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Exterior of the Church, Presbytery and (Former) Schools

St Peter the Apostle's Church, Woolwich, by A. W. N. Pugin

St Peter the Apostle's Church, Woolwich. Listed Building. Nave and aisles by A. W. N. Pugin (1812-1852), with builder George Myers (1803-1875), built in 1842-43. The Lady Chapel, smaller than in Pugin's original drawing, was added in 1850, and the chancel and side chapel, in keeping with Pugin's plans and manner, were added in 1887-89 by the Scottish architect Frederick Arthur Walters (1849-1931), who also did further work on Pugin's St George's Cathedral, Southwark. Myers used yellow stock brick with Bath stone dressings and slate roofs. The budget was limited: the dressings were limited too, except at the entrances, especially the south entrance. The church stands on Woolwich New Road, Woolwich, London SE18.

Woolwich New Road had been laid out only in the later part of the eighteenth century, to make it easier to reach the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks, which were expanding rapidly at the time. The Catholic presence largely originated there, among the soldiery (see Booth 92). By 1841 there were an estimated 3,000 Catholics, and the premises then being used for Catholic worship and children's education were in a poor state of repair. The Board of Ordnance gave the new site for the church without charge, showing that "it was prepared to cater, for the first time, for the needs of Catholic servicemen who found themselves isolated in unfamiliar surroundings" (Hill 269). The resident priest, Cornelius Coles, opened a subscription, and Thomas Griffiths, London's "vicar apostolic," provided a grant. Pugin was given the commission to build the new church, one of only three of his in London (along with St George's Cathedral, Southwark, and St Thomas's, Fulham), and its foundation stone was laid on 26 October 1842. The church opened exactly a year later (see Saint 111-13).

Left to right: (a) The Presbytery to the left of the church. (b) Pugin's illustration of the planned church, with the unbuilt southwest tower . (c) St Peter's Schools to the right of the church

The church is at the heart of a complex of buildings all erected in stages. Pugin's compact presbytery and sacristy were built in 1845-46, while the larger presbytery addition on the far left was built by the less well-known London architect John Crawley (1834-1881) in 1870, the date being prominently recorded on the front of that building. Andrew Saint describes the neater original part, with its two bay windows, as "one of Pugin's best small brick secular buildings," noting the way the stonework stretches "randomly into the brickwork" (116), a feature accentuated now by having been painted white. The panel between the bays bears the entwined initials TJ for Thomas Griffiths (see Saint 113).

The sacristy, leading to and from the church, is at the back, with the 1870 building providing an adjacent, considerably larger room for it — originally, it seems, a music room. Pugin's drawing for the planned church shows the southwest tower that was never built. The proposed tower rises gracefully in Pugin's representation of the church in the frontispiece of An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England, next to St George's in Southwark, and close to centre — a mark of the importance Pugin attached to it.

Pugin's son, E. W. Pugin, designed St Peter's Schools (1858) to the right of the church (now St Peter's Centre), with a new front by Walters, 1893-94. The whole group makes for an impressive row on this wide and busy thoroughfare, presenting "a parade of gables varying in height, width and frontage, and conveying a breadth and dignity sorely needed in the townscape of this part of central Woolwich" (Draft, 12).

External details: Left: (a) The west door of the church, simple and decorous. (b) More ornate carving at the south entrance. The listing text describes it as a "moulded doorway with many planes." The tower would have risen above a flat top here. (c) The date and Gothic details on the otherwise rather "blundering brick house" (Saint 116) which extended and still overshadows Pugin's more subtly pleasing presbytery.

Like the church and its associated buildings, the Catholic population itself continued to grow in the nineteenth century: according to Charles Booth there were 4,000 Catholics in the area at the end of the period. This is the situation as Booth found it:

There is, as we have said, a Roman Catholic church situated near the barracks, serving, amongst others, the Catholic soldiery. In all, it has a Catholic population of about four thousand to take care of. Beyond the soldiers, an uncertain element, they are working-class people, mostly Irish employed at the Arsenal, and large numbers of them have served in the army .... A good many of [the priests'] flock are indifferent or difficult to reach; but the church has been actively worked, and the proportion of the people who "perform their religious duties"' is about as usual. There are four Masses on Sunday, at which about one thousand adults attend. (112)

Early on, the church here had had to serve the needs of Catholic prisoners held on the prison hulks moored at Woolwich (map), while awaiting transportation. Even after the hulks were broken up, the priests in this part of London clearly faced some special challenges. Still, Booth later quotes them as saying that their parishioners, while not being "remarkable observers of the laws of the Church," were at least "all regularly employed and earning good wages; with no outcasts or utterly poor" (120) — testimony, no doubt, to their own successful ministry.

Related Material


Booth, Charles. Life and Labours of the People in London, Third Series, Religious Influences. Vol. 5: South-East and South-West London. London: Macmillan, 1902. Google Books. Web. 12 June 2012.

Brodie, Antonia, et al., eds. Directory of British Architects: 1834-1914, Vol. I: 1: A-K. London: RIBA, 2001 (for Crawley, see. p. 460). Print.

"Draft: Chapter 9 — Brookhill Rd Area." Survey of London: English Heritage. Web. 12 June 2012.

Hill, Rosemary. God's Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Pugin, A. Welby. An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England. Edinburgh: John Grant, 1895. Internet Archive. Web. 12 June 2012.

"Roman Catholic Church of St Peter, Woolwich." British Listed Buildings. Web. 12 June 2012.

Saint, Andrew. "The Pugins in Woolwich." True Principles: The Voice of the Pugin Society. Volume 4, No. 2 (Winter 2010-11): 111-121. Print.

Last modified 25 November 2012