St Paul's Harlow Town Centre - a brief guide 

St Paul's in the early days of Harlow

When in 1944 Patrick Abercrombie presented his "Greater London Plan" which laid the foundations for the various New Towns that were developed around London after 1947, he made the following observation.

"In every well-balanced community and neighbourhood there should be adequate provision of buildings communal, as distinct from individual, activities can be carried on.  With the inevitable increase in leisure time, it will in future be more important than ever to see that sites are reserved for community buildings.  In the older parts of every community and in the older parts of the build up area as a whole there is a fairly generous provision of churches, halls, clubs and meeting places, although the buildings are often poor and badly sited.  In the newer residential areas there is nearly always a very marked deficiency, which is in many ways responsible for the lack of social life in the suburbs.  The Church is the oldest form of community building.  It is estimated that church provisions should be made for about 10% of the population.  The modern church has on average 500 seats.  Assuming this there would be a need for ten to fifteen churches in a community of 60,000, or about two to each Neighbourhood Unit.  Church sites should be at least half an acre in size and should include space for a hall and other rooms".

St Paul's Harlow Town Centre, church is an example of how Abercrombie's words were translated into concrete, bricks and mortar.  The church was open for worship in January 1959 as, in the words of Revd Donald Knight - the first rector of the new parish, "a church not so much for the mature Christian as for the seeker, in a vast new town".  Now, forty years on, opinions differ about both the success of the building in the past and also its place in a changing society and environment.  It is not the place of this leaflet to enter into liturgical debate or to offer opinions on the relevance of a particular church building, but rather to guide the visitor around a building that remains both at the physical heart of the town, and also which has a lively and active membership and the premises are in use most days of the year.

Before entering the church it is worth looking at the building in the context of its neighbours and considering the original master plan for Harlow Town Centre.  In the words of Harlow's master Architect-Planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd:  "The Civic Centre, stretching across the Southern frontage of the plateau on which the town was focused, was the most significant area in Harlow.  It was to contain the town's most important civic buildings.  Seen across open landscape, it would symbolise the corporate life of the town.  (This area now contains the police station and magistrates court, Tax and benefit offices, the Town Hall, library, Theatre and St Paul's, and until recently the College) ..... it was obvious that if all the civic buildings were faced with the same material there would be a degree of unity between them.  We used precast concrete with natural aggregates.  There was one exception, and it was St Paul's Church on the North side of College Square.  A church being a symbol of man's belief in God's demands an individual and imaginative architectural expression.  St Paul's compared with the surrounding buildings is small.  To compensate for this, I suggested it should be the one building faced in brick". 

Prior to the building of the Playhouse and the Harvey Centre, St Paul's copper covered Spire, surmounted by a golden cross 95 feet above the ground, did stand out as a local landmark.  The detached bell-tower contains a peal of six bells from a bombed Dockland Church and in the South West corner of the church, partially hidden by bushes can be seen the foundation stone laid by the then Home Secretary, Lord Butler in December 1957.  The small cross on the bell-tower was once lit at night but the lighting became unusable in the 1970's.

It is impossible to predict what the initial response of a first time visitor to the inside of the church will be.  One's impressions will be affected by which door you enter through and what the lighting conditions are.  Enter by the West end in bright sunlight or when the church is wholly lit by artificial light and you will be struck by the mosaic at the East end which covers eight hundred square feet.  From other doors, and at various times, the newcomer may notice different things from the brightness and size of the church in sunlight to the dark void that seems to be present in the upper parts of the nave when the lights are on.  Now that the red, yellow and blue of the original colour scheme are faded they no longer have the immediate effect on one that there would have been when the colours were fresh.  So for our tour of the church we will enter by the door at the West end and gaze down the nave to the mural.  The 18 foot mural mosaic by John Piper on the East wall, representing the recognition of the Risen Christ in the home at Emmaus (Luke 24 v31).  It was Piper's first mosaic, the theme chosen to convey the sense of Christ being always present in his House and at worship, drawing people together in fellowship with Himself.  

One very early visitor to the church, in October 1957, was Queen Elizabeth II along with Prince Philip, who planted two trees on, what was intended to be an ornamental pave terrace faced by an open-air pulpit projecting from the belltower.  It was during this visit, at which the church was not more than a concrete base that the final design was unveiled as the Queen was shown the architect's model of the church.  The model stood half way down the present main aisle.

The church itself is traditional in its orientation and cruciform plan, and in its sanctuary and chapel (dedicated to the Holy Spirit).  Its use of materials, its light and colour and the style of its furnishings all reflect the style of the 1950's.  In fact during a visit by the twentieth Century Society in 1994, they remarked how well the fifties ambience had been retained.  There is no chancel, the choir stalls, currently unused, are situated beside the organist in the upstairs North gallery, facing a Binns organ from a Monmouthshire Church, rebuilt by Bishop's in 1967.  The nave is square with the Baptistery in the North transept.

The furniture and ornaments within the church, were designed by Mr R.W. Hurst, to give an impression of dignity and simple beauty.   The inexpensive pews were designed to give a sense of lightness and utility.  Heating is provided by electric under-seat heating along with a gas-fired hot air circulation system.

The statue on the wall of the Baptistery is believed to be either an inaccurate 18th century reproduction, of Michaelangelo's Virgin of Bruge (1501) or it is suggested by some authorities that it is a 16th century sculpture from Northern Italy but due to a stylistic discrepancy between the head of the child and the rest of the work it is thought that the head is an English 18th century replacement for the original.   The 

The Royal Crest can be seen on the organ casing with the coats of arms of Harlow Urban District Council and the Harlow Development Corporation, on the choir gallery.  Close by is a modern processional cross, made by John Skelton.  The pulpit, lectern and font are again of modern design.  The picture hanging above the choir is of the Crucifixion by Ruszkowski.  Ruszkowski was born in Poland in 1907 and studied at Cracov and Warsow before moving to Paris in 1934.  At the start of the second world war he moved to England and joined the allied forces.  After the war he settled in London and had paintings selected for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition every year from 1957-60.  He was noted for applying distorted forms, colour and light to everyday scenes.

The Church, which seats 400 and cost 40,000 pounds to build, was opened for worship on St Paul's Eve in January 1959 by the Archbishop-elect of Sidney, the Bishop of Barking, and was consecrated in April 1959 by the Bishop of Chelmsford, preaching on the text, "Their eyes were opened, and they knew Him" - the theme of the great mural above the Communion Table.  The Bishop at the time described St Paul's as the 'finest Church to be built in Essex since the war'.  The architects were Humphrey's and Hurst of Dorset Street, London and the builders were Hosking & Son (Essex) Ltd of Cheshunt.

The current Parish of St Paul's, Harlow Town Centre & St Mary's Little Parndon was formed on 24th June 1957 (at that time its name was Harlow New Town St Paul w St Mary's Little Parndon) St Mary's being the nineteenth century Parish Church of the Little Parndon parish which had the distinction that, at the turn of the century, it was probably the parish in Essex with the smallest population.

Links

For information as to Grade II listing, click here.

Visait British History Online by clicking here