The French Protestant Church
- Heritage Category:
- Listed Building
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
- Statutory Address:
- The French Protestant Church, 8 and 9, Soho Square W1
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- Statutory Address:
- The French Protestant Church, 8 and 9, Soho Square W1
The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Greater London Authority
- City of Westminster (London Borough)
- Non Civil Parish
- National Grid Reference:
The French Protestant Church, 1891-1893, by Aston (later Sir Aston) Webb.
Reasons for Designation
The French Protestant Church, 1891-1893, by Aston (later Sir Aston) Webb, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* as a striking and very unusual church design, by a distinguished architect of the late C19/early C20;
* the building contains two remarkable interiors, both the church itself and the library, which retains its original fittings, built to house the church’s historic collections;
* the church makes extensive and very effective use of architectural terracotta, both externally and internally;
* the building remains essentially intact throughout;
* as the last French Protestant church in Britain, this is the direct descendent of the first ‘Strangers’ Church’ established in England in 1550. The existing building represents the toleration shown to French Huguenots in England over several centuries;
In the late 1540s, scholars and theologians welcomed in Reformation England included John à Lasco, a reformer of Polish origin, who held services at Lambeth Palace for refugees. His project for the establishment of a reformed church for foreign worshippers met with encouragement from Archbishop Cranmer and Edward, Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of the young Edward VI. On 24 July 1550, Edward VI signed letters patent for the foundation of the Strangers’ Church in London for those ‘banished and cast out from their own country for the sake of the Gospel of Christ’; the charter required that the appointment of ministers should be approved by the sovereign. The use of St Augustine’s Chapel in Austin Friars in the City of London was authorised. The church grew rapidly, with French, Flemish and German-speaking members. Within three months the French Huguenot congregation transferred to the chapel of St Anthony’s Hospital in Threadneedle Street, nearby. During the reign of the Catholic Mary I, services were suspended, to be resumed in 1560 following the accession of Elizabeth I; Elizabeth appointed Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London, as superintendent, allaying doubts about the wisdom of allowing a freedom of worship to a foreign church. In 1572, the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day and the persecution of Protestants which followed brought a new wave of refugees, who were received by the French churches established at London, Canterbury, Norwich, Southampton, Rye and Winchelsea. During the C17 pressure was exerted on the French churches to conform with the Church of England, particularly by Archibishop Laud; though some churches did adopt a translation of the English Book of Common Prayer, the Threadneedle Street church retained its constitution and service. In 1685, the revocation of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had allowed some freedom of worship to Protestants, led to the flight of about half a million Huguenots, with between 40,000 and 50,000 arriving in Britain. In London, numerous French churches were established, mainly in those areas with large Huguenot populations. The principal church serving Spitalfields, home to a community of weavers, was Threadneedle Street, whilst Westminster, where Huguenots included tailors, goldsmiths, silversmiths, gunmakers and watchmakers, was principally served by the conformist Savoy Church. The Great Fire of London of 1666 destroyed the Threadneedle Street church, which was one of the first churches to be rebuilt, opening for worship in 1669. By the early C18 there were more than 30 Huguenot churches in London and more than 20 outside London; in 1687 the Threadneedle Street church received permission to build a chapel of ease to accommodate its burgeoning congregation. The Huguenots were generally well-received in England, enjoying royal protection, though occasionally the competition created by the skill and industry of the French craftsmen, and their reluctance to conform to the rules of the livery companies, led to difficulties. Integration gradually led to the closing of French churches; by 1841 there were only three left in London, two being conformist.
It was in 1841 that the Threadneedle Street church, the only remaining non-conformist French church in London, was obliged to give up its building, to allow for rebuilding in Threadneedle Street, and the congregation moved to a site in St Martin’s le Grand, remaining until 1887 when the church was demolished to make way for an extension to the headquarters of the General Post Office. Temporary quarters were found, first at the Athenaeum Hall in Tottenham Court Road, and then at a chapel behind 7 Soho Square, whilst the construction of the new church building was underway. A freehold site for the new church, then occupied by two houses, 8 and 9 Soho Square, was found, at a cost of £10,500. In March 1889 the consistory petitioned the Attorney General for permission to purchase the site and erect a new church accommodating a congregation of 400; permission was given in October 1890, the foundation stone was laid on 28 October 1891 and the building was dedicated on 25 March 1893. The architect chosen for the work was Aston (later Sir Aston) Webb (1849-1930), who in 1886 had redesigned the Victoria Law Courts, Birmingham, and in 1891 won the competition to complete the Victoria and Albert Museum; Webb’s designs for public buildings would include the Admiralty Arch (designed 1905-1907; built 1908-1911) and the re-fronting of Buckingham Palace (1913). Webb built few new churches, though he undertook a number of restoration projects. The French Protestant School in Great Marlborough Street (built in 1897-1898, now demolished) would also be designed by Webb. The builders of the church were Messrs Higgs and Hill, whose tender was for £10,194. A notice in The Builder (27 June 1891) notes an unusual feature of the design: ‘Owing to the nature of the site, hemmed in by houses, the church is nowhere displayed externally’. It has been suggested that discretion was a requirement of the design, but the principal reason for this is likely to have been practical: by being placed to the rear, the church is able to obtain light on three sides, whilst the presbytery and library are lit from the front. Certainly the design gives little outward indication of the function of the building, which looks more like an office building than a church. The existence of the French Protestant Church’s library is first mentioned in 1613-1615, when the church council minutes record the decision to collect subscriptions for ‘the establishment and erection of the library’. The material, housed in a dedicated library designed by Webb, now contains some 1400 early printed volumes; besides church records and manuscripts, are many books representing legacies, gifts, and acquisitions, reflecting the history and interests of the Huguenot congregation. In 1950 a carved panel by J Prangnelli was inserted into the tympanum above the main entrance, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the church’s foundation. The building has otherwise seen little significant alteration.
Today, the French Protestant Church in Soho Square, together with the Dutch Church in Austin Friars - rebuilt in 1950-1954 – survive as the direct descendants of the Strangers’ Church founded in 1550. The church in Soho Square is the only remaining French Protestant church in use in Britain, though regular services are held for French Protestants in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
Church, 1891-1893, by Aston (later Sir Aston) Webb, for the consistory of the French Protestant Church. In Free Franco-Flemish Gothic, with late Romanesque elements. The builders were Messrs Higgs and Hill. The modelling for the Doulton terracotta was done by William Aumonier.
MATERIALS: the exterior of the building is of blue Luton brick with red Doulton terracotta dressings and lavish enrichments. The steeply-pitched roofs are slated; the stepped gable ends are marked by terracotta scrolling, above which rise tall brick stacks with terracotta capping. The church interior is mainly faced in buff terracotta, with some slightly darker brickwork. The windows of the south frontage hold horned timber sashes; though the 1970 List entry notes small-pane iron casements, the illustration in The Builder (27 June 1891) appears to show sash frames, as do early photographs. The church windows are leaded, in geometric patterns.
PLAN: the building occupies a rectangular plot stretching back from the south-facing street frontage. The church itself, accessed directly from a central passage, occupies the rear part of the building, being set on a north/south axis. The nave rises through two stages, flanked by side aisles, with a semicircular apse to the north. The front range of the building is taken up by the library and the presbytery: the library is to the west of the entrance, and the presbytery, accessed by a staircase to the east of the entrance, is arranged one room deep over the three upper storeys.
EXTERIOR: built over four storeys with basement, the principal frontage is five main bays wide, subdivided into nine window bays on the upper floors. The ground floor, which is faced in terracotta with brick bands to the jambs of the openings, contains five round-headed arches; the largest, to the central entrance, is enriched with shafts, and with cusping to the outer arch. The tympanum contains J Prangnelli’s 1950 commemorative carving; this depicts the arrival of the first Huguenots by sea, and the signing of the 1550 charter, with a Huguenot cross above. The basket-arched double doors are of timber, carved with linenfold panels. A secondary entrance to the east is framed by a single order, the doorway enriched by acanthus moulding; there are double doors with glazed panels. The linked openings to either side of the main entrance are framed by arches with flower mouldings resting on pilasters; the windows are divided into two arched lights by a central mullion. Within a frieze at first-floor level is gilded lettering reading ‘EGLISE PROTESTANTE FRANCAISE DE LONDRES’. Above, a central canted bay rises through three storeys to the gable, which is faced with buff terracotta with brick banding; a stepped arcade of niches surrounds the canted attic window, with a cross final to the apex. To either side rise shallow tower-like projections with pyramidal roofs. The windows in the upper storeys have terracotta frames with engaged shafts and decorative mouldings; those to the first floor are segmental-arched and those to the second floor are flat-arched. Small paired square-headed windows to the outer bays have leaded lights. The upper windows to the towers have aprons decorated with classical French swag and drop motifs. The centre of the roof is crowned by a cupola with a leaded lantern.
The north of the building is not intended for public viewing, and is very much plainer. The rear of the presbytery is of stock brick, with tall stock brick stacks. Further north, the upper part of the nave of the church rises above the flat roofs of the side aisles. The walls are of stock brick, with buff terracotta frames to the graduated tripartite clerestory windows, which have round-headed arches. Set in the tops of the side aisles are the glass oculi which light the aisles, with modern covers.
INTERIOR: within the front doors are glazed inner doors set in a terracotta archway. Beyond is the narrow barrel-vaulted ENTRANCE HALL leading to the church: this serves as an introduction to the church interior, being faced with buff terracotta; to either side are niches in the form of fireplaces, with moulded basket-arched openings, containing original radiators. There is a terrazza floor. An iron lantern is thought to be original. Round-headed archways give access to the library to the west, and a waiting room to the east. At the north end, another round-headed archway, with glazed double doors, leads into the church.
Entering the CHURCH, the impression the interior gives of spaciousness filled with light includes an element of a surprise, given its situation at the rear of this enclosed site. The effect is created by the tall clerestory windows, the apse pierced by five lights, top-lights to the vaults of the aisles, and above all to the use of pale buff terracotta for the internal facing. The four-bay nave is separated from the aisles by an arcade of Romanesque arches, the compound piers having shafts defined by moulded bases and capitals, the shafts themselves dying into the piers. Above, a narrow passage runs around the clerestory, its balustrade swelling into small corbelled balconies between the arches. Each trio of clerestory windows is set within a round-headed arch with angled reveals; the windows heads have complex mouldings of scrolls and small bosses. Around the entrance to the church are graduated panels with cinquefoil heads, beneath a shallow arch. Above the balcony, a high oriel window with leaded ogee lights allows the interior of the church to be viewed from the presbytery, and a doorway from the balcony gives access. Moulded letters beneath the window read: ‘LE TEMPLE DU SEIGNEUR JESUS’. The nave has an austere wagon roof of sequoia wood, with a band of undulating terracotta moulding running beneath it. A high arch with moulded imposts frames the apse, which is in three stages, the windows being in the upper stage. The apse is fitted with semi-circular choir stalls with panelled fronts, the pastor’s seat being at the centre; two additional reading desks in the same manner are located elsewhere. Above are two round-headed arched openings above, one blind, the other containing the 1893 organ by William Hill. The organ pipes are set in timber cases between the arches and the windows above. Between the pipes is a panel with a plain timber cross, placed in 1964 to cover the original cross in moulded terracotta, which is understood to be surrounded by angels and with the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer in French; this remains in situ, though hidden. Shafts framing the windows rise to the radiating ribs of the semi-domed roof, terminating in six timber crown finials, said to be a reminder of Edward VI’s role in the foundation of the church. To the front of the apse is the integrated pulpit in buff and black terracotta, wide and low with a bowed front, with steps to either side; moulded letters along the front read: ‘IN CHRISTO VITA ET LIBERTAS’. The vaulted aisles have ribbed saucer domes with gadrooned bosses, and central leaded lights set above octagonal frames. The aisle walls are banded with brick, and have arched radiator niches. The floor is of timber parquet, with boards in the seating area. The church retains its original sequoia pews, with moulded ends. The communion table is C19, with Tudor Gothic detailing, and is thought to be part of the early furnishings of the building, though not designed for it. The slender terracotta font with scrolled feet and a shallow basin was installed in 1950 on the 400th anniversary of the church’s foundation, and has a dedication to John à Lasco. Near the entrance is a First World War memorial timber tablet in the form of an aedicule, designed by Adrien Montagu in 1920, brought from the demolished French Protestant School, commemorating four students. Beside it is the school’s bell. A handwritten memorial in a glass-fronted case commemorates members of the congregation lost during both the First and Second World Wars. To either side of the apse are small vestries, accessed by heavy planked doors with moulded fillets. A winding stair from the eastern vestry leads to the aisle roof, and the rear access to the presbytery.
The LIBRARY to the south-west is lined on three sides with fitted bookcases and cupboards, original to the building and designed by Aston Webb. The restrained Gothic detailing is more English in character than decoration elsewhere in the church building. There is a central tier of glazed bookcases, with cupboards above and below, those above having trefoil-headed panels and those below having plain panels. The arched doorway has leaf carving to the spandrels, with trefoil panelling above. The wall containing the windows does not have bookcases, but between the windows is a safe in a timber case made to match with trefoil panelling. The fireplace has tiles surrounding a cast-iron grate with a floral panel, set within a bolection-moulded fire-surround; above is a moulded frame within which is set a royal coat of arms in carved and painted timber, though to belong to the late Stuart period; the 1970 List entry notes that at that time there were two coats of arms in the building, but the location of the other is not now known.
The waiting room, set between the main entrance hall and the presbytery, has a timber floor and a small cast-iron chimneypiece with an eared panel beneath the shelf. To the east is the entrance hall of the PRESBYTERY, which has a terrazzo floor. The stair leading to the living accommodation has turned balusters and a moulded handrail, both elements becoming plainer between the second and third floors. There is a modern door at the entrance to the living accommodation. The style of the presbytery interior shows the influence of the Queen Anne Revival, in its restrained joinery and features, the majority of which survive, including chimneypieces, panelled doors and fitted cupboards. On the first floor is a double sitting room, divided by multi-panelled double doors set within a panelled opening framed by pilasters; the ceilings have moulded cornices. Both rooms have substantial chimneypieces of Georgian inspiration with Aesthetic Movement tiled cheeks, the example to the W having an integral overmantel glass within a Classical surround. Access to the balcony of the church is gained from a passage running behind these rooms. To the east is a small kitchen with modern fittings. One second-floor bedroom has a chimneypiece with a moulded frieze of interlocking curves. The bedrooms on the third floor have plainer doors with unmoulded panels, and small cast-iron chimneypieces similar to that in the waiting room.
The BASEMENT probably originated as the cellars of the C18 houses formerly standing on the site, but these have been greatly adapted for the use of the church building. The southern part of the basement has been converted to a church hall, being a single open space with a parquet floor. The basement contains a boiler room, and modern kitchen and toilet facilities.
Along the front of the basement area runs a low wall of banded brick and terracotta. The piers have pedimented caps, with domes topping the gate piers. Between the piers are semi-circular openings containing wrought-iron railings. The gates are thought not to be original.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
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Books and journals
Jaulmes, Y (author), The French Protestant Church of London and the Huguenots, (1993)
Pevsner, N, Bradley, S, The Buildings of England: London 6 Westminster, (2003), 394
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for John (Jean) à Lasco, accessed 27 February 2017 from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16081
'Soho Square Area: Portland Estate, Nos. 8 and 9 Soho Square, The French Protestant Church', in Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho, ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1966), pp. 60-63. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp60-63 [accessed 2 March 2017]., accessed 2 March 2017 from http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp60-63
The Builder, 27 June 1891 and 10 June 1893
This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.
End of official listing