The Parish of Saint Helen owes its existence to the large population explosion experienced by industrial centres of the nineteenth century. Until then Low Fell had been but a small village on the Southern edge of Gateshead - coal mining being the principal occupation. The opening of the Gateshead to Durham Turnpike in 1827 served to put Low Fell on the map and many of the industrialists and merchants of Gateshead and Newcastle built large houses in the area, this being followed by a steady growth in population generally. Residents faced a stiff uphill climb to the local Parish Church of St. John at the top of Sheriff Hill.
The new Parish of St. Helen was formed by combining parts of the parishes of St. Mary, Gateshead, St. John, Gateshead Fell and St. Cuthbert, Gateshead. The entire cost of the Church - £13,000 - was met by Edward Joicey of Whinney House, Low Fell who was a partner in the firm of Joicey and Co., colliery owners. The original living was in the gift of Mr Joicey of the net annual value of £300. The Church was consecrated on 29th August 1876.
The Church is a beautiful structure of freestone, composed of nave, north and south transepts, chancel with semi-octagonal apse, organ-chamber, clergy vestry, choir vestry and at the south west angle a tower and spire of most elegant design. The style of architecture adopted is that of Early English. The principal entrance is through the base of the tower by a richly moulded and ornate doorway. The nave is wide and lofty, with a fine open timbered roof, the spandrels of which are supported by elegantly treated corbels, placed between each of the side windows.
The transepts open to the nave by wide and pointed lofty arches of two square orders, severely plain, while that spanning the chancel is richly moulded and rests on shafted corbels of ornate design. In the corner of the north transept is a porched entrance known as the "Joicey Door". To encourage his workers to attend Church, Edward Joicey built a bridge over Whinney Dene, thus reducing the amount of travel for church services. A metal gate in the boundary wall still exists (leading to what is now private property) but the bridge was demolished in 1940 as a training exercise. The south transept was turned into a Lady Chapel in 1987 and the seating re-arranged in its present form.
The chancel has a low arcade of Caen stone consisting of trefoil headed arches on single shafts of Frosterley marble which line the walls on each side of the altar, over which there is a small reredos of alabaster. The reredos, erected in memory of Edward Joicey by his widow in 1884, has three panels of Caen stone, enclosed in quatrefoils, bearing representations in relief of the Good Shepherd. In each face of the apse is a single lancet, or five in all, containing representations in stained glass of the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, the Healing of the Paralytic, the Ascension, Christ Blessing Little Children and the Sermon on the Mount. Above these there is a richly ornamented string course, crowned by a fine groined roof, the ribs of which rise from handsomely carved corbels. The windows are by Wailes and Strang of Newcastle upon Tyne. The floor of the chancel is tessellated and the steps leading to the altar are of polished marble and within the rail (erected in 1952 to commemorate the 25th Anniversaryof Rev. E.L. Wood) the floor is of marble mosaic.
The windows of the Church are all of the lancet type; the west and transept windows consist of three, effectively grouped, with hood mouldings on the exterior. Those in the North transept are a memorial to the first vicar of the Church, Rev. William Henry Simons, LLD. They depict the prophets, Isaiah to the left, Jeremiah above, Ezekiel in the centre and Daniel to the right, these are by the Bacon brothers. There is also a tablet in this transept as a memorial to Elizabeth Simons, his widow. Three windows in the Lady Chapel are in memory of Edward Joicey and depict the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, also by the Bacon brothers. In the east wall of the Lady Chapel is a window in memory of John Ronald Jackson, erected by his daughter, Mrs. Irving, in 1902. It depicts the Parable of the Talents and was made by the firm of George Joseph Baguley who served under William Wailes before setting up a factory of his own in Newcastle.
See below for William Wailes windows.
The nave windows are all rather special. On the South wall next to the entrance are two windows in memory of William and Jane Ann Glover who lived just above the church in St. Helen's Terrace. The windows are the work of Charles Earner Kempe (1837-1907) and are fine examples of his style of design - the use of mainly green, blue and ruby glass, the delicate and detailed painting of figures and their settings and the masterly use of large areas of silver stain for which Kempe became noted. The windows depict St. Oswald and St. Helen.
The third window on the South wall depicting St. Michael is in memory of James and Maria Leathart who lived at Brackendene at the bottom of Belle Vue Bank. He was a lead manufacturer and invested in the Pre-Raphaelite style of art - when he died he had a most magnificent collection of paintings by associates of that style. The window directly opposite, depicting Devotion, is in memory of their son, William Bell Scott Leathart (named after his Godfather, the poet and artist, William Bell Scott) who was a Trooper in the Imperial Yeomanry and died at Bloemfontein in 1901 during the South African War. Both Leathart windows are by William Morris and Co. to the designs of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (l803~l898) and having been installed so soon after the designers death display a vibrance not noted in later work. It was not unusual for Morris and Co. to repeat their designs and these windows are copies of work originally carried out for Roedean Church.
The two other windows are also by the same maker and designer but are not of the same quality of the Leathart windows. Both were erected in 1919, one being the centrepiece of the War Memorial depicting Our Lord and the other, depicting Samuel, in memory of Joseph Grey who was a timber merchant in Newcastle and lived in Briermede, Low Fell. The pulpit is of freestone, octagonal in shape, on massive clustered shaft with foliated caps; on each face is a deeply recessed diapered panel, enclosed in a pointed arch, embellished with nail-head ornament. The font, of the same material is similar in character.
The organ is a very fine instrument by Henry Willis and stands in the chamber to the left of the Chancel. It cost £1000 to install when the church was built. [Details - See below]
There are two bells in the tower, both cast by John Warner and Sons in 1876. One is a small chiming bell; the other a large bell of approximately eight hundredweight with wheel and stay. The whole of the belfry is occupied by the frames. Originally the church had sittings for 500 persons but alterations over the years have reduced the number to 330. Similarly the original lighting was by gas but is now electric. New lighting was installed when the interior stonework of the Church was cleaned in 1973.
Article by Sid Atkinson
Photographs from glass plates of church c.1900