This brief history of the Catholic Parish of Our Lady of Grace and St Edward resulted from a talk given by the author to the Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society in November 2006. It in no way pretends to cover every aspect of the parish’s development since its beginning in the middle of the 19th century but rather to present a flavour of its part in the local community over the ensuing years.
When the Chiswick Catholic ‘Mission’ (there were at that time no Roman Catholic ‘parishes’ only ‘missions’) was founded in 1848, Turnham Green was still a rural village. It remained so until the beginning of the 20th century when gradually it developed into a suburban outpost of Greater London. The historian, Nicholas Rodger, writing about Turnham Green, noted that in the mid-19th century, in spite of its nearness to London and the considerable number of the well-to-do who had houses in the area, the district was still largely rural. It was an area of orchards and market gardens. It was probably because of this agricultural economy that many Irishmen, fleeing from starvation in their native land, arrived in Chiswick leading to the establishment of the Mission in 1848 by Fathers Bath and O’Keefe from Hammersmith.
The first Mass Centre was the private chapel of the Selby family who lived at Springfield House, Horn Lane, Acton, but when the last of the Selbys died shortly after 1848 the principal Mass Centre became Turnham Green. Father John Clark, who took over as incumbent in 1851, registered the church as ‘Catholic Chapel’ noting that it had existed since 1848. Father Bonus, his successor, who took charge of the ‘Mission’ in 1852, re-registered it in 1855 as ‘St Mary’s Chapel (Roman Catholic) at Windmill Place (now Windmill Road)’. It had formerly been a carpenter’s workshop and doubled up as a chapel and schoolroom.
There was no doubt that the Turnham Green ‘Mission’ was one of the poorest in the diocese with few parishioners having the means to sustain it. Cardinal Wiseman (Archbishop of Westminster) writing on 16 July 1863 in an appeal for funds noted that:
The Catholic population of this Mission of Turnham Green consists of about 1,000 of the very poorest of Irish labourers. The temporary chapel in which for the last 12 years they have been able to receive the Sacrament was formerly used as a Carpenter’s Workshop.
Where the figure of 1,000 was plucked from is not clear but he was almost certainly including areas beyond Chiswick.
In 1864 the first proper Catholic church was completed on part of the present site at the corner of Dukes Avenue and Chiswick High Road, together with a neighbouring house as a Presbytery. It was variously described as ‘a pretty little red tiled building set among the trees’ whilst another publication waxed lyrical about the ‘impressive and real effect of this beautiful church’. On the other hand one early parish priest thought it a ‘small building of nondescript architecture’. The Duke of Devonshire had donated the ‘munificent’ sum of £50 to the building of the new church, and may also have given the land on which it was built.
The new church
Although in 1883 the Catholic population was reckoned to be no more than 800, the then parish priest, Father Reginald Tuke, decided that a larger and grander church was required. He needed more land, however, and acquired it by straightforwardly asking the 7th Duke of Devonshire, who was the landowner, for it. The Duke replied in a personal, handwritten letter dated 4 March 1885:
I have made some enquiries that appeared to me necessary respecting your application for additional land for the enlargement of the Roman Catholic Church at Turnham Green and I shall be happy to give you the land required for the purpose on condition that the plan for the building is submitted to me for approval.
I remain Sir
Your Obedient Servant,
The last Mass was celebrated in the old church on the first Sunday of 1886; the church was promptly demolished and the first Mass in the new church was celebrated on the 14th Sunday after Whitsun – a period of only some ten months after the demolition of the old. Cardinal Manning (Archbishop of Westminster) formally opened the church with a service of great splendour on the Feast of St Edward the Confessor in 1886. It is not clear why St Edward became the church’s second patron but it is a fair assumption that it was because the opening ceremony took place on his feast day.
The church was designed in the Roman Basilica style by the architects Kelly and Adams at an estimated cost of £4,386, excluding the tower. One commentator observed that ‘though it lacks the wealth of marble, it reminds one in many ways of an Oratory Church’. Indeed, the original High Altar, of which part is still retained, came from the old Brompton Oratory. Over the High Altar hung a large painting showing ‘The Holy Family overshadowed by God the Father and God the Holy Ghost’ – a fine copy of Murillo’s painting in the National Gallery. A president of the Gallery stated that it was the most perfect copy he had ever seen. In these less elaborate times, that painting has long since been replaced by the crucifix, a gift from a now deceased parishioner. The Stations of the Cross are a striking artistic feature of the church. They are oil painted copies of those in Antwerp Cathedral.
A magnificent tower had been planned for the church but presumably on the grounds of cost it was decided not to proceed. The tower was added in 1930 as a memorial to those who died in the Great War. There were also crosses standing at the North and South ends of the roof. One disappeared, presumably following the air raid in 1944, but the North Cross remained until the 1970s when it had to be dismantled for safety reasons. Both plinths can still be seen.
The church has twice been damaged by air raids. In 1917, during the First World War, the local press reported ‘there was an exciting scene at a Roman Catholic church’. Apparently a number of women and children were sheltering in the church when a missile shot through the roof and embedded itself in the floor, scattering the wood blocks and knocking two wheels off a perambulator. Fortunately no-one was hurt. Even a foolish curate avoided injury whilst trying to extricate the unexploded missile. As Rodger records, the building of the new church in 1886 ‘like the old, came with a heavy debt, and the ceaseless efforts to extinguish it fill much of the correspondence of those years’. Father John Keating (parish priest 1899-1906) died in harness in 1906, and the stress of paying off the debt may well have been a contributory factor to his early death.
Father Keating was succeeded in 1906 by Father (later Canon) Egan (1906-1930) a formidable no-nonsense man who inherited a pretty ramshackle administrative set up, being pressed on all sides by creditors. But Egan had other problems on his mind during the period of the Great War. Apart from the minor matter of the missile that struck the church in 1917 he had the problems of the staffing of Turnham Green RC School (St Mary’s) then located in Acton Lane. It is worth pointing out that the School, staffing etc have proved a headache to successive parish priests. But the School has always been an integral part of the parish and looms large in the parish history to the present day.
The inter-war years
There were two particular matters on Father Egan’s mind after the First World War. In 1923 he tried to trace the original church plans for the tower but the architects, by then Kelly & Symon, could not find them. In 1925 Father Egan emphasized that because of economic circumstances he was not thinking of building the tower yet, but wanted to have an idea of what it might look like. He also entertained buying No 2 Kings Row (the property adjacent to the original presbytery), but made offers so risible that the agents did not even consider them worth passing on to the owners.
Father Egan was succeeded by Father (later Canon) Tubbs. He established himself immediately. First of all he erected the Tower in 1930 in hon-our of those who had lost their lives in the Great War; it was lauded in the local press as a ‘beautiful tower’. It had been built to the drawings of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott R A, the architect of the Anglican Liverpool Cathedral. Secondly he managed by sleight of hand to purchase No 2 Kings Row so that Nos 1 & 2 became the combined Presbytery, 247 High Road. It may be of interest to note that part of what is now the Barley Mow Centre was at one time the site of the workshops and stables of No 2 Kings Row.
Father Tubbs was succeeded by Father John O’Brien in 1936, a retiring, shy, academic man who had spent many years as a tutor at St Edmund’s Ware, the diocesan seminary. His short time in Chiswick, cut short by his untimely death, was marked by his decision to build a Parish Hall, which he did on a site which had been purchased adjacent to Chiswick Back Common, where Homecross House now stands. The Hall was completed in 1940. For pre-World War II it was a state of the art building – stage, ballroom, projector room – but no sooner had it been built than it was requisitiorequisitioned by the Government as a British Restaurant.
World War II
Father (later Canon) Long took over the parish the day after war with Germany was declared in September 1939. He inherited the enormous debt of £10,000 which came with the new Hall and lament¬ed his lot. In an early letter, Cardinal Hinsley hoped Long was settling down and sent his blessings. He, the Cardinal, also added that there would be no Midnight masses at any churches at Christmas because of the night-time blackout.
But that was as nothing compared to the shock that was in store at the back end of the war. On 19 February 1944, a second bomb, far more serious than that of 1917, hit the church. It fell in Dukes Avenue alongside the church, severely damaging both it and the Presbytery. Rodger describes the scene, ‘although it was the middle of the night, parishioners were soon on hand clearing up debris in the church by the light of the burning gas main, and at 11 o’clock the next morning a Nuptial Mass was celebrated in the half-ruined church’. The western aisle of the church was walled off and remained in use for Mass despite the damage. In the meantime, following the bomb, Bolton Cottage, a house in Grove Park which Father Long had acquired on lease in 1943 as a Chapel of Ease, was purchased with the timely help of a gift of £500 from Cardinal Griffin. St Joseph’s Church was built on land adjoining Bolton Cottage in 1959.
In 1953 Father William Wood (1953-1976) took over a parish that had long been in need of post-war fresh thinking. Father Wood had a daunting task on his hands. The church had to be rebuilt; the St Mary’s school buildings in Acton Lane were in a desperate condition, the Parish Hall had to be re¬established and the question of Grove Park and its relationship with Our Lady of Grace had to be resolved. To Father Wood’s great credit, on induction he set about restoring the church. To his chagrin St Joseph’s Grove Park was made a church in its own right in 1964 with its own parish priest.
Father Wood had also recognised that there was a need for a more modern and more central Parish Centre to replace the old. As a cautious man Father Wood could not bring himself to give the go-ahead for a new centre to be built on the old Express Dairy site (where the present Centre stands). That was left to his successor Father (later Canon) Peter Gilburt. Father Gilburt not only oversaw the building of the Parish Centre (opened in 1980) but the complete updating and renovation of the Presbytery.
In 2004, Monsignor James Curry, the present parish priest, led the celebration of the centenary of the consecration of the church in 1904, some 18 years after its opening, because a Roman Catholic church is only formally consecrated after all debts on the building have been paid. The festivities included a grand party, appropriately in Chiswick House, and a solemn Mass celebrated by the current Archbishop, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
The story continues and reflects the changing demography of the area. The strong Irish connection remains together with the ever-increasing ethnic diversity.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commemorative Brochure to celebrate the opening of the Parish Centre (1980)
Parish Magazines, edited by John Whelan, 1990s
Chiswick by Warwick Draper, 1923, revised edition 1973
London Catholic Churches by A. Rottman, 1926
The Brentford and Chiswick Times
For this article I am indebted for the help I have received from Mgr James Curry (for the use of the archives), Canon Peter Gilburt, Carolyn Hammond (particularly for her invaluable editing of the text), the many parishioners who have contributed and above all Nicholas Rodger who permitted me to use and quote from his work.
Gilbert Hughes has been a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace for nearly 40 years. He was Parish Choirmaster for over nine years and subsequently Master of Ceremonies. Retiring as a senior civil servant, he has been involved as a Governor at Gunnersbury Catholic School, and is currently Chair of the Hounslow Schools Forum. His interests include local history and he is currently writing a full history of the Parish from 1848 to the present day to be published in 2008.