A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode

Photographs of Woodchester Priory

Photographs from the Collection of Richard Barton

The Church and Priory was designed by Charles Hansom. The Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation was built for the Passionists between 1846 and 1849. The Priory, which was built for the Dominican Friars between 1850 and 1853, was demolished in 1971.

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Early Photograph from the Convent of the Poor Clares

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From the Archives of Woodchester Mansion Trust

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Another early image

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War Memorial 1917

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A Marian Feast at Woodchester Priory from the Archives of Woodchester Mansion Trust

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Drawing by Peter Anson

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Procession in the walled garden of Woodchester Priory

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Proposed Chapter House

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Blessing the Wayside Cross 1917

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Design by Charles Hansom

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Fr Robert Bracey O.P.

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Pere Gonin

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Pere Gonin

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Fr Gabriel Whitacre O.P.

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Fr Gordon, Fr Benedict, Fr Austin. In front Fr King and unknown

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Fr Bertrand Wilberforce O.P.

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Fr Peter Mackey O.P.

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Fr Paul MacKay from the Archives of Woodchester Mansion Trust

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Fr Dominic Aylward O.P.

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Fr Austin Rooke O.P.

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Fr Paul Utili (?)

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Fr Weldan O.P.

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Fr Procter O.P.

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Fr King O.P.

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Seal of Woodchester Priory

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Gloucestershire’s threatened Catholic Heritage

Richard Barton for the Clifton Catholic Voice, August 1984

At the end of 1813, at the age of twenty-one, an Italian, born of peasant stock, received a private revelation that he was to be a missionary in England. It wasn’t until Guy Fawkes’ Day 1840 that Blessed Dominic Barberi arrived in England and on March 25th, 1846, he celebrated his first Mass in the Woodchester valley, south of Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

Blessed Dominic came to Woodchester at the invitation of William Leigh who was a recent convert to the Catholic Faith. The Tablet of March 28, reported: “Fr Dominic, Superior of the Passionists, had left Aston, in Staffordshire, to establish a temporary monastery at Northfields, in Avening parish. This house Mr Leigh hired off a dissenting minister for two years, who little suspected that his place was to be a receptacle for the professors of Popery.”

Three years later Bishop Ullathorne of the Midland District, Bishop Hendren of the Western District, Bishop, (later Cardinal) Wiseman, and Father Ignatius Spencer (ancester of the (late) Princess of Wales) converged on Woodchester for the consecration and opening of a Noble church, dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation.

Dr Oliver wrote of the ceremony: “The dazzling beauty of the pontifical and clerical robes – the gravity of the assistants – the melody of the vocal and instrumental music – the dignified eloquence of Bishop Wiseman and the silent attention of the immense multitude, inspired awe and devotional feeling.”

The only sadness on the day was the death of Blessed Dominic at the Railway Hotel, Reading, whilst making his way to Woodchester. Blessed Dominic had watched the church rise and only a few months beforehand he had seen his face in the fresco of the Last Judgement, above the chancel arch, and he wrote to Mr Leigh saying, “O what an ugly figure.”

This beautiful church designed by Charles Hansom of Clifton, possibly using earlier plans made by Augustus Welby Pugin, became the church of the later Dominican Priory, demolished in 1971. The church was the scene for the reception of Robert Hugh Benson, son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, numerous ordinations and even the consecration of a bishop.

The church has been the spiritual home of Matthew Bridges, the hymnologist, Capes, sometime editor of The Rambler and members of the Wilberforce family. For over a hundred years this church was the cradle of the English Dominican Province.

Now this fine church, described by John Betjeman as, “certainly too stately a church to be allowed to decay”, has corrugated iron cemented on its Cotswold tile roof and is under real threat of imminent demolition.

The success of the members of the Dominican Order in establishing parishes at Stroud, Nympsfield and Dursley as well as a chapel-of-ease at nearby Minchinhampton (Box) has meant that the Priory parish is now small. Father Bernard Jarvis O.P., serves the parish alone and the small school struggles for survival.

In 1979 the parishioners raised £4,000 to renovate the church but now they are faced with an estimate of £70,000 just for immediate repairs. What a dilemma for a parish to face! Many would wish to see the church bulldozed into the ground but others will cherish these stones as a witness to the Catholic Faith, a local landmark or as just a masterpiece of early Gothic revival architecture.

The church is built of local stone and is a long building terminating in a noble east window. At the junction of the nave, on the north side, rises a graceful belfry, crowned with a short well-proportioned spire-like top. There are beautiful furnishings which include two recumbent effigies and a fine stone rood screen.

Woodchester Priory is undoubtedly the finest Roman Catholic church in Gloucestershire and it is one of the best examples of its type in the south west. It seems sad that flaking stone and dry rot are being allowed to bring about its ruination.

Twenty miles away, another priory church, again designed by Charles Hansom, faces financial problems. Here a majestic spire rises two hundred feet above the Regency terraces of Cheltenham Spa. St Gregory’s is a Benedictine church served by the monks of Douai Abbey in Berkshire. The spire, which dates from 1864, has been declared unsafe and it is now in need of urgent repairs. St Gregory’s has over 3,000 parishioners and its appeal has been well-supported by the Department of the Environment. However, it is a financial burden for the parish.

Perhaps there is an ever-increasing need for a national fund to support medieval Catholic churches, recusant chapels and Victorian masterpieces. Until such time that this becomes a reality the Dominican Prior of Woodchester, Father Bernard Jarvis, and the Benedictine Prior of Cheltenham, Father James Donovan, need every support.

At Woodchester the writing is on the wall and only prayer, active campaigning and generous financial help can preserve this national monument for its two hundred parishioners – and for posterity.

An Appeal was launched in May 1986 which resulted in a thorough restoration of the exterior of the church:

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13 comments on “Photographs of Woodchester Priory

  1. Hugh Allen
    August 2, 2016

    Very good to see these. From the order’s prep school at Llanarth I was once or twice in a party of boys bussed over to Woodchester to sing at the funeral of a deceased Dominican (c1960), and remember noticing even then that they weren’t much good at building maintenance. With the leakages of the 1960s it wasn’t surprising that they found the place too big for them — but so sad that the traditional Dominican Mass and Office are no longer carried out in their pre-Vatican 2 splendour, there or elsewhere.

    • Richard Barton
      August 2, 2016

      Thanks for commenting on these photos. This church made a powerful impact on me when I was a boy and I have fond memories of Fr Aidan Murray O.P. and Fr Bernard Jarvis O.P.. Michael Jones-Frank, the first secular parish priest, was a good friend too. Richard Barton.

      • Hugh Allen
        August 2, 2016

        This would have been around the time the priory was demolished, I guess. My brother spent a few months in 1968 teaching at a crammers in Avening (it closed down that summer) and had the job of taking the RC boys to Mass at Woodchester; I remember accompanying them and meeting up with my former teacher Fr Mark Brocklehurst, who was doing a turn as Prior. One Dominican oddity in that period was the reversion by a number of the brethren to their Baptismal names, so I suspect Fr Bernard Jarvis was the priest I remember as Fr Michael.

      • Richard Barton
        August 2, 2016

        Yes certainly during that decade. Late seventies for Aidan and Bernard, his successor, was certainly around in 1978 because my parents gave him a hard time when I became a Roman Catholic!

      • Christopher Fairs
        October 14, 2019

        I was interested to see these photographs of the buildings and people who worked at Woodchester. I was hoping to find a reference or perhaps even a photo of a family ancestor, Fr Benoni James Peach (aka James Lawrence Peach), who was shown as Superior at Woodchester in the 1911 Census. He was also priest at the Catholic church in Stroud. I would be most grateful if you or anyone on this site could point me in the right direction to uncover more about Fr Peach, who died on the Isle of Wight in 1919.

      • Richard Barton
        October 14, 2019

        Thank you, Christopher. There is a volume of biographies of all the Dominican Friars produced in the twentieth century and, sadly, I gave my copy away. I cannot remember the name of the man who collated the information but it would be an invaluable resource for you. Secondly, the Dominican archives are housed at Douai Abbey near Woolhampton in Berkshire so probably there would be his correspondence, diaries etc. Thirdly, one of the more historically minded brethren at Blackfriars – the Dominican College – in Oxford may well be able to help you. With kindest regards Richard

      • Christopher Fairs
        October 14, 2019

        Thank you Richard, that is so helpful. I will follow the leads you have given me. Since writing, I have just discovered he changed his name to James Lawrence (Laurence) Peach and is buried at the convent at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight. I wonder whether there is a tradition of doing this among Catholic priests or he simply disliked his first Christian name, Benoni.

      • Richard Barton
        October 14, 2019

        Yes religious – monks, nuns, sisters, friars – do take religious names when they entered, normally after saints, and these names were often imposed by the superiors rather than chosen as they would be today.

      • Christopher Fairs
        October 14, 2019

        Thank you. I presumed that might have been the case with my ancestor. Is that your family (Preece etc) from North Herefordshire, shown on this site?

      • Richard Barton
        October 14, 2019

        Yes Byton, Kingsland, Old Radnor, Titley etc. Is this your home area?

        By the way in the 18th/19th centuries there was a Peach Family living around Fairford. Two of them became RC priests and one built a church in Birmingham.

      • Christopher Fairs
        October 15, 2019

        Yes, I spent all my working life in Herefordshire, covering the whole county and around the border areas. I still have a house in rural North Herefordshire but am now retired. Through my job, I know all the villages in the county and, particularly, many of the farming families.
        I will follow up your lead on the Fairford Peach family – thank you.

  2. Lisa-Jane
    October 3, 2016

    Fascinating history. My Dad worked on the demolition of the priory in 1971 and he was shocked at how much was destroyed and not saved; he can remember wooden panelling being thrown onto a bonfire! However, he did mange to save two large statues, including a Virgin and Child similar to that shown in the Refectory photo, a crucifix, Minton floor tiles and a few other things. I’m pleased to say that these have found a home with me and are rare survivors from this once beautiful building.

    • Richard Barton
      October 3, 2016

      Thank you Lisa-Jane. Great to receive some feedback and I am delighted to know that some items received a safe home. I remember friends from school saying they had been to a final sale and I watched the progress of the demolition from the school bus. I am very envious of your Minton tiles! Kind regards Richard

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