20 November 2023
General de Gaulle and
the story of two Roman
The Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart on Park Street, Berkhamsted, stands on a large five-acre site, just west of the historic core of the town in Hertfordshire. It has an elegant design from 1966-1967, strongly influenced by Coventry Cathedral, and it was built ‘on restrained modern lines with a simple and economic plan-form to serve the new liturgy’ in post-Vatican II days.
The story of the church is much older, though, and has interesting links with the Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle during World War II.
A Roman Catholic mission was first established in Berkhamsted in 1909, when a church was built on Park View Road by Father Henry Harding (1840-1918), who also built churches in Boxmoor, Tring and Rickmansworth.
With the post-war growth of the area, the Edwardian church proved increasingly inadequate, and it was decided to build a new church, presbytery and parish hall on a new five-acre site, closer to the town centre.
The new church was designed by Campling and Iliffe of Sunningdale, Berkshire, their only church in the Diocese of Westminster. The parish priest at the time, Father William Campling, was a brother of the architect, according to Chris Fanning.
The church was designed ‘on restrained modern lines with a simple and economic plan-form to serve the new liturgy.’ It was designed to accommodate 300 people, with room for 50 more in the gallery. An intended tower was abandoned at the insistence of Cardinal John Heenan, who reversed the policy of his predecessor Cardinal William Godfrey, who encouraged building church towers.
Work started in March 1966 and the new church was opened by Cardinal Heenan on 4 June 1967. The main contractors were a local building firm, Donald Lockhart of Berkhamsted. The church was consecrated by Cardinal Basil Hume on 15 September 1980.
The church is built in a T-shap plan, with three areas of seating arranged in a nave and two transepts around the sanctuary. There is Lady Chapel off the north transept and the former baptistery is located under the gallery at the west end of the nave.
At the sides of the nave, the main windows are angled inwards to receive light from the west, strongly influenced by Sir Basil Spence’s designs for the newly-built Coventry Cathedral.
The statue of the Sacred Heart on the central arch was brought there from the old church on Park View Road.
Father Henry Hardy, who established the Roman Catholic mission in Berkhamsted, would travel along the canal between Boxmoor, Berkhamsted and Tring with his pony and trap, celebrating Mass and establishing mass centres that eventually became parishes. He was related to Captain Hardy who was present at the death of Nelson.
Father Hardy established the first Church of the Sacred Heart in Berkhamsted at 1 Park View Road. The church was built in 1909 with a slate roof, tower and gable ends. The purple unrendered brickwork has red brick dressings to the verges, cornices, window openings, buttresses and the tower shaft, with its louvred timber bellcote. There is a tall brick stack on south side.
The church was originally a single-storey building, built at right angles to Park View Road with an aisle on the north side and an entrance in south flank wall. The gable to the street has prominent central brick shaft buttress with offset, bracketed timber base that once held the statue of the Sacred Heart, later moved to the new church.
During World War II, the exiled French leader and future President of France, General Charles de Gaulle, set up home with his family in Rodinghead, a house in the Ashridge area near Berkhamsted. He lived there in 1941-1942, and regularly attended Sunday Mass in the church.
The old church continued in use as a Catholic Church until 1967, when the new church opened on Park Street. Today, the former church on Park View Road is a commercial office.