St Thomas' Church, Chilworth is a prime example of the Arts & Crafts style of architecture. It was built to house the Greshambury Institute for workers at the nearby Gresham Paper Mills run by the Unwin family. Probably as a result of a fire at the mills, the Institute did not use it and in the year after it was built, 1896, the new building was sold to the Parish of Shalford and became St Thomas’s Church.
George Unwin commissioned the young architect William Howard Seth Smith to design the new building. Seth Smith used the new Arts & Crafts style that broke away from the Victorian Gothic revival. Round arches, reminiscent of the Romanesque style and seen as more welcoming in buildings for public use were "in"; pointed arches were "out".
The building shares features with other local buildings designed at the time such as St Martin’s Church in Blackheath and the Watts Gallery in nearby Compton, built in 1904.
St Thomas' is built in red brick with a hipped concrete tile roof swept out to the eaves; in the centre of the roof is a wooden lantern and an ogee shaped lead dome. A crucifix was placed on the bell tower in the 1970s to replace a rather peculiar structure known locally as the 'bird table'.
The building is in the shape of a square pavilion with a lower range to the left and a wing standing at right angles to the rear. It is two storeys high; buttresses support the roof and a continuous leaded clerestory allows light to flood into the building. The roof has overhanging eaves. At ground level there are leaded windows on the left and right sides of the building. One large leaded window faces the street. At the front of the building is a porch with half glazed sides, a bargeboard and planked double doors welcome the visitor into the building. Inside, four curved beams rise from the corners to create an open, airy space.
In the rear wall, a large space with a recess may originally have been intended for a teacher or speaker but is now used for the altar. At some point, an Arundel Society print was hung above the altar, showing The Crucifixion by Perugino. The original was in the monastery church of St Maria Magdalena de’Pazzi in Florence, painted between 1493-96.
Early photographs show that the interior was highly decorated in keeping with the fashion at the time. It was believed that interior decoration elevated the importance of churches, town halls, museums or meeting places, giving them a sense of meaning and special purpose. In the 1950's began the overall painting of the brickwork to get rid of the then unfashionable Victoriana. Now the interior of the church has been almost completely painted over. The old lamp fittings were replaced in 2000 by chandeliers. St Thomas' was given a Grade II listing in 1985.
With our thanks and acknowledgement of the great work done by Olive Maggs, art historian and author, who put together this history of St Thomas' and, the Greshambury Institute and the Gresham Paper Mills.