30 May 2022

Saint Bede’s Church in
Newport Pagnell was built
as a courtroom and prison

Saint Bede’s Catholic Church is a striking building on the High Street in Newport Pagnell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bede’s Catholic Church is a striking building on the High Street in Newport Pagnell, and two of us visited it last week while we were in the town. The church and the Old Town Hall Chambers facing it form a pair of interesting buildings that face each other on the former Market Square, close to the Coachmaker’s Arms and the junction with Bury Street.

Both the church and the former town hall were designed in the 1840s by a prominent local architect in Newport Pagnell, Richard Sheppard. The significance buildings and are of architectural, historical and townscape interest as a pair of mid-19th century civic building on a prominent town centre island site.

Saint Bede’s Church was originally built in 1847 as a police station and courtroom. The original plan included a police station and cells on ground floor, as well as with two police flats with separate entrances to the street, and a courtroom above.

A new police station was built in 1871, and the police moved there in 1872. The building had become a Temperance Hall by 1881. Ten years later, it was a Mission Hall run by the Plymouth Brethren in 1891. it was taken over by the Baptists in 1915.

It was later used as a paper bag factory and was unused for a while before being acquired as a Catholic Mass centre in 1953.

Before acquiring the church, Catholics in Newport Pagnell were occasionally served by travelling priests, but otherwise had to make the journey to Wolverton or Olney.

The old Mission Hall was bought for £4,000 in 1953, with a view to establishing a Mass centre in the first floor former courtroom. Furniture was donated from various sources, and the building was blessed and dedicated by Bishop Leo Parker in March 1953. At first, there was some local resistance to such a prominent public building being used for Catholic worship.

A resident priest was appointed to Newport Pagnell in 1957, and a house in Bury Avenue was acquired 2½ years later to serve as a presbytery.

Father Nevill McClement was appointed to Newport Pagnell in 1969, and soon afterwards became the first parish priest of Saint Bede’s. Various improvements were made to both the upstairs church and the downstairs accommodation.

The church was repaired and refurbished in 1986 under the direction of the architect George A Mathers. The upper floor, which now serves as the church, is a fine compartmented space carried on cast iron columns.

The conversion of the building to use as a church did not involve major structural change. But an unresolved problem is that the church is on the first floor, creating difficulties for elderly people and for moving coffins at funerals. The feasibility of installing a lift or a hoist was investigated but this was ruled out due to cost and the lack of available space. Instead, a weekday chapel that could also be used for funerals was created on the ground floor.

The Blessed Sacrament was reserved downstairs, and a new social room, kitchen and WCs installed. New stairs up to the church from the entrance hall were formed, with a glazed lobby above. A moveable dais was installed for the sanctuary, to allow for flexibility in the internal arrangements. A ceiling painting and carved wooden furnishings by Peter Koenig were provided.

The central oval ceiling painting by Peter Koenig shows Christ the Fisherman and features Newport Pagnell’s famous cast iron bridge at Tickford in the background. The carved timber pulpit in the upper church and the tabernacle plinth in the weekday chapel are also by Peter Koenig. There are some stained glass panels, screwed to the window frames, while leaving the sash windows in situ.

George Mathers’s report in 1986 states that investigation of the structure at the time of the refurbishment had produced evidence that the 1847 structure incorporated elements of an earlier building.

Mathers also found that the cast iron columns in the former courtroom, as well as serving a loadbearing function, also served as flues to blocked or removed fireplaces on the ground floor, carrying warm air to the former courtroom.

The exterior was faced with standard bricks of various sizes and an early form of cast concrete was used in the architectural dressings. Some of the first floor joists spanned the entire width of the building, some 38 ft.

Sheppard designed the original building in the Classical style. Built of red brick in Flemish bond with stone and yellow brick dressings and slate roof.

The main entrance front faces east onto the former Market Square is of three bays with central open pediment with brick modillion cornice supported on giant Ionic pilasters with deep plinth.

The first floor has sash window with nine panes. The round-headed arched doorcase has a 20th century door. The sides are of one tall storey with hipped roof and tall blank round headed arches filled-in with cement rendering.

The north and south sides are of two storeys with three windows. The ends have open pediments supported on full-height Ionic pilasters with a deep entablature at the centre bay. The central first floor window is six-pane sash, while the end windows are nine-pane sashes.

The ground floor has a central arched doorcase with a plank door and four 12-pane sashes with cambered heads. The south side has an added two storey brick addition with the stair and porch obscuring an end bay.

Inside, the first floor has the original ceiling of the courtroom, divided into nine compartments by deep moulded beams and supported on four Tuscan columns at the intersections.

The renovated church was dedicated in December 1987. Today, Saint Bede’s is part of the Diocese of Northampton and the Milton Keynes Pastoral Area. Saint Bede’s is also a member of Churches Together in Newport Pagnell, and a part of the Milton Keynes Cluster.

Masses are celebrated on the first floor of the church. For people unable to manage the stairs, a ground floor chapel offers a full closed circuit system to allow them to follow the service.

The old Mission Hall was converted into a Catholic church in 1953 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The building facing Saint Bede’s Church was once the Town Hall Chambers, and has also served as a Baptist Church.

This building has seen many uses over the years. It was built in the early 19th century as a ‘British School’. It was enlarged in 1845, when the architect Richard Sheppard designed the western front and entrance, and again in 1899, when it became the Town Hall.

The building was known as Church House from 1937.

Despite the fact that it was still in the hands of the council, it continued to be the main meeting venue in the town. Upstairs the main room was capable of holding up to 200 people. It hosted public meetings, dances, productions by local theatre groups and school activities.

Eventually, the parochial church council sold the building to the Baptist Church. They later moved to Lovat Hall and the building was subsequently sold for redevelopment.

The former Town Hall Chambers has also served as a Baptist Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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