1960s by the Diocese, built to serve the newly created suburbs of Birmingham and to accommodate the new liturgical thinking that was emerging at the time.

The church was Scott’s second church and the first he built entirely to his own designs and to a central plan.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool

Exterior of Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ The King, Liverpool, Merseyside
Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ The King, Liverpool, Merseyside © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP030808

The Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral embraced modernity and rejected the triumphalism of pre-war church design.

The cathedral was built in conjunction with the Vatican council ordering that changes needed to be made in the way that the Christian faith was practised, with a desire for more conscious and active participation of the liturgy.

Following this, in 1967 new regulations allowed for the placing of the tabernacle in places other than on the altar allowed the priest to say Mass while facing the congregation.

The Catholic community in Merseyside helped with raising funds to have the Cathedral built, with milk bottle tops collected and donated. When the cathedral was completed, a book with the names of those who helped raise funds was put on display.

What have we missed? Let us know your favourite post-war churches in the comments below.

If you’d like to learn more, check out our publication 19th and 20th century Roman Catholic Churches. Order a copy here.

Further reading:

10 responses to 5 Post-war Churches That Broke the Mould

  1. Louise Keating says:

    Someone’s geography is pretty poor- Harlow is not in London!

  2. Jackie Spreckley says:

    Not ugly at all, they’re stunnng!

  3. Ray Bird says:

    Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Any visit to this lovely Cathedral should include an exploration of its extensive gothic undercroft. This forms the first and only part of Edwin Lutyens’ gigantic scheme.

    Not sure why Basil Spence’s superlative scheme at Coventry – arguably Britain’s foremost modern ecclesiastical building – has been excluded from this very interesting resume.

  4. Great blog, these are fantastic – I love post-war modernist churches. You did miss both of the Basil Spence churches in Sheffield and you could add Coventry Cathedral (the most fantastic building in the country). Post-war modernist churches are always worth exploring for the modernist fixtures and fittings, and stained glass as well.

  5. Thank you very interesting. I’m also a fan of Coventry cathedral. Like Liverpool it has beautiful modern stained glass

  6. Lindsey Russell says:

    You missed Guildford Cathedral.
    Certainly a handsome building but falls short of being beautiful.

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