At the beginning of the 19th century, Watford consisted of a single long road (now known as Lower High Street) extending from St Mary's church to a ford at the river Colne. In 1801, its population was 3,530.
However, the coming of the railway in 1837 transformed it into a growing industrial and dormitory area. In 1881 the population had increased to 10,000.
From 1829, with the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act, the British Catholic community began to reassert itself, with prominent Anglicans like Newman and Manning becoming converts. Priests began bringing Catholics back into the fold in every town and village in the country.
The re-establishment of the Catholic church in Watford was mainly the result of the enthusiasm and commitment of Fr George Bampfield, a young priest who had converted from Anglicanism. Having established missions at Waltham Cross, Barnet, Enfield and St Albans, he came to Watford in an attempt to start a mission there in 1861.
At first Fr Bampfield found only four or five Catholic families living in the poorest of conditions, unsuitable for the establishment of a mass centre. Later, in 1863, more Catholics begin to come forward as a result of newspaper adverts that Fr Bampfield had to placed.
A room in Carey Place (which no longer exists) was hired that acted as Watford's first Catholic church from 17th October 1863, but Fr Bampfield really wanted to establish a permanent church building for the parish. Building plots were being offered for sale close to the Bushey railway arches. Watford's first permanent Catholic church building opened in 1863, a simple wooden hut in Upper Paddock Road, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St John the Evangelist. Mass continued in this building until 1959 when the Bushey and Oxhey church of the same name was dedicated in London Road.
Due to the increasing number of Catholics in Watford, a new church in Water Lane opened in 1883 and continued to be used until Holy Rood opened in 1890. Fr Samuel Swanston was the resident priest of this new church, although he became seriously ill soon afterwards and died in 1887.
After this, the The Cardinal then appointed Fr. Henry Hardy of the Harrow mission as priest in charge of the two missions, with Fr James Doyle as assistant priest. Fr Hardy died soon after his joint appointment, late in 1887 and was succeeded by Fr Michael Ryan.
Holy Rood Church was built as a result of the dedication and generosity of Mr Stephen Taprell Holland, who paid for the church to be built.
Stephen Taprell Holland (b. 1843) was a partner in the building firm of Winslow and Holland, based in Bloomsbury. He was an active local citizen even before becoming a religious benefactor, acting as a trustee of the district hospital, serving as a local magistrate and as Colonel of the Watford District Rifle Corps. His other business interest was serving as a director of the London & North Western Railways company.
Stephen Taprell Holland was not born into a Catholic family but became a convert in middle age. In thanksgiving for his conversion, Holland decided to build a church and acquired a prime site close to the centre of Watford for this purpose. The site was acquired jointly with Dominican Sisters from Harrow to allow for the development of a church, a convent, a presbytery and a school. Stephen Taprell Holland paid all of the costs of building the church, school and presbytery, a sum in the region of £35,000 at the time.
Stephen Taprell Holland died at his home on 9th December 1922, following a short illness. He lies in the churchyard of St John's Church, Aldenham, near his home.
The architect employed to build the church was John Francis Bentley. Bentley was a Non-Conformist who had converted to Catholicism in his early twenties.
Bentley had been apprenticed to the building firm of Winslow and Holland at 16. His interest in church design led him to be introduced to the architect Henry Clutton. In 1860, Bentley was offered a partnership with Clutton which he refused, and set up his own practice.
Much of the work he performed from this point onwards was with churches, including the Jesuit Church in Farm Street, London and St Francis of Assisi in Pottery Lane, Notting Hill. Bentley started planning Holy Rood church in 1889 and continued working on the project at various times for twelve years. By 1894, he had been commissioned to build the new cathedral at Westminster.
Bentley was commissioned to build Holy Rood when he was fifty and was not curtailed by expense. He designed one of the loveliest Victorian churches in Britain. An outstanding example of Bentley's architectural talent, its furnishings also illustrate the depth of his abilities in diverse areas such as the design of woodwork, painting and stained glass. A memorial to Bentley can be found in the church, above the inner doorway leading to Market Street.
Bentley produced the plans for Holy Rood in 1889 with Canon Keans laying the foundation stone of the building, on behalf of Cardinal Manning, on 29th August. It opened in mid September 1890, by the Rt. Rev. William Weathers, Bishop of Amyela.
When opened, the church was not in the impressive completed condition that it is today. It had a temporary High Altar and none of the impressive stained glass present today had been fitted. Bentley also deliberately left the side chapels unfinished to allow the parishioners to provide the side altars and so take a meaningful part in the building of their church.
It is interesting to consider the description that Bentley himself provided of the church:
"The church when completed will fairly represent an old English church of the Hertfordshire district prior to the Reformation; though it is in no way a copy of any particular church. He believed it was the largest example of a Rood erected in this country since Edward VI ordered that all such should be destroyed and burnt"
Fr Ryan became the first priest at Holy Rood, on loan from Ireland. Later in 1893 when recalled to Ireland by his bishop, he was replaced by Fr Thomas Roche. However after only a few months, Fr George Cox took over until 1895 when Fr Thomas Regan was appointed.
At this time, Bentley began to build the tower, baptistry and chapel of the Holy Ghost and the north aisle. Cardinal Vaughan laid the tower's foundation stone in May 1894. The temporary high altar was finally replaced by the present altar and tabernacle in 1899. Also in 1899, the original gas lighting of the church was replaced with electricity, while retaining Bentley's original gilded bronze pendants. Finally, the tower, baptistry, Holy Ghost chapel and north aisle were completed in 1900.
Consecration of the church took place on 5th of July 1900, with the Right Rev. Bishop Brindle officiating on behalf of Cardinal Vaughan. Although Stephen Taprell Holland was present at the consecration, sadly the architect, John Francis Bentley was not, being seriously ill at the time.
(Adapted from "Church Of The Holy Rood, Watford. A History and Description of the Church" by R. Bennett and J.E. Wright, 1989, ISBN 0-9515046-0-6)
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