Newman's Church at Littlemore



John Henry Newman became Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford (the University Church), in 1828. The parish included the village of Littlemore, some two and a half miles distant, which had no church. Newman's College, Oriel, drew the rectorial tithes of Littlemore. By 1829 Newman had hired a room to hold a weekly service and catechetical lectures, and was pressing the College to provide a church. On April 24th 1835 a College meeting, in response to a petition with two hundred and ninety-five names, which included all the St Mary's householders but one, voted ground for a chapel and burial ground up to half an acre, and £100.

On April 30th Newman wrote to his old friend Charles Pourtales Golightly (1807-85), a wealthy Oriel man, asking him to contribute, and also to become  curate  in  charge  of Littlemore.  Since Golightly later became an arch-opponent of the Tractarians (he was largely responsible for the Martyrs' Memorial), this may seem surprising, but for one thing Newman needed a man of means, as there would be no stipend, and for another their disagreement was not yet manifest. All the same, Golightly gave his views on baptismal regeneration as a reason for hesitating, and in June declined to accept.

On May 8th Newman went to Littlemore to meet Richard Costar and lay out the ground. Costar, the leading Oxford coach proprietor, was tenant of the Oriel College lands at Littlemore. Newman intended the church to seat two hundred and cost £500 or £600. He obtained tenders from two builders. Fisher's first was for £890, but soon dropped. In the end the two tenders were for £663 and £665, and the builder chosen was Banting. On June 29th the Church Building Society voted £150, on condition that some alterations were made to the design. By July 7th Newman, who had been determined to collect all the money before he began, had achieved his aim. On July 14th he and Keble met Banting and Underwood, the architect, to settle on the site for the church. The ground was broken the next day, and on July 21st the foundation stone was solemnly laid by Newman's mother Jemina, who had gone to live at Rose Bank, Iffiey, in 1830. In his address, Newman referred to the finding of four skeletons buried east to west on the site "the bodies of Christians who had died in the hope of Christ"  which he took as a sign of God's accepting the undertaking. (Later eighteen more skeletons were found.) The whole village was there, as well as friends who included Keble.
Newman hoped that the church would be finished by October (he was sadly mistaken), and took the closest interest in its progress. The Revd. W. Tuckwell "met him almost daily striding along the Oxford road, with large head, prominent nose, tortoise shell spectacles, emaciated but ruddy face, spare figure whose leanness was exaggerated by the close fitting tail coat then worn".

On July 31st he wondered on which corner of the site to put the schoolroom. By September the walls were rising and the roof was being made in Oxford.
Work went slowly over the winter, and on May 17th 1836 Jemina Newman died. "Little did I think", wrote Newman, "when she laid the first stone at the new Church, she would not live to see it finished". He commissioned a memorial to her from Richard Westmacott the Younger (1799-1872), who had been at Ealing School with him, and remained in close touch at least until Newman's conversion. Newman had done him a curious favour in 1820: Westmacott had incurred debts, and thought of raising money by writing a farce for the theatre. Newman wrote two songs for the piece, which was never performed (even Westmacott called it "weakissimum"). Newman, who came to disapprove strongly of the theatre, became anxious fifty-five years later lest his involvement should ever become known, even though he was sure there was "nothing wrong in them".

The monument to Mrs Newman cannot have been erected before 1838, as Westmacott signs himself A.R.A. and he was not elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy until that year. It shows her, in low relief, standing with head meekly bowed in front of an altar: an angel offers her a crown with one hand, and with the other points to the new church, still surrounded with scaffolding (Fig. 1). Newman wrote to the Vicar of Littlemore in 1878: "at the time it was put up, a friend shocked me by saying that it would be mistaken for an Annunciation.  A Catholic would never so mistake it, for the angel is always represented kneeling". This is not in fact the case, and the mistake has often been made (for example, in the Buildings of England). According to Sir William Herschel, Newman suggested that a plan of the church should be painted in black on the document held by Mrs Newman, and this was done. This is no longer visible, as the monument has unfortunately been painted.

The church was at last consecrated, by Bishop Bagot of Oxford, on September 22nd 1836. It was, wrote Newman, "in all respects a most gratifying and pleasant ceremony ... The day was fine, and ... I had a party of friends ... the Chapel full ... The east end is quite beautiful. We had bright flowers in bunches all about ... the Bishop was much pleased". Bloxam later recalled a "little child getting its head fixed in the altar rails".

Fig. 1. Richard Westinscott the Younger: monument to
Jemima Newman (died 1836),  signed R.  Westmacott
A.R.A., Littlemore Church.

Newman's architect was Henry Jones Underwood (1804-1852), a Bristol man who worked in Smirke's office, and came to Oxford in 1830 to supervise his alterations at the Bodleian. His first work on his own account was St John's Church, Summertown, built in 1831-3 (and demolished in 1924). Although G.E. Street in 1873 called it "not well built or designed", it was for its date quite a creditable exercise, its Early English details taken appropriately enough from its mother church of St Giles. Newman attended its consecration in August 1833. The extent to which Underwood had a free hand in the design of Littlemore is debatable. Thomas Mozley, Newman's friend and brother-in-law. wrote in his Reminiscences, chiefly of Oriel College and the Oxjord Movement (1882) that Newman's own ideas were "simple, almost utilitarian". All he wanted was "capacity and moderate cost. He consulted me ... a happy thought occurred to me. My Northamptonshire church [at Moreton Pinkney] had a simple Early English chancel with lancet windows; a triplet filling the east end. I had much admired it. A London cousin of mine, an amateur in water colours, had made a beautiful picture of the interior. Taking drawings of this, adapting them, and enlarging the scale, I produced something like a design, which was at once approved and handed to an Oxford architect to put in working form". In the British Critic of October 1839 Mozley had stated that "the architect has, we believe, taken the door, windows etc. from St. Giles' Church, Oxford, perhaps one of the best and most fertile studies for church builders in the kingdom". In fact neither Moreton Pinkney nor St Giles' provided a close [(?) resemblance.  To] add further to the confusion, in 1879J.H. Parker told the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society that Littlemore was "built in exact imitation of the thirteenth-century chancel of a church at Bangor". This is mystifying, as there seems to be no such chancel at either of the Welsh Bangors, nor at the Irish one. Poor Underwood came to a sad end: he was found "weltering in his blood" in a hotel bedroom, having cut his own throat.
Newman's attitude towards Gothic was ambivalent. In an often-quoted passage from his Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education he wrote: "For myself, certainly I think that the style which, whatever be its origin, is called Gothic is endowed with a profound and a commanding beauty, such as no other style possesses with which we are acquainted and which probably the Church will not see surpassed till it attain to the Celestial City". On the other hand, his membership, after his conversion, of the CounterReformation order of Oratorians, combined with his alarm at the extreme prejudices of Pugin and his admirers, caused him to express grave concern at the excesses of what he called (when writing in Latin) "Gothicismus". Considering that Pugin had carried his fanaticism to the point of expressing the wish that the dome of St Peter's might collapse, Newman's reaction was hardly surprising. By 1848 he was argning that, especially since Gothic had died and had had to be revived, it should be altered, "like an old dress, which fitted a man well twenty years back but must be altered to fit him now", so as to "suit the living ritual of the nineteenthcentury". However, in his novel Loss and Gain (written in 1847), a character is asked "And which are you for, Gothic ... or Rome?", and answers "for both in their place". Clearly, the neighhourhood of Oxford was the place for Gothic, and it is natural that the Anglican Newman should have chosen that style.

In many ways the church was typical of the man: he refused to start building until he had all the money needed, he wanted simplicity with dignity, but insisted on combining economy with strong deep foundations, walls three feet thick, good solid stonework. For its date, the church was a striking success. Mozley, in the British Critic, pointed out that, although the windows were narrow lancets, they admitted plenty of light, partly because of their height above the ground, and partly because they were set in deeply splayed openings. Such a degree of solidity was most unusual for its time.

Fig. 2. Littlemore Church, as built by J.H. Newman in 1835-36, from a contemporary engraving.

As originally built, the church consisted simply of a nave, 60 feet by 25 feet, and 443 [43] feet high, with a grouped triplet.of three lancets at the east end, lancets in the side walls, and a window with simple tracery above the west door (Fig. 2). The west front was surmounted by a bellcote. Most of the stone was quarried on the site; the dressings were of Headington stone. The roof, described in 1838 as a "very elaborate ornamental roof without tie beams", was light and steeply pitched (Fig. 3). Against the east wall was an arcade, which gave Newman quite a surprise  "the seven arches are whole, and come out from the wall, where as I thought they were to be in alto-relief or pilaster-wise. My only fear is they will be too much of a thing." Four of them framed the Commandments, Creed and Lord's Prayer.

Fig. 3. Drawing of the interior of Littlemore Church, dated 1839, by John Buckler.

The altar was of stone, ornamented with three cusped panels on the front and one on each side. It seems amazing, not only that Newman got away with a stone altar, but that it was hardly noticed. Stone altars were considered by staunch Protestants to be associated with the (to them) heretical doctrine of the repeated sacrifice, and to be forbidden by the Prayer Book rubric which referred to 'the table'. When in 1841-3 Salvin put a stone altar (not solid, but made up of four slabs, and open in front) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge, as part of the Camden Society's 'model' restoration, the incumbent opposed the consecration of the building, and the result of a legal battle was that stone altars were declared to be illegal. The Littlemore altar had a ruby coloured velvet cover. Over it was a cross. Newman wrote in 1836: "I shall have the cross cut or sunk in the stone that it may not be too prominent, since I see Banting is bent on giving it the effect of a small cross on the altar". He described it later as "in the central recess ... a simple Cross in Alto rilievo". Even this horrified the Revd Peter Maurice, Chaplain of New College: "I felt an indescribable horror stealing over me, as I carried my eye towards the eastern wall of the building, and beheld a plain naked cross, either of stone or a good imitation of it, rising up and projecting out of the wall, from the centre of the table of communion' '.

Below the cross an alms-plate lent against the wall. There was an oak credence table, which also distressed Maurice, as did what he described as "one pane of glass, like a drop of blood, polluting the whole", upon which he claimed to find "the representation of an ornamental cross,  or crosslet".  The explanation of this is given by Mozley: "There could not be a church more devoid of ornament, or less fitted to receive it. Newman, on seeing the design, had doubts about the lancet windows admitting light enough. When I assured him that they would, though not with painted glass, he was satisfied. The builder or the glazier was not so well pleased with the very plain work they had to execute, and accordingly inserted a single suggestive quarry of red glass high up in the middle of the east window. This was gravely described in the Record as a drop of our Saviour's blood."

The plate (chalice, paten and alms-plate, all in silver) was ordered from Green and Wards of London via Newman's friend J.W. Bowden, who presented a flagon in addition. The alms-plate at least was made by J.C. Edington.

The altar area was raised three steps above the level of the body of the church. One step lower, outside the altar rails, stood the pulpit, on the south side, with "the stand for reading the lessons from" in the centre. The font, on the right of the entrance, came from St Mary's, Oxford, where a new font by Plowman had been installed in 1828. It is thirteenth-century  "once very beautiful with sculpture", wrote Newman, "which has been all hacked off by the Reformation or Rebellion mobs".

Most people were delighted with the church. Henry Wilberforce wrote in 1839 "the whole interior ... is really something beyond description  so solemn and Catholic". Even Pugin admired it, according to Mozley (though his claim that Pugin "reproduced it in the Norman style next year at Reading" is absurd).


Figs. 4 and 5. Plate I (left) and 28 (right) from The Altar, or Meditations in Verse on the Great Christian Sacrifice (1847), by Issac Williams, with illustrations by Caroline Williams.

The Ecclesiologist (which first appeared in 1841), did not discuss the building until 1845, when it wrote: The time has come when we may, without misgiving, venture to do what we must all in some sort feel to be an act of justice, make honourable mention of Littlemore Church, first as being in itself the first unqualified step to better things that England had long witnessed: the first building for many a long year erected, showing itself to be not so much a sermon-house, as a temple of the MOST HIGH... In this church, so new, so strange, so startling when first built, are not to be found chancel (properly so called), sedilia, piscina, rood-screen, stalls, we believe, or font-cover; and yet Littlemore Church, with its solid walls and lofty roof, its honoured altar, its quiet halflight, and religious services, is a greater step in advance beyond what was known before it, than the most Catholically built and arranged church would be over it. Truly, without a "graduated" scale, we can never measure the depth of the abyss from which we are emerging.

Newman's first curate at Littlemore was the Revd Isaac Williams (1802-65), a gentle soul who came from a wealthy Cardiganshire family, and was a poet and friend of Keble. He took lodgings near the church, but remained only a year. In his Autobiography he wrote that Littlemore "was considered quite a model of a church at the time, though built hastily".

Fig. Detail: The  Burial of Christ

Oakridge Church (built for Thomas Keble in 1837 by Robert Stokes) was a comparative failure: "So much was it Newman's way to do things quickly and successfully." In 1841 Williams' brother, Matthew Davies Williams of Cwmcynfelin, gave land for a new church at Llangorwen, near Aberystwyth. Underwood was architect, and the church was modelled on Littlemore. A note attached to the sermon preached by Williams at its consecration states that "the East window and interior of the chancel is ... formed on the model of the East end of the Church at Littlemore, near Oxford". It too had a stone altar, the first set up in Wales since the Reformation. Keble is said to have given the wooden eagle lectern, and Newman some remarkable bronze chandeliers.

In 1847 Williams published The Altar, or Meditations in Verse on the Great Christian Sacrifice. This is illustrated with curious and rather crude plates, said to be "done in the only way which the writer found practicable ... formed upon the model of an ancient and foreign publication". They were actually the work of his wife Caroline, daughter of Arthur Champernowne of Dartington House. (Williams was curate of Dartington between 1842 and  1848). Full of lavishly Baroque Catholic symbolism, they included some plates clearly based on Littlemore, especially Plate 1 (The Introit) (Fig. 4) and Plate 28 (Communion of Bread and Wine) (Fig. 5).  Llangorwen was not the first church to be modelled on Littlemore. Already in 1839 Withyham Church, Sussex, built by a surveyor called W.L. Blaker, was said to be "an exact copy of Littlemore". In the same year Underwood himself built a similar church at Littleworth, near Faringdon (an Oriel living). Newman, Keble and Mozley were among the subscribers. Another derivative was Holy Trinity, Roehampton, Surrey, by Benjamin Ferrey: this was built by Newman's "dear' earliest friend", John William Bowden, whose Memoranda on the church were reviewed in the Ecclesiologist of 1845 along with H.J. Underwood's Elevations, Sections and Details of the Church of St Mary the Virgin at Littlemore, Oxfordshire, which was published in that year by J.H. Parker for the Oxford Architectural Society thereby enhancing its usefulness as a model.

Williams' successor as curate was John Rouse Bloxam (1807-91), fellow of Magdalen, and brother of the antiquarian and writer on Gothic [Text lost in transcription] ...Matthew Holbeche Bloxam. He wrote to Newman in October 1836 offering to be curate for at least two years gratuitously. He held the post between 1837 and January 1840. During his time various additions were made to the furnishings of the church. These included ornamental shields with emblems attached to the roof-beams (which for some reason the villagers said were presented by the Queen!), a carved oak lectern representing a black eagle, two candlesticks from patterns at Magdalen College, with larger candlesticks on either side, and an altar-cloth worked by Newman's sisters (later "banished to the colonies"). Bloxam asked J.C. Buckler to design two chairs after the model of one in Winchester Cathedral: he recorded that Newman disapproved, and they were removed. (This is odd, as Newman mentioned "two oak chairs on each side" of the altar in his account of the consecration.) Furthermore, he bought the site for the school for £25 in 1838.
Bloxam also had most of the windows filled with stained glass, made by Thomas Willement. He presented the glass for the east windows himself in 1839, "taking windows from a church in Bedfordshire as my model, but with different figures". In the quatre-foil above was the emblem of the descending Spirit. In the small quatrefoil of the west window was the emblem of the Trinity, presented by Willement himself. Bloxam circularised the parishioners to ask their help, and four windows were given by the Maidens, Bachelors, Good Wives and Good Men. Only those given by the Maidens and Good Wives survive: they show the women holding their windows. Later the two side windows at the altar end were filled with eight roundels each, showing scenes from the Passion and Resurrection, and the west window received figures of Saints Peter and Paul.
The original seats were of deal, with rudimentary poppy-heads, but by the time Underwood's book was published they had been replaced with square-topped seats of oak. The plate in the book which shows them is signed 'G. Wyatt Archr. '. This is presumably George Wyatt (d.1880), third son of the sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt, rather than the Oxford builder of the same name.

After Bloxam had resigned his curacy, Newman moved into his old lodgings "with Barnes the black-smith" to look after Littlemore himself. He enjoyed catechising in the church and teaching in the school: he took up the violin again to lead the children's singing, lectured the girls on the necessity of keeping their hands and faces clean, and set them to knit stockings. He urged Oriel to separate Littlemore from St Mary's, so that he could stay there, but the College refused. He conceived the idea "of building a monastic house in the place and coming to live in it myself. In May 1840 he bought nine acres of land behind the church, and began to plant' larches and firs. On the land was the L-shaped range of 'Costar's Stables', and these he converted into a group of cells with kitchen and library, to be a place of retreat for himself and a like-minded community. On September 25th 1843 -"the anniversary of the consecration of a chapel" he preached at Littlemore his famous farewell sermon on 'The Parting of Friends', and on October 18th he resigned St Mary's*. It was at Littlemore that he was received into the Church of Rome by Fr Dominic Barberi, in October 1845. He left Littlemore for good on February 23rd 1846, "kissing my bed, my mantel-piece, and other parts of the house"

In that same year an engraving was made showing the church with additions which included a tower with broach spire, on the southwest, a chancel, and a lych-gate. Littlemore became a separate parish in 1847, and the additions were made in the following year. They were paid for by C. Crawley, who lived nearby at Lawn Upton, and friends of his. The architect was Joseph Clarke (1819-88), a protege of Bishop Wilberforce. The tower was in fact placed at the north-west, and has never received its spire. The east wall of the chancel again had an arcade, but now with Purbeck marble shafts. Newman's altar was re-used, although at some time it has been enlarged by the insertion of extra panels. In the south wall are sedilia. A vicarage was built in 1852.

Subsequent alterations can be briefly described. In 1885 the west bellcote was removed. In the 1920s the Stonesfield slates were replaced with tiles, the corbel-table below the eaves was removed, and the string-course on the west front was chipped off (cheaper than restoring it). The vestry was added in 1918. Inside, a new and much heavier roof has been put in at some unknown date. It has a broad trefoil section. The pulpit is not the original one. The fine rood-screen was erected in 1913 as a memorial to Newman: it was designed by F.H. Crossley, the well-known authority on church furnishings, and the figures were carved at Oberammergau. Crossley also designed the pulpit tester, and the font-cover (1924). The Willement glass in the east lancets was replaced in 1900 with new glass by Louis Davis. In 1887 the northeast and southeast windows of the nave were reglazed by Morris and Co., the Willement glass being moved to the west end. The next two windows on the north side are by Shrigley and Hunt.

Bibliographic Note

This article is based on a wide range of sources, but special mention should be made of articles by John Rothenstein, in Architcetural Review 97, 1945, pp. 176-7, and by E.A. Greening Lainborn, in Nous and Queries 190, 1946, pp. 46-49, and also of The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol. V, edited by T. Cornall (1981).
* Note: The entry in Enc Britannica (by WOC - presumably Owen Chadwick) shows:
He resigned St Mary's, Oxford on 18 September 1843 and preached his last
Anglican sermon (The Parting of Friends) in Littlemore Church a week later.
            However, according to Fr Ker's biography, Newman (p. 279 f.) sent his letter of
resignation to Bishop Bagot on 7 September. He preached Parting of Friends
on 25 September.

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