A History of the Parish of The Sacred Heart of Jesus Southwold

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Southwold was blessed and opened on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the 22nd June 1916. This new Catholic Church was the first in the town for nearly 300 years.  Many local pre-Reformation churches witness to Suffolk’s once thriving Catholic presence but the faithful in the county were few and far between following Henry VIII’s split with Rome. 

In 1559, Elizabeth I outlawed the Mass and Catholics became recusants, ‘refusers’ who would not attend Protestant worship. Recusants were served by priests ordained under Queen Mary until the 1570s.

The Pope appointed a Bishop for England in 1625, and the Jesuit College of the Holy Apostles, took charge of the mission in Essex and East Anglia. Catholicism was mainly confined to small pockets around the homes of important recusant families, including the Bedingfields at Oxburgh, the Jerninghams at Costessey, the Gages at Hengrave and the Huddlestones at Sawston.

Catholics were hit hard by the English Civil War (1642–49) as East Anglia was a strongly Puritan area, and many were forced into exile. Two martyrs from this era are St Henry Morse, the ‘priest of the plague’ (d. 1645) and St Alban Roe (d. 1642).

During the 18th century, there was a small trickle of Irish immigration but Catholics were in danger of dying out. The turnaround came with the French Revolution, which changed British attitudes because the public was sympathetic to priests, monks and nuns persecuted by the revolutionaries.,. In 1829, Catholics were finally granted civil rights and in 1840 East Anglia became part of the Eastern District, with a Bishop at Northampton. In 1850, with the restoration of the hierarchy, this became the Diocese of Northampton.

The first post-Reformation Mass in Southwold was celebrated sometime in the late 1870s by Father Arthur Job Wallace, Parish Priest of St Mary’s in Ipswich. 

In 1897, with the Catholic community in the town continuing to grow, James Crimmen, a Licensed Victualler built an extension to his home, the Manor House in the High Street to provide a Chapel. Mr Crimmen called the chapel ‘St Peter’s Oratory’ and he provided all the furniture, fittings, vestments and sacred vessels.

The Oratory of St Peter
The chapel as it is today, the dining room of Manor Gate

The Oratory could seat about 50 people and the first Mass was celebrated there by Fr Alexander Scott from Lowestoft in June 1897.   Mr Crimmen was anxious to have Mass said more regularly in the town and he and his brother William each promised £25 a year for the support of a Priest.  The Bishop of Northampton, Dr Arthur Riddell agreed and Fr Henry St Leger Mason, (left) then Curate at Lowestoft, was sent to serve Southwold on Sundays and Holydays.  Two years later the Bishop appointed him 1st Priest in Charge of the Southwold Mission.

By 1901 the Oratory of St Peter had become too small to accommodate all the Catholics of the town and the Assembly Rooms, now the Public Library.

With an ever-expanding number of parishioners and the Oratory consequently no longer suitable, it became increasingly obvious that a new church was needed. An anonymous donor gave £400 and this, together £100 that had been raised by the parishioners, provided sufficient funds for land to be purchased and in 1901 the current site fronting onto the common was selected.

Fr Mason began the appeal for funds to build but the response was poor. There were 60 souls in the Parish plus summer visitors, a short summer season and very little local industry.  “I don’t think this Mission will ever be anything more than a visiting Summer Holiday place.”  

Though so many were pessimistic, a most generous benefactress emerged. Miss Amy Auld lived at Hunt’s Farm, Blythburgh, a catholic convert she pledged £100 per year to the Mission in the hope that the donations would amount to a total of £2,000 by the time of her death. However, she died on the 11th August 1912 after having enjoyed a short but happy life as a Religious at East Bergholt.  Her annual donations had not reached the target of £2,000 but she left a bequest of £3,000 for erection of a Church and £1,000 for the endowment of the Mission, equivalent to about £1.4M today.

The design of the Church was commissioned in 1912 from Fr Benedict Williamson, architect, priest and writer, Work on the new building commenced during the War but was delayed by the calling-up of men and the commandeering of supplies by the Government. The work was eventually completed and on 10th November 1915 the last stone in the tower was laid in its place by Fr Mason. The first Mass was said in the new Sacred Heart Church on 22nd June 1916, the feast of Corpus Christi.

In the years after WW1 there was considerable poverty in the Suffolk coastal parishes. Fr Davidson, priest from Aldeburgh, described the poverty of the Suffolk coastal parishes as extreme.  Fr Davidson received encouragement from Fr Mason with the building of the Catholic church in Aldeburgh. And together they instituted the Dunwich Pilgrimage.


A Mass was said in Dunwich on the 8th March1929, the Feast of St Felix by the two Priests together with a congregation of just five. From that small beginning the Dunwich Pilgrimage grew to a most successful annual event.  A report in the Tablet records that the sixth annual pilgrimage to Dunwich in August 1936 attracted its largest attendance of around two thousand people.  With such large crowds, the Sunday in August when the pilgrimage took place became known locally as Catholic Sunday.

It was widely held that the Dunwich Pilgrimage brought Catholics together and reminded them of their great historic continuity with the Catholic history of East Anglia.

The Pilgrimage ceased during WWII but it was revived for a few years after the war and held in the ruins of the Old Franciscan Monastery.

Fr Mason served the Southwold Mission for over 40 hard years and one of his legacies must be his determination to provide a church for Catholics in Southwold. In 1938 Fr Mason was made a Canon of the diocese of Northampton and his elevation to this dignity was no doubt a recognition of the great part he had played in the establishing of the Parish.He died On 11th November 1940 and is buried in the Catholic part of St Edmund’s cemetery Southwold.  He had spent nearly the whole of his priestly life in town and it is fitting that he should rest there.

Of Fr Mason, Fr Davidson wrote:-  “Canon Mason made a study of the local churches and gave several talks to the local Antiquarian Society.  He loved his dogs, he loved the country round and would go for long walks.  He would say that his dogs were the most faithful, loyal and affectionate of all his parishioners.  It was perhaps Dunwich he was especially fond of (sic).  The history of St Felix and St Edmund fascinated him”.

During the War years, and following Fr Mason’s death, the mission was kept alive by Frs R Howarth and K Ellison assisted by Army Chaplains. 

Immediately after the war tenures of priests, were short until the arrival of Fr (later Canon) McBride in 1951.  Fr Henry Macklin served just one year from 1945-46 and Fr John Mossey from 1947 until 1951. Fr McBride was to be priest in charge in Southwold for 7 years during which time the Church of St Edmund King & Martyr was built in Halesworth.  The Halesworth church was, as it remains today an integral part of the Parish.


The Sacred Heart Church is set in limited grounds on the edge of Southwold Common on prominent rising ground. Its tower of over 100 feet is visible from miles around particular from the South and forms an important landmark in the Southwold townscape. The tower is accessible and offers a unique panorama of the town, Sole Bay and the estuary of the River Blythe towards Halesworth. The church is orientated North/South and is built in the late Gothic style reflecting the final flowering of English medieval architecture of the Tudor period. It was designed in 1912 by Fr Benedict Williamson who was serving as Diocesan Architect to the Diocese of Northampton as well as being a Parish Priest at the Church of the Sacred Heart Chobham. It was built between 1914 and 1916 by local builders’ H A King of Beccles.

The Church, set in its prominent position, represents not only a fine example of post-reformation Catholic architecture and one of the few examples of the Architect’s work outside London and in the late Gothic style but also illustrates the turning point for the re-acceptance of Catholicism in England. At the beginning of the 21st Century the Catholic community of the Sacred Heart is closely linked to their sisters and brothers of all denominations in Southwold.

The design of the church echoes the late Gothic style of Solesmes Abbey which the Architect visited in 1912.

Whilst Williamson’s more usual style was based upon the Romanesque it is likely that in this case, he sought to reflect both the architecture of the Parish Church of St Edmund and perhaps also illustrate a continuity through the style’s association with the Tudor period.

The design is simple and, in some way, austere, Gothic shorn of its decoration, but nonetheless its presence is striking, and the interior creates a simple devotional space without intrusive distraction.

Little has changed either internally or externally since he Church was built. Wrought iron sanctuary and baptistery gates have been removed and in 1923 the Sacred Heart side altar was dedicated as the War Memorial altar.


The Church and its connected Presbytery are constructed of brick with stone facing. Internally the walls are plastered and painted. The construction techniques included the use of concrete reinforced with steel mesh as well as steel beams. Given the date of its construction at the height of WWI the quality of these materials may be questionable which may have contributed to the current structural issues.

The Church and attached presbytery together is regarded as one of the finest examples of post-reformation Catholic architecture in East Anglia and externally they are ‘unimproved’ since completion in 1916. Internally the Church is relatively plain, and its most notable features are the picture of the Holy Family with the Child Baptist, Tobias and the Angel after Bonifacio Veronese, which hangs above the High Altar and the large (Liturgical) North window of cathedral glass which fills the sanctuary with natural light since it faces geographic East. Included in the wall at the Liturgical West end of the church is a medieval stoop which is reputed to have been recovered from the sea off Dunwich.

The interior in 1923
The interior today


Fr Benedict Williamson (1868–1948) was born William Edward Williamson in Hackney on June 6 1868 to a stern Scottish Presbyterian father and non-conformist mother, he studied law for a time and then trained as an architect in the office of Newman & Jacques, architects and surveyors in Stratford.  In his teens he developed a strong social conscience and a deep interest in politics but in his early 20s he resolved that ‘his politics should be those of the Gospel’.

He was received into the Catholic Church in 1896 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair, and took the name Benedict Williamson.

For the first ten years of his working life he practiced as an architect in partnership with John Henry Foss at Williamson & Foss and it was during this time it is believed that he designed the figures for the Reredos for St Edmunds Parish Church, Southwold.  He designed more than 22 churches over a period of 35 or so years, many in and around London and mostly in the Romanesque style. The Late Gothic concept of the Sacred Heart Church Southwold is unusual though not unique. In 1903, he designed a development of St Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough in the style of Solesmes Abbey in France whose exiled monks had founded Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight; but the First World War prevented its construction.

In 1906, he designed the Church of St Boniface in Tooting for the Archdiocese of Southwark. The original inspiration for the church came from Tre Fontane Abbey in Rome. The foundation stone was laid on 17 November 1906 and the church, still unfinished, was opened for worship on 18 April 1907. St Boniface was the last church he designed before entering the Beda College in Rome to study for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1909 in the Archdiocese of Southwark but continued his architectural work whilst serving as a Parish Priest at Earlsfield and then Cobham. 

In 1911 he, designed St Ignatius Church Stamford Hill, London, for the Jesuits and in 1912, St. Casimir’s Lithuanian Church in Bethnal Green. In the same year he was appointed Architect for the Diocese of Northampton, as well as Parish Priest at the Sacred Heart Cobham and it was in his role as Diocesan Architect that he designed our church in Southwold. Whether there is any connection between the dedication of our Church and that of Fr Benedict Parish at the time is a matter for conjecture.

In 1917 Fr Benedict became an Army Chaplain and served on the Western Front with distinction with the 47th and 49th Divisions. Known by the nickname ‘Happy Days’ on account of his unquenchable optimism. He was regarded by his comrades as ‘the most zealous of priests, the most human of men’ and was always found in the most forward positions ‘inspiring the living and comforting with his faith the parting moments of many a dying soldier. He was gassed a number of times and his health subsequently suffered. 

After the First World War he returned to both parish and architectural duties. In 1922, he designed Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Fulham, London and, inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb that year, incorporated Egyptian patterns into the interior design of the church. Subsequently in 1927, in collaboration with his original partner John Foss, he added Egyptian designs to the completion of St Boniface’s Church in Tooting.

Fr Benedict designed a number of churches outside London including St Thomas of Canterbury and the English Martyrs, Royston in Hertfordshire and, in 1912, Our Lady Star of the Sea in Portslade, which had some similarity to our own church in Southwold but was sadly demolished in 1992.

In addition to his prolific architectural output and his work as a Parish Priest, Fr Benedict published at least 26 books covering: Architecture, including ‘How to Build a Church – What to Do and What to Avoid’, A Birds Eye View of Rome; Theology, including a considerable number of devotional works on St Therese of Lisieux; History and Biography, including The Bridgettine Order and The Story of Pope Pius XI as well as works on Supernatural Mysticism and the Virtues of Love. 

He was a friend and supporter of St Elizebeth Hesselblad who re-founded the Bridgettine Order and he worked to revive the Bridgettine order of monks. He was also Editor of the now defunct Catholic Review and it has been suggested that he was one of the inspirations for G K Chesterton’s famous fictional Priest detective, Fr Brown. He died in Rome in 1948 at the age of 80.