The text of the history section is from the Parish History, written by Des Keohane. The printed version is available from the Church for £3.50 and may be requested by post, at extra cost for postage. Any amendments or additions are welcomed – please send by email to Fr Andrew
The creation of the Parish of St. Gregory the Great in 1947 by the Right Reverend Leo Parker, the seventh Bishop of Northampton (1942-1967), was a significant step in meeting the needs of an increasing Catholic population in the rapidly growing and expanding town of Northampton. When the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in England in 1850 and the Diocese of Northampton was inaugurated, the population of Northampton was a mere 25 000. By 1900 it had risen to 87 000, and by 1945 it was 100 000 and rising. But for nearly one hundred years after the founding of the diocese, the Catholic community of Northampton had but one parish church, firstly the mission church of St. Felix, and then the Cathedral of Our Lady and Saint Thomas, designed by the younger Pugin, which was opened in 1864. The medieval Hospital of St John at the bottom of Bridge Street was acquired, and Mass was offered there by the priests of the Cathedral, but it was becoming apparent by the end of the nineteenth century that the town‘s expansion was heading east, and that Abington was going to see a substantial population growth. Hence the first new Catholic church in Northampton was planned to serve that area.
In the last years of the nineteenth century, Abington was but a small and declining village, separated from neighboring Northampton by some two miles of countryside. A favourite Sunday afternoon family stroll for the people of Northampton was to take the footpath from St Giles Church in town, through the fields, to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Abington. The growth of Abington into the largely residential area and one still growing, that we know today is a remarkable story in itself, and all the more remarkable in that the main surge in that growth occurred within the narrow timespan of fifty years at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1901 the population of Abington was a mere 121. The growth of Abington is the precursor to the story of St. Gregory’s and merits some special, if necessarily brief, consideration.
Let us start with the site of the church itself. The picture on the right shows, in 1890, the entry to the now long disappeared Plum Lane. Plum Lane was a field road, which ran north from where the big roundabout now is on the Wellingborough Road to the Kettering Road near Morrison’s, and it ran through what is now the church car park. In its way, Plum Lane symbolises the change in the face of Abington (Fig. 1). Its northward course ran through the farmland, once the medieval open fields of Abington Manor which in later times had become private farms. The land on which St. Gregory’s is now built had lain in the Middle Farm of the Manor, and when the manor broke up the site was part of Mr Britten’s Farm. At the point where Plum Lane started were the last remaining thatched cottages, visible in the picture, of Abington village which lay just to the south.
Abington was originally a medieval manor, recorded in Domesday Book in 1086, and known sometimes in history as Abendon or Abynton. Its population was always small living in a cluster of dwellings around the Manor House, now the Museum, and the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. It was in this Church, altered and refurbished over the years but tracing its origins back to the twelfth century, that the early Catholic community of Abington came to Mass. Peter de Irencestra (Irchester) is the first recorded rector, and he and his line of successors maintained in medieval Abington the faith of our fathers until, with the Reformation, the link with Rome was broken. It would be four hundred years before Mass was again offered in Abington and, as we shall later see, happily that was facilitated by the same, now Anglican, Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Although the old village, lost now under Abington Park, was the centre of the manor (Fig. 2), its lands extended north and south in a long swathe, from Moulton Park in the north to the banks of the Nene in the south. There is perhaps a comforting continuity in that the bounds of our present parish of St.Gregory are very much the bounds of the ancient manor.
The manor of Abington changed little over the centuries until the Thursby family, in the eighteenth century, enclosed the land and, in creating a private park around the manor house, nearly all the old village disappeared for ever. In 1840 the manor was sold to a London banker named Lewis Loyd, whose son, Samuel, was also a banker, and indeed an eminent one at that (even referred to at the time—probably with a degree of exaggeration—as ”the richest man in the world”). The Lewis family did not intend to live in the manor but around this time the House became known for some reason (perhaps it sounded grand!) as Abington Abbey, although it was never at any time a religious foundation. The “Abbey” was leased out for some time as a private mental hospital and Samuel Loyd, ennobled as Lord Overstone, built himself Overstone Hall in the village of Overstone. He having no male heir the manor and its lands passed to his daughter Lady Wantage. She had no children and disposed of the lands of the manor, some by sale, but, in 1897, by a generous donation she gave the “Abbey” and a large part of what we now know as Abington Park to the Borough of Northampton.
The last years of the nineteenth century witnessed the spread of the shoe factories out from the central areas of Northampton and houses were built in large numbers for those working in them. The triangle between the Kettering Road and the Wellingborough Road was quickly developed and the then Bishop of Northampton, Arthur Grange Riddell (1880-1907) decided that preparations for a new church should be put in hand. He purchased in 1896 a site on the corner of Whitworth Road and Wellingborough Road where he planned to build, in due course, a church dedicated to St. Joseph. The diocese was large, then covering the seven counties of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk; its needs were great and diverse; its people far from wealthy. The Church of St. Joseph was never built, although ownership of the site was retained for many years, it was ultimately sold, and today (2008) it is occupied by Parsonson’s Furniture Shop.
Perhaps it was as well in the longer term that Bishop Riddell’s project never reached fruition, for as the Abington area was developed a more suitably central location within it was desirable to meet the needs of its Catholic population. In 1927 Dudley Charles Carey-Elwes, who was a member of the Great Billing Elwes family and was Bishop of Northampton from 1921 to 1932, found and purchased for £743 just such a site on the corner of Park Avenue North and Birchfield Road. (One of the founding Parish families of St Gregory’s was the Lack family. The children of that family believe that their grandfather, William John Lack, a Builder, advised the Bishop in negotiating the purchase.)
This was in due course to become the site of St. Gregory’s. Bishop Carey-Elwes’s purchase of this plot of land was far-sighted but it would be another twenty years before a church would be built there.
Those twenty years were difficult ones for the Catholic community of Northampton as they were for the country at large. The 1930s were years of economic depression and low wages (the average weekly wage for a shoe worker was seventy-two shillings (£3—60p) in the 1930s). Then the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 heralded a long six years during which any prospect of building a church was out of the question.
However, these twenty years of waiting were not idle years for the Catholic community of Abington. There were determined men and women who, although the times were unpropitious, saw that money would need to be raised if the local church they longed for was to be built. So throughout those years, fundraising activities were regularly undertaken: whist drives, jumble sales, dances, and a door-to-door collection slowly brought money into the Abington Catholic Church Building Fund. It is interesting to note that this was a grassroots movement, “semi-detached” from the Diocesan authorities. The Diocese was regularly furnished with audited accounts, but only at the end of the war was the activity drawn fully into the fund-raising activities of the Cathedral Parish. Many good men and women played their part in taking forward this project pre-war, and so mentioning the names of just two is solely to recognise two particular tasks which were key to its success. Harold Cox was an Insurance Inspector with a commission in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry which was later to take him to Dunkirk and happily back again. Harold was the prime mover in starting in the 1920s the Building Fund and guiding it in its early years.
Another stalwart was (Thomas) Sidney Mann, Secretary of the Manfield Boot & Shoe Company, who was not only a meticulous Treasurer to the Building Fund but a zealous petitioner to successive bishops for the erection of a church in Abington, and quite often a thorn in the side of the Diocesan Chancellor who had to balance the books! The ad-hoc committee even unilaterally petitioned Pope Pius X1 in their cause — but received no reply!
The War Years may have precluded any building plans but it did produce a significant spiritual development when the Mass returned to Abington after four hundred years. From the early 1940s Mass was celebrated in the Parish Hall of the Anglican Church of St. Peter and St. Paul on the corner of Ashburnham Road, not the modern Parish Rooms which St. Gregory’s has sometimes used in later years for social functions but the corrugated iron building, often called the “green hut”, which preceded it. The need for a mass centre in growing Abington was heightened by the uncertainties of wartime Britain and numerically enhanced by the arrival of evacuees. Two evacuated schools were attached to Notre Dame School.
At first there was an occasional weekday Mass said in the “green hut” by Father William Gaffney but during 1940 the first Sunday Mass was said there by Father Michael Foley, and these two priests and Father Anthony Hulme, all from the Cathedral, looked after the spiritual needs of the Abington District section of the Cathedral Parish. Importantly too these priests, as the war ended, revived and regularised the Parish Building Fund and established the Abington Social Committee to raise funds.
The work of these three priests in the wartime years was an invaluable contribution to our history. However, let us also pay grateful tribute to the kindness and Christian goodwill of the Rector of the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Canon Ashworth Brooks, and to his Parochial Church Council who, for seven years or more, allowed their parish hall to be used for Mass. Bishop Leo Parker publicly recognised this at the Laying of the Foundation Stone of St. Gregory’s, and let us to remember the kindness and tolerance of the ancient Abington church, shown at a time when in many places relations between the denominations were often strained and difficult.
The end of the Second World War raised new hope that a church might be built on the Park Avenue North site, purchased twenty years before and at that time let out to allotment holders. The difficulties, however, in those early post-war years must have been daunting. Bishop Parker had an ambitious building programme for churches and schools across his extensive diocese, the Cathedral urgently needed extension and refurbishment, and wartime building restrictions and controls had been extended into peacetime, primarily to focus labour and materials on reconstruction in bomb-damaged towns and cities. Nonetheless, Bishop Parker was a determined man and in 1946 he took three all-important decisions. In March he authorised Father Gaffney, who had just returned from wartime service as a chaplain to the Eighth Army, to purchase a large ex-American Army hut with a view to its use a temporary church. Accompanied by Mr William (Billy) Weston, a parishioner and a partner in the local building firm of Weston and Underwood, Father Gaffney inspected the hut at an RAF station in Leicestershire, purchased it and had it taken to the grounds of Notre Dame for temporary storage. The following month the Bishop purchased 68 Ashburnham Road for use as a presbytery. Thirdly, in September, he appointed Father Eric Phillips, then serving as a curate at Our Lady and the Blessed English Martyrs in Cambridge, to join the clergy of the Cathedral as Priest-in-Charge of the Abington area.