A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Tewkesbury

The Story of a Building  – From Telephone Exchange to Catholic Church

By Richard Barton (November 2005)

On Thursday, 6th October 1977, an important event took place in the history of St Joseph’s Parish, Tewkesbury, Bishop Mervyn Alexander came for the ‘Opening and Blessing of the New Church in honour of St Joseph in Chance Street, Tewkesbury’. Bryan Little later wrote of the occasion in the magazine ‘Gloucestershire and Avon Life (February 1978):

‘For the first time, Roman Catholics in Tewkesbury have found a convenient place of worship near the centre of the town. Their new church, dedicated to St Joseph, like its predecessor, has been fitted out in a neat little building first designed as a telephone exchange, and as the Bishop of Clifton, aptly remarked at the opening Mass recently, the parishioners, some 500 all told, can now truly feel themselves to be on a “hot line to Heaven”.’

The brochure for the occasion reminded worshippers of the following details:

‘The new church in Chance Street will now replace the old St. Joseph’s on The Mythe, after 107 years as Tewkesbury’s centre of Catholic worship. The old church was opened on 19th March 1870 with a service of consecration “largely attended by the Catholic gentry of the neighbourhood and the surrounding town” according to the Tewkesbury Register. It had been built at the expenses of the Marquis de Lys, who had lived in Mythe House since 1863, and represented the conversion of a tumbledown block of stabling belonging to one of the houses on Marquis’s estate. As much of the old building as possible was retained, with the addition of windows, niches and buttresses in the Gothic taste then fashionable. The interior arrangements were plain, for the time, with a boarded floor, open benches and, initially, no stained glass. The roof of the building was raised, a vestry added, and a gallery and staircase constructed at the West End for organ and choir. “The result of the labour expended” wrote the Register’s correspondent “is that what was recently a dilapidated block of stabling is now a substantial and neat looking place of worship”. We hope that he would say the same for our converted telephone exchange.’

Tewkes 1

Plans for this move from the Mythe to Chance Street was the result of a number of contributory factors. In recent years the little church had become too small for a growing congregation; it was too remote from the centre of Tewkesbury and some of the new housing areas and the Mass centres that had been established at the Link Centre and at Northway were fragmenting parish life. Secondly, the parking facilities were seriously inadequate and vehicular manoeuvres were treacherous on the then   busy A38, which adjoined the property. Thirdly, in 1952 the Diocese had purchased a site in Chance Street for a total of £1100. The need for a new, more central building was evident, and it was hoped that construction would begin as soon as funds allowed. Christine Collins, writing in 1994, referred to this purchase as ‘a bequest of land’.

Bryan Little wrote in his article of 1978:

‘More recently, however, the opportunity came for a church far less costly than a wholly new building. The Post Office decided to replace its exchange, on a site next to the land bought by the Catholic authorities, by a larger and more modern building a few hundred yards away. Now the old exchange, with suitable alterations, has blossomed as the second St Joseph’s.’

It has been said that various organisations were interested in purchasing the building including Holy Trinity Church, which hoped to acquire it as a church hall, but only the Catholic Church had a realistic hope, as it owned the adjoining land.

In 1921, one of our most senior parishioners, Almer Page, moved to 20 Chance Street, then called 2 Willow Cottages. He remembers the church site well recalling the old Barnes, Richardson and Russell’s Almshouses, which stood across the alleyway on the land now occupied by Spring Gardens. Beyond were railway sheds and the railway line down to Healings Mill. Behind the present Presbytery was the firm of Thomas Walker, which made fairground equipment and Almer remembers the children testing out the rides! A pathway led down the side of the present church to these premises.

If one had visited the site of the church during the 1920s and 30s it would have been largely taken up with gardens or allotments owned by Mr Walker. Almer Page and a few others cultivated these gardens and it was said that the soil was very rich indeed. Almer believes that the iron railings along the church boundary were probably erected when the market was established.

In 1922 Mr Walker removed a pair of entrance gates and erected on their site a tiled timber garage for his car, incorporating some old bricks that had been left over when Almer had re-erected the garden wall of No. 20. Originally the doors of this garage opened on to Chance Street. During the 1930s Mr Frederick Charles Cook, the Confectioner of 5 Chance Street parked his car here. Between the garage and the present entrance gates was a blacksmith’s shop, which was run during the late 1930s by John James Whiteley and Son of 1 and 2, Rope Walk.

In 1938 the Post Office erected the telephone exchange. It was constructed by Messrs. Collins and Godfrey the well-known Tewkesbury builders of the Cross, who had premises then at the back of the Avon boat yard. At the time of its construction, the doors were at the Presbytery end, there were fewer windows in the sides and none facing on to the street. The construction was of rendered brick with deep parapets and best quality Westmoreland slates.

Bryan Little wrote:

‘The rectangular building, of stone and with a peaked roof and four casement windows on each side, dates from 1938. Post Office specifications are high, and the Tewkesbury exchange was sturdily built, with a good-quality floor, obviously of great strength, to support heavy equipment. Maintenance costs, after renovation, should not be high.’

Almer Page recalls that the telephone engineer lodged with his mother at No 20 and on one occasion he allowed Almer to enter the old telephone exchange. He remembers seeing the metal framework and the coils built on racks.

On 9th July 1975 the Clifton Diocesan Finance Committee agreed to the purchase of the G.P.O. site for the sum of £10,050. At the same time the committee approved taking up the loan offered by the Van Neste Foundation for £15,000 interest free, for a period of five years. The minute of the meeting continued:

‘In view of current assets of the parish only allowing approximately £750.00 for repayments, the Committee made it a condition that two years repayment of £3,000 p.a. shall always be kept in hand at least until the sale of the Mythe property alleviates this problem and guarantees regular debt servicing without prejudice to other committees.’

On 22nd May 1976 Fr House, the Diocesan Finance Secretary, was able to write to Fr Larkin, the Parish Priest, informing him that £1,000 had been paid on deposit for the purchase of the G.P.O. Building in Chance Street and that the Van Neste Foundation had loaned £9,045. Bryan Little wrote in his magazine article:

‘The architects for the recent conversion were George Mather (sic) Associates of Cheltenham. The altar, and some of the fittings, were made at Prinknash Abbey, but some other furnishings were moved from the church at the Mythe. It seems a pity, though, that the bell which still hangs at the Mythe could not have made the journey too, to the more convenient and spacious new building.’

The architect, George Mathers, considered the building to be a substantial brick structure with steel framed roof and as well detailed and built to a high standard.

The transformation from telephone exchange to Catholic Church involved major building work which including the installation of new door and windows and also the construction of a covered way at the West End to protect the entrance from wind and rain.

Winefride Hopkins wrote to Fr Larkin from the Bishop’s residence on 7th December 1976 saying:

‘I have recently made the third payment to the Builders and this makes a total of £7,110.00 which exceeds the loan received from the Van Neste, by £5,955.00. I should be most grateful, therefore if you could send me a cheque to get me ‘out of the red’ and to be ready for the next bill. By the way the Builders when sending their last claim for the third instalment mentioned that they would “do all they could to ensure the church is completed for 17th December 1976.” I am sure you will be very glad to have the church in use.’

Furnishings from the former Church included two fine nineteenth century plaster statues – Our Lady and the Sacred Heart – both bear the trademark of Mayer & Co of Munich. The statue of the Sacred Heart has lost a finger and is awaiting restoration.

A statement of accounts dated 24th October 1978 reveals that £14,820 was released from the sale of the Mythe property. The diocese used the firm of Stanley, Alder and Price in its property dealings but Fr Larkin and later Fr McCarthy raised disquiet over the small price obtained in the sale. After the Mythe property had been sold Fr Larkin lived in various local cottages, including one of the ancient timber framed houses adjoining the John Moore Museum.

The move from the Mythe to Chance Street had all gone fairly smoothly and now the next phase of the scheme was unveiled. Christine Collins wrote in her article:

‘With the former exchange and the land adjoining there was sufficient space for a bungalow to be built and to give the required amount of car park space necessary in order for planning permission to be granted.’

On 4th April 1978 an Agreement was signed between the local builder Ray Pitt of 2, Bredon Road, Tewkesbury and the Diocese of Clifton for the construction of a detached bungalow, together with all drainage and site works. The cost was to be £17,840-61 and the work was to be carried out between 5th April and 30th September 1978. The architect, Peter Wolstenhulme and Partners of Gloucester drew up plans, dated 14th October 1977, for the Diocese.

Within a year of the new church being opened and before the presbytery was even completed Fr Larkin had left the parish to be replaced by Fr Stirrat. Fortunately John Turner had carried out much of the negotiations between the parish, diocese and the builder so there was an easy transition. Ted Farrell, the Assistant Diocesan Financial Secretary, wrote these encouraging words to John Turner on 15th November 1978:

‘I understand from Father that he hopes to move into the bungalow this coming weekend. No doubt I will have some conversations with him regarding the finishing touches. I must say how much I appreciate the interest you have taken in supervising the work and hope that Fr. Stirrat will share this.’

The bungalow was to cost the parish £18,164 including the architect’s fees. At the time the parish still owed £500 for pews and £1,500 was still owed for furniture. Ted Farrell commented in a letter to Father Stirrat:

‘This will leave you with a short-fall of about £3,500, which it has been agreed will be lent, Interest Free, to the Parish by the Diocese. Re-Payments will commence in 1982 when you have eliminated the Van Neste Foundation loan.’

During April Peter1979 the Borough Council was reminding Fr Stirrat of the landscaping scheme for the site which had been agreed back in March 1976 as part of the planning consent. In this letter Fr Stirrat was also being urged to get on and remove the old garage. In fact the diocese had urged him to ‘use the existing garage if only as a temporary measure’ because the proposed new garage ‘might spoil the site for further development if it was built where we originally thought’. Paddy Walsh, a parishioner, carried out much of the groundwork around the church. However, the old garage is still awaiting demolition!

Shortly after Fr McCarthy arrived in the parish in 1980 he received a cheque for £237.90 from the Poor Missions Fund to cover the cost of the new furniture that he had bought for the Presbytery. Ted Farrell explained to Fr McCarthy that ‘the small sum allocated to Fr. Stirrat when he moved into the new bungalow was as a check against any extravagance on his part’!

As early as March 1981 the minutes of Parish Meetings reveal much anxiety regarding the general state of the church building. On this occasion we read the following:

‘Church Ceiling: The question of its appearance, and the loss of heat up there, was brought up by Father. Mr Hill has seen an architect who will come and have a look. We were asked for ideas to improve the situation. Mr Russell suggested a scheme with partitions and a stained glass window. A false ceiling would make the remaining space quicker, and more economical to heat, but against this was the fact that, when the Church is crowded, there would be very little air space’

Discussion continued at the September meeting when a proposal was made to lift the iron structure of the roof by four feet so that it would be less noticeable whilst the earlier proposal of actually filling in the ceiling was effectively abandoned. In the end the girders were simply painted! A year later Father McCarthy was expressing concern about the damp walls and in February 1983 it was reported that a surveyor had been called in to examine the walls and it was thought that the damp had been caused by faulty drains. During later years much thought and action was given to eliminating water leaks and discussion has continued on this subject to the present day. This discussion was followed up in 1987 when nearly £1500 was spent on inserting a damp proof course under the copings and addressing internal damp and cracks at the east end of the church. The builder Dave Heeks of Twyning, under the supervision of the architect, Peter Finnigan, was responsible for carrying out this work. During 1988 Messrs T.W. Fisher, builders carried out £1148 worth of work on internal and external plastering, rendering and paintwork.

Having successfully moved into the new church and presbytery the parish council started to explore ways of improving facilities. At a Parish Meeting in April 1983 it was reported that a parishioner, Mr Reginald Taylor (1914-2001), ‘had done some clear drawings to illustrate the proposed extension’ to the porch. It was resolved that Mr Finnigan, an architect in the parish, be asked to draw up some plans, and two or three builders were to be approached for estimates. In July 1985 the scheme was drawn up by Peter Finnigan, the Tewkesbury architect, to enlarge the entrance lobby of the church and the specification duly went out to tender. The Committee resolved to proceed with the project regardless of the cost even though some members felt a degree of reservation because the parish still owed £4,000 for the bungalow. In the event permission was given by the diocese to go ahead and ‘The Annexe’ soon became a reality.

By January 1986 it was realised that approximately £13,000 had been spent on the Annexe. A report for the Parish Council was received from Mr H.G. Benyon, the treasurer, who revealed that in April 1985 £3,438 had been paid to the Diocese to clear the debt on the bungalow. In addition in December 1985 £6,769.67 was paid to the builders as the first instalment on the cost of the porch and in January 1986 a further £4,850.87 was paid as the second instalment. At that time he stated that a final instalment would be due when all the business was completed.

During Fr McCarthy’s tenure as parish priest a major development was the installation of set of coloured glass windows in the church. As early as 1983 a pair of coloured glass windows was installed in the sanctuary for the cost of £600; the total cost being covered by donations. The rather abstract designs included first a pneumatic symbol of a dove descending and secondly a christological symbol of the cross set against the rising sun. On July 27th 1990 Bishop Mervyn Alexander came to St Joseph’s to bless four further windows in the nave that had been glazed with modern coloured glass depicting religious letters and symbols. These windows were installed on 27th February 1990 and cost £4,153. Mike Honour of Northwick Business Park, Moreton-in-Marsh, carried out all this work.

At the same time that the new windows were blessed Bishop Mervyn also re-hallowed the Pearce-Serocold window, which had been installed in the north wall of the Annexe or Narthex. The return of this Victorian window attracted quite a lot of media attention and the Gloucestershire Echo reported on 31st July 1990:

‘Victorian Window back at St Joseph’s – Church team reach target. Church leaders in Tewkesbury celebrated the return of the 19th century stained glass windows left behind when they sold up and moved thirteen years ago. Parishioners of St Joseph’s thought they had lost their windows for good but when Catholic historian Les (sic) Hough explained their plight to the new owner, who is converting the old church into two houses, he agreed to sell them for a nominal fee.

The church team have (sic) spent the last year raising £8,500 needed for restoration and to transfer them from the Mythe to their new church in Chance Street, which is a converted telephone exchange.

Mr Hough, chairman (sic) of the Gloucestershire and North Avon Catholic History Society, explained: “The new owner, Mr Peter Vose, was very interested and touched by the story.”

The windows which show the moment the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary she was to be the mother of Jesus, were given to the church by Mrs Amelie Pearce-Serocold, of Forthampton, in 1888, in memory of her husband, Walter.’

Lez Hough managed to track down Walter Pearce-Serocold, a descendent of the family who attended the re-hallowing and Lez also traced the existence of the cartoon of the window in the archives of the original manufacturers, Hardmans of Birmingham. He discovered that the cost of the window, installation, transportation, workmen’s wages, etc. in 1888 was £42.

The idea of moving the window was first mooted in June 1989 when Lez Hough approached Fr McCarthy and, as a result of this meeting, was asked to address the Parish Council. The members supported the project and the Annunciation window was removed from the Mythe in July and fitted into St Joseph’s on 24th January 1990 for the sum of £3,061. Mike Honour again carried out the project. It involved the creation of a wooden frame in the Narthex to hold the pair of Victorian stained glass lights together with four other lights containing modern coloured glass, which were arranged on either side. The upper Victorian quatrefoil, depicting a lily crucifix, was set in another wooden frame within a new round window, which was cut into the north wall of the Narthex. Although the original window had been split up and two of the windows were now at low level at least the parishioners could say that it had come home.

Chairman of the Parish Council, Major John O’Rourke, oversaw the project and he later said: “Next to the move this is the most important thing which has happened to the church.” The total cost for this glazing work at St Joseph’s was offset by generous donations and fundraising by parishioners amounted to £5,460.

At about this time Bernard Arnold painted a Eucharistic panel which was attached to the front of the Altar but this has since been placed above the Credence. The Tabernacle was also moved to a new position behind the altar having previously stood on the platform now occupied by the sedilia.

In 1991 Fr McCarthy left the parish and was replaced by Dr Michael Saunders who immediately set into motion plans to enhance the Church and the adjoining presbytery.

In February 1993 the architect, George Mathers, was invited to produce plans to increase the accommodation of the church from 108 to 200, utilising the existing structure but extending it side-ways into the car park so that seating could be ‘in the round’. Parishioners suggested that a hall be provided on an upper floor level but George Mathers considered this to be an expensive solution and urged the cheaper option of building a single-storey parish hall elsewhere on the site. He placed an approximate price tag of £200,000 for this scheme.

In the event it was decided not to proceed with these plans so Dr Saunders concentrated his efforts on enhancing the church, using the services of Ormsbys Ltd of Scarisbrick in Lancashire. This company provided a mural for the wall of the Sanctuary, a tympanum created out of leaded coloured glass above the altar and various new sanctuary furnishings.

As early as March 1992 Dr Saunders was writing; ‘as you know, the sanctuary area of the Church is presently painted in yellow emulsion. The wall behind the altar needs some feature to remove the blandness of the view from the pews… I favour the idea of a religious mural.’ The mural on the wall of the Sanctuary was actually designed by Paul Melia of Ormsbys in different textured Viero plasters including Visoplast, Ceramitz and Graniplast and the commission cost £2,467.50. The concept was inspired by a similar mural which had been commissioned by the Ursuline sisters for one of their convent chapels. Whilst the texture of the Tewkesbury mural has been retained the colour scheme has actually been altered in recent years.

The coloured glass panels, erected in the roof supports in front of the altar, were installed in October 1995. This glazed tympanum was blessed at a Mass concelebrated by Bishop Mervyn Alexander, on 23rd March 1996 in the presence of the Town Mayor of Tewkesbury and other officials. The glass represents the seven sacraments, each triangular panel depicting one sacrament with two large central panels together representing the Eucharist. From the left to right the panels show Matrimony, Penance, Confirmation, Eucharist, Baptism, Anointing of the Sick and Holy Orders. The work was carried out by Ormsbys Ltd and cost £11,639.65. An alternative scheme by Sister Bernadette Mewburn Crook of Isleworth, which would have involved placing two panels in each of the five ceiling trusses, reached an advanced stage before it was finally rejected.

During Dr Saunders’ sojourn as Parish Priest other furnishings were provided for the church including a new paschal candle stand and a processional cross – purchased from Ormsbys at a total cost of £1,150. New benches and other items were also planned and during 1992 the Stations of the Cross were acquired for the parish from the chapel of St Angela’s Ursuline Convent at Forest Gate. They are very finely carved wooden stations, possibly from Oberammergau, and the oak cross for Station VII was missing so a replica was carved by Trophy Woodwork of Tewkesbury for the princely sum of £64.

During this period research was undertaken into a suggestion that during medieval times the Abbey had been the focus of a specific Marian devotion. As a result consideration was given to commissioning a new statue of ‘Our Lady of Tewkesbury’, for St Joseph’s, modelled upon the medieval Abbey seal. It was eventually decided that the evidence for such devotion was unsubstantiated so the plan for the new statue was not pursued. However, the present fibre-glass statue of St Joseph was acquired at this time to replace a plaster statue of St Joseph which had been sent away for restoration and was lost by the painter.

In 1996 Fr Tom Lane succeeded Dr Saunders and, after a year, Fr Michael Fountaine in turn replaced him. From February 1999 until his departure in 2004 he pursued an exciting scheme to build a new church on a site at Mitton. Within this scheme was a plan to demolish the present church and, as a result, the site would have been re-developed. The architect, Simon Radford of Cheltenham, produced plans for the erection of twelve town houses, which received the necessary planning permission. An archaeological investigation was carried out in November 2001 and the report revealed little of interest concluding that ‘any potential for surviving evidence was destroyed during the erection of the telephone exchange and the subsequent conversion to a Church with associated construction of the bungalow’. During the years that Fr Fountaine was Parish Priest the church in Chance Street was re-seated, the interior was redecorated and a new organ, a Christmas Crib and carpeting were all provided.

In September 2004 I was appointed Parish Priest and the parish was faced with an agonising decision – whether to proceed with the plan for a new church or to remain in Chance Street and refurbish the existing property. Alan Price of O’Brien and Price, Consulting Civil & Structural Engineers of Stroud undertook a structural survey in November 2004 and his report was generally favourable. A plan was also drawn up by an architect, Tony Thompson of the Falconer Partnership for a complete makeover for the building. In the event it was decided to stay put and since then the church has been re-slated, insulated and re-rendered as part of a phased restoration. Plans are also well under way to landscape the grounds providing new railings and gates, removing trees, replacing the old garage and possibly re-building the Narthex as a more useful facility. The Falconer Partnership of Stroud is overseeing the whole refurbishment in conjunction with John Hall, a retired builder who is also a parishioner.

All these developments have only been possible as a result of the immense generosity of those who have given their money, time and talents to finance the works mentioned above. We are indebted to generations of Catholics who have given sacrificially so that we have a place of worship today and we must never forget their commitment. St Joseph’s Church has seen many changes during the last sixty-seven years and we hope that it will serve the Catholic community in Tewkesbury for many years to come. Deo Optimo Maximo.



Journal of the Gloucestershire and North Avon Catholic History Society, Winter 1990, Issue No. 16

Lez Hough

Mythe 13

Mythe 14

Mythe 15Mythe 16


by Margaret Harcourt Williams

I have just read your article on St Joseph’s in the recent Gloucestershire Catholic History Society journal, in which you mention my father, Bernard Arnold. He did the Eucharistic panel in the late 1970s and was asked to do it by Father Larkin as an ornament for the new church. I have a draft version of it and always look for your finished version when I come to Mass in St Joseph’s.

My father worked for H.H. Martyns, the Cheltenham architectural decoration company, between the two world wars and was responsible for designing a number of war memorials, among other things. After the war he taught at the Birmingham School of Art for many years as well as painting and he returned to live in Tewkesbury in 1967.

I remember when he returned to Tewkesbury in 1967 he became quite friendly with Father Larkin and was involved, probably informally, in the discussions on moving from the Mythe. As I said, Father Larkin asked him to do the Eucharistic panel but I don’t think my father was entirely satisfied with it. He was already elderly and it does not have the colour and firmness of some of his earlier paintings. I don’t remember it being attached to the front of the Altar (although it may have been) but I do remember he felt it was too small for the position at the junction of the roof supports that it occupied before the glass panels were put there. I’m sure he would like its present position.

He did paintings for Father Larkin and at least one other parish priest, probably Father McCarthy, which I assume they took with them when they left Tewkesbury. I borrowed them for the memorial exhibition of his work in 1987. Other paintings which are in Gloucestershire and Birmingham, include the Oratory (a memorial to World War dead) and St Paul’s School, Vernon Road (the Annunciation).

 He went to Mass daily for as long as he could and was the oldest St Joseph’s parishioner at the time of his death. He also was one of those who received the Royal Maundy in 1971, and was possibly the first Catholic to be given it as 1971 was the first year in which it was given to Catholics. I went to the Maundy ceremony and have a postcard of the ceremony, which shows a group in the Abbey.

Finally and embarrassingly: Father Larkin gave him the Stations of the Cross from the Mythe. I think he didn’t know what to do with them and neither did my father. After his death, his widow threw them away. I remember him having them and they were paper pictures from a book or magazine, mounted on thick cardboard without frames and without any particular artistic merit. I don’t think they are a great loss but I’m sorry it happened.



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