Spence in Sheffield: St Paul’s, Wordsworth Avenue

St Paul’s Parish Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Sheffield

After Basil Spence (Sir Basil from 1960) won the competition to rebuild the bombed Coventry Cathedral in 1950 he became one of the architects to go to for parish church designs, particularly on new housing estates.

Bishop Gorton of Coventry invited Spence to design three new suburban churches, St Oswald, Tile Hill, St Chad, Wood End, Henley Green and St John the Divine, Willenhall (all three opened 1957);  in Leicester, Bishop Williams, explicitly on the recommendation of Neville Gorton, commissioned St Aidan’s, New Parks (1959);  in Sheffield, Spence designed two elegant modern parish churches on opposite sides of the city.

Partly funded by the compensation payments for two bombed churches, St James’ in the city centre and Emmanuel, Attercliffe, St Paul’s, Wordsworth Avenue, opened in 1959, was built to serve the community that came to live in a post-war extension of the Parson Cross housing estate that Sheffield Corporation had laid out north-west of the city in the late 1930s.

Spence’s design has two conjoined elements.  What looks like a tower is actually two brck pillars surmounted by a cross, and the aisleless nave consists of two parallel brick side walls above which floats the shallow barrel-vault roof.  The double-glazed clerestories and the glass screen end walls bring light into the building:  they were also cheaper and quicker to construct.

Ove Arup & Partners designed the diaframe bracing of the roof reminiscent of Gothic vaulting and serving the same purpose.

The pews were designed by Basil Spence and made of agba, an African mahogany now endangered and in short supply.  The organ, bought from Mount Tabor Methodist Church, Hoyland, and installed in 1962, is mounted on the west gallery.

An African teak slatted screen behind the altar gives privacy to the congregation while making services apparent to the outside world.  As the church website remarks, the glazed ends “prevent the worship of the church being a secret from the community or the worshippers being unaware of what is going on in the area”.

Basil Spence gave the altar candlesticks of hammered iron, and the green appliqué altar frontal was made in 1958 by Beryl Dean (1911-2001) to the design of Anthony Blee, Basil Spence’s son-in-law.

The church silver includes a chalice and paten by the Sheffield silversmith Omar Ramsden (1873-1939).

The total cost was around £30,000.

The English Heritage Grade II* listing description describes St Paul’s as “an unusually transparent design and Spence’s best small churches”.

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