On the edge of Brixton town centre is what appears to be a Cathedral sized church which is a bit like a Tardis in reverse, in that it’s much larger on the outside than it is on the inside.
In fact, the interior is tiny compared to how large the church seems it should be, and that’s because most of the church wasn’t built — it’s technically an unfinished building. They’ve ended up with about a third of the length, but all of the height, which is why it looks so grand from the main road, but less so from the rear.
And if you’re inside and ignore the fact that there’s a solid undecorated wall behind you, the interior is as impressive as you might expect.
This is Corpus Christi Church Brixton, and was – partially – built in 1886/87 to replace a small temporary chapel that had opened nearby to serve the growing Catholic community. Rev. Henrik van Doorne, a priest from Flanders who had lived in England for many years, bought a house in the area in 1880, but in 1885 he commissioned the architect, John Francis Bentley to design a church for the area.
Being a grand architect (he later designed Westminster Cathedral), he proposed a larger church than originally expected, which also required a larger plot of land. So they bought Bethel House, a large manor house on Brixton Hill.
On 14th July 1886, the foundation stone was laid by the Bishop of Southwark John Butt, and the Bishop was back just under a year later, on 12th June 1886 to consecrate it.
However, only about a quarter of the planned church had been built – just two chapels and the main chancel altar area. The congregation gathered in a space intended to be left empty between the nave and the chancel — and have been doing so ever since.
In 1904, the church got a little bit larger when two transepts were added on either side.
And then building work stopped, and has never resumed.
The land to the rear of the church, once expected to be the church, is now occupied by a primary school, and even if there was a need to expand the church, which is unlikely in more secular times, there simply isn’t the space any more.
The entrance to the church is at the rear, though a modern doorway and you can turn left for the church hall, or right to go into the church itself. Standing as far back from the chancel as you can, which isn’t very far, the interior is as impressive as the exterior suggests it should be.
The style is an interpretation of Early Decorated Gothic, realized internally with plastered brick and Bath stone for the arches and decoration. The soaring height of the church makes it feel more like a Cathedral than a Church, and in a smaller town than London, would likely have been the cathedral for the parish.
Large stained glass windows face east overlooking Brixton Hill, with saints in niches below. On my visit, the lights were off, although it turned out I had arrived just prior to a service, so left sharpish when the congregation started arriving, and the priest wandered around turning the lights on.
It’s an impressive looking red brick building from the outside, and I was on my visit as I was just passing by surprised at how small the interior was compared to the grand external appearance.
Initially, I suspected the back of the church had been destroyed during WWII, but no, it simply wasn’t ever built.
It’s a most peculiar building with ambitions never realised.
Being a Catholic church, it’s open most of the day for people to visit for praying, or for photographing.