We owe the building of this church to the 19th-century theologian, poet and thinker John Henry Newman (1801-1890), later Cardinal Newman. When he became Vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford in 1828, he discovered that Littlemore was a distant part of his parish, without a church and school of its own. The church was consecrated in 1836, fourteen months after the foundation stone was laid by his mother, Jemima, who died before it was finished. It was celebrated as being ‘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 …’ (The Ecclesiologist, 1845).
For a full discussion see Peter Howell’s article Newman’s Church at Littlemore (The Oxford Art Journal, 6:1 1983).
“Hay-Making at Littlemore” – 19th cent. watercolour by Miss Herschel
Original interior, sketched in 1839. See also groundplan, below
Littlemore Church today
The church and its school were built on the initiative of John Henry Newman, appointed Vicar of the University Church in 1828. Work began when his mother, Jemima, laid the foundation stone in 1835. She did not live to see the consecration of the building on 22nd September 1836. An alabaster memorial to her, by Newman’s friend Richard Westmacott (1799-1872), can be seen on the north wall of the nave (below); it probably dates from 1838 and is in the manner of an Annunciation, showing an angel handing a crown to Mrs Newman with Littlemore Church and scaffolding in the background, suggesting building work in progress (compare with picture of church, above). The inscription reads:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
WHO LAID THE FIRST STONE OF THIS CHAPEL,
JULY 21ST 1835;
AND DIED BEFORE IT WAS FINISHED,
MAY 17TH 1836,
IN THE 64TH YEAR OF HER AGE.
CAST ME NOT AWAY IN THE TIME OF AGE; FORSAKE ME NOT, WHEN
MY STRENGTH FAILETH ME,
UNTIL I HAVE SHOWED THY STRENGTH UNTO THIS GENERATION,
AND THY POWER TO ALL THEM THAT ARE YET FOR TO COME.
Newman wanted a spacious building at moderate expense; it seated 210 people and cost £663 to build. It probably took its name from the nearby 13th century Benedictine Priory. The church was built in the early English style with a bellcote at the west end, with no tower or chancel (above); it was 60′ long, 25′ wide and 43′ high at the apex (18.3m x 7.6m x 13.1m). The architect was H.J. Underwood of Bath (1804-52), and the plan (below) was reused as the basis of Holy Trinity Church, Lower Beeding, Sussex, where Newman’s former curate, J.R. Bloxam, became incumbent in 1840. The building was reviewed in The Ecclesiologist in 1845 as ‘being in itself the first unqualified step to better things that England has 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 …’ For contemporary illustrations, see Underwood’s own Views and details of Littlemore Church, near Oxford (Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture, Oxford, 1840). The design was much admired by Pugin, who designed a similar church for Oatlands, Tasmania, and by Sophia Gray, who used it for the cathedral at George, Western Cape, South Africa.
Underwood’s original groundplan (1836), signed and sealed by Isaac Williams, the curate Underwood’s original section (1835)
Littlemore’s population had already risen to 547 when additions to Newman’s ‘plain chapel’ began in 1846 with the lych gate. Underwood’s grand scheme for a ‘Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin’ with a tower and spire on the south-west side (below left) was abandoned, probably through a lack of funds, though the chancel was approved. In 1848 the church was enlarged to its present form, the chancel given by Charles Crawley and a more modest tower at the north-east corner (below right). The original east wall stood where the chancel screen is today (top left) and the window was probably reused in the chancel when the church was enlarged.
Underwood’s expanded scheme of 1846, with south-west tower and spire, not implemented (view from south-east) the scheme actually adopted in 1848, with north-east tower (view from west)
The original interior was simple, with a stone altar (not the present one), and the reredos with its arcading was unpainted; the colourful mosaics were a later addition. The lancet windows were of plain glass, and the east window contained a single splash of red colour. The pulpit stood on the south side and what appears to be a chamber organ on the north (top left). The present pulpit is not Newman’s, but is believed to contain material from the original one. The font (below left) is believed to date from the 13th or 14th century. It was dug up at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, and acquired by Newman in the belief that many Littlemore children had been baptised in it. To one of Newman’s curates, the Revd. Dr. J.R. Bloxham (‘the father of all ritualists’), must be attributed much of the original decoration and furnishings. He had plain glass replaced by coloured, mostly the work of Thomas Willement (above right). The Good Wives, Maidens, Bachelors and Goodmen of the village gave four fine windows. Only the Good Wives’ and Maidens’ have survived, they are on the south wall of the nave. Over the years the interior was enhanced by gifts of windows from Bloxham and Sir Alfred Jodrell, a brass ewer from Sir William Herschel, as well as numerous other gifts from Newman’s friends, and private donations and public subscription.
A chancel, tower and lychgate were added in 1848, and the reredos removed to its present position. Its coloured design is thought to be by Willement. In 1885 the bellcote was removed, and a belfry added to the tower. It contains one bell, and a clock was installed in 1887. In 1900 the glass of Bloxham’s east window was replaced by a remarkable work by Louis Davis (1861-1941), one of his earliest designs, as a memorial to the Revd Vernon Green, Vicar 1872-96 (above right). It is a profound depiction of the three great events of Christian salvation, the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection, with much Old Testament embellishment. Under the cross Mary and the beloved disciple are holding hands, depicting the intimate nature of the new family of the church created by Jesus on the cross. The resurrection is a ‘noli me tangere’ interpretation.
looking east, before 1911 the same view, sometime after 1930
The rood screen was designed by F.H. Crossley and was erected in 1911; he also designed the pulpit canopy and font cover. After the ‘Great War’ the crucifixion figures from Oberamagau, which had remained in Belgium since the outbreak of war, were at last placed on their plinths. The priest’s vestry was built in 1918. The church has had at least four organs during its history; the present one was moved from Littlemore Hospital Chapel in 1988 (see organs).
David Nicholls memorial and David in characteristic pose “Archdeacon” and the real William Paley (1743-1805)
On the south wall of the chancel is a brass memorial (above left) to a former Vicar of Littlemore, the Revd Dr David Nicholls (1936-96), celebrated writer and political scientist. It was designed by sculptor Michael Black, who is responsible for much recent Oxford carving, including the new classical heads outside the Sheldonian Theatre; it shows David Nicholls with his Venezuelan macaw Archdeacon on his shoulder. Archdeacon, who strangely predeceased his master by only a few days, was responsible for many penetrating letters to the Times and other national newspapers on political and ecclesiastical matters of the day, under the nom-de-plume “The Ven. William Paley, Archdeacon emeritus”, almost all of them were published – the editors never checked the identity of their distinguished correspondent! The real Paley was a blunt but popular Yorkshire theologian, buried in Carlisle Cathedral, perhaps best known for his Natural Theology of 1802. The inscription reads:
DAVID GWYN NICHOLLS – PRIEST / SCHOLAR – VICAR OF LITTLEMORE / 1978-1996. HE WAS BORN IN 1936 / WELL DONE THOU GOOD AND / FAITHFUL SERVANT ENTER THOU / INTO THE JOY OF THE LORD.
To celebrate the Millennium the Revd Bernhard Schünemann (Vicar 1997-2006) and parishioners of this church undertook a project of interior restoration. This was completed in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Newman’s birth. To mark this event a set of icons was commissioned (right): Virgin and child, Christ glorified, John the Baptist, John Henry Newman, St Nicholas; the first ever icon of Newman is in recognition of the fact that he is now commemorated on 11th August in the Anglican calendar. Bernhard Schünemann also commissioned the composer Arvo Pärt to set Newman’s words, first spoken in this church at the end of a sermon on 19th February 1843: May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in his mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. This ‘Littlemore Tractus’ is published by Universal Edition, of Vienna.