Building » +Birmingham – Cathedral Church of St Chad

+Birmingham – Cathedral Church of St Chad

St Chad’s Queensway, Birmingham B4

The cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and a major early work by A. W. N. Pugin. The church was built by Bishop Walsh, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, replacing an early nineteenth century building which had ceased to meet the needs and aspirations of the growing Catholic population of the city. The cathedral houses the shrine of St Chad, whose relics were discovered at the time of its construction. The church was elevated to cathedral status in 1850 and became a minor basilica in 1941. It is brick built, in a German Gothic style, and contains important furnishings designed by, or provided by, the Sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, the Hardman family and Pugin himself. Pugin’s Bishop’s House was demolished in 1959 to make way for the inner ring road, a major loss to the city. 1960s reordering resulted in the loss of Pugin’s rood screen and other unsympathetic alterations, but more recent schemes of redecoration and reordering have reinstated something of the colour and character of Pugin’s interior.

After the dismantling of the shrine of St Chad at Lichfield Cathedral in 1538, a box of bones of the seventh century saint was salvaged. This passed through a series of Catholic owners, ending up in the chapel at Aston Hall, Aston-by-Stone. They were rediscovered here in 1839 and taken to Oscott. In due course Pope Benedict XVI authenticated the relics and instructed that they should be enshrined in A. W. Pugin’s church, the future cathedral, which was then under construction in the gunmakers’ quarter of Birmingham.

In 1808-9 a chapel dedicated to St Augustine (or Austin) had been built by William Hollins on the sloping site in Shadwell Street. ‘Though it was valuably large and roomy it seems to have been gaunt and unattractive’ (Little, 52). In the 1830s a larger and more worthy replacement had been mooted, and plans were prepared by Thomas Rickman, who had an office in Birmingham. These came to nothing and it fell to Pugin, then at the height of his powers and influence, to prepare a scheme for Thomas Walsh, Vicar Apostolic. The church was built between 1839 and 1841, an early collaboration of Pugin with his builder George Myers. Brick was chosen for economy, allowing more resources to be deployed on the more important task of fitting out. The fittings were furnishings designed or procured by Pugin, with the support of the Sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury (who donated the stalls and a brass lectern, acquired abroad and the latter later sold by the cathedral) and John Hardman father and son (who contributed towards the cost of the rood screen, and high altar). Bishop Walsh contributed £14,000 towards the total cost of just under £20,000. A house was built (also from Pugin’s designs) opposite the church, described by its architect as of ‘solid, solemn and scholastic character’ and by his biographer as ‘Pugin’s first, and one of his most successful attempts, to create an urban Gothic idiom’ (Hill, 233).

St Chad’s was consecrated by Bishop Walsh amidst great ceremony and splendour on 21 June 1841. The brick design, of Baltic or Germanic character (which choices later embarrassed Pugin), took full advantage of the sloping site, with a crypt below the east end. This was originally intended as a school, but became a burial place, in Pugin’s words, ‘the first fully Catholic place of sepulture to be revived’. Here Bishop Walsh was laid to rest in 1849. Here also are buried Louisa, Pugin’s second wife (d.1844) and four generations of the Hardman family.

With the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy by Pope Pius IX in 1850, St Chad’s became the cathedral church of the new Diocese of Birmingham, and Dr William Ullathorne was enthroned as the first bishop on 27 October 1850. The Chapter of Canons was established in 1852, Mgr Henry Weedall being the first Provost. Pugin’s short sanctuary was insufficient for the building’s new status and functions, and in 1854 was extended under the crossing by E. W. Pugin, bringing forward A. W. Pugin’s rood screen. E. W. Pugin also oversaw the addition of the southwest spire in 1856.

The next significant addition was in 1933, when the northwest St Edward’s chapel was added, from designs by Sebastian Pugin Powell (A. W. Pugin’s grandson) as a memorial to Archbishop Ilsley.

In 1941, on the occasion of its centenary, St Chad’s was made a minor basilica by Pope Pius XII.

Sadly, in 1959, Pugin’s Bishop’s House was demolished to make way for the City Council’s inner ring road. A chimneypiece and two chairs from the house are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.

From 1964 a major programme of repair, relighting and reheating was instigated by Archbishop Dwyer (architects Weightman & Bullen of Liverpool and York). More controversially, the sanctuary was rearranged to allow for more active participation by the congregation. ‘For this purpose the sanctuary was remodelled and extended to the chancel crossing. Much anxious consideration was given to retaining the rood screen designed by Pugin, in particular, to restoring this to the original position in the sanctuary […] Unfortunately this compromise inhibited the free circulation around the new high altar and sanctuary, thus the retention of the rood screen was found to be impossible’ (architect’s account in Catholic Building Review, 1968). Incongruously, Pugin’s tiled floors were replaced with polished marble. Other changes included the relocation of the organ from the sanctuary arch to the west end, leaving a small choir organ adjoining the sanctuary.

The demolition of the house and Archbishop Dwyer’s reordering no doubt prompted the characterisation of the cathedral and its setting as ‘mutilated’ in the revised list entry of 1982 (the cathedral had been first listed in 1952). The internal damage was ameliorated in reordering and redecoration carried out from 1992 for Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville by Duval Brownhill (now Brownhill Hayward Brown). ‘It is certainly the most colourful restoration of a Pugin cathedral since that of Nottingham by F. A. Walters in 1926-7’ (O’Donnell, 62). The corpus from the rood has been rehung (photo lower left, above), albeit without the attendant figures of Our Lady and St John. The screen itself is now in the Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Reading.

In 1995 Archbishop Couve de Murville arranged for fresh examination of the relics venerated as those of St Chad. The report by the Oxford Archaeology Unit concluded that five of the six bones were of mid-seventh century date. A Decree issued by the archbishop in 1997 required that the bones should be kept together and venerated collectively.


The following is an expanded version of the list entry (below), taking account of more recent alterations, and remedying some omissions. The cathedral is oriented northwest-southeast, but this description assumes conventional orientation, as if the high altar was to the east.

The church was built in 1839-41 from designs by A. W. Pugin. It is built of brick laid in Flemish bond, with Bath stone dressings and slate roofs. The style is derived from north German churches of the thirteenth century e.g. St Elizabeth, Marburg. The plan consists of an aisled nave, western towers with spires, shallow transepts, short apsidal chancel flanked by Lady Chapel and sacristies, north baptistery with steps down to the crypt below and northwest chapel (added in 1933, architect Sebastian Pugin Powell). Pugin’s intended spire at the crossing was not built.

The west front is symmetrical, with two thin towers with equally thin broach spires, that to the southwest completed in 1856 (architect E. W. Pugin). The northwest tower has a ring of five bells originally cast by Mears of Whitechapel and augmented by three by Blews of Birmingham in 1877, all recast by Taylors of Loughborough in 1940. The central main entrance has a doorway divided by a stone pier and carved tympanum with the Virgin and Child and censing angels. Above this, a large six-light window with Geometrical tracery and in the gable a spherical triangle window with trefoils. In the towers, the height of the paired windows is accentuated by integral niches, with statues of English saints. To the northwest, the apsidal St Edward’s chapel of 1933 and beyond this to the east, the entrance to the crypt and the former baptistery. The transept has a tall six-light window. The east end takes advantage of the sloping site, ‘a sublimely successful … massing of slate roofs and gables rising over a massive crypt’ (O’Donnell), with a three-sided apse flanked by the Lady Chapel to the north (in English fourteenth century style) and sacristies to the south.

Entering the church, the high nave and aisles and absence of clerestory gives the impression of a hall church. The nave arcade is of five bays, with immensely tall slender clustered shafts; a sixth, taller and broader bay marks the crossing. The aisle and chancel windows are all of two lights. The steeply pitched roof has slender timbers and embraces both the nave and aisles and suggests a crossing by means of lateral hips. In the nave, the roof has a high queen-post truss with arched braces to an upper collar, supported by curved braces to wall posts which are the continuation of stone wall posts which rise from the capitals and link the roof and arcade. The aisles have purlin and rafter roofs, supported by struts from the nave arcade. The chancel roof has moulded rafters supported by curved brackets and a ridge purlin. A staircase from the north aisles leads down to the crypt, which is of Norman design, evoking the accretive nature of many a genuinely medieval church. This includes a chapel and the Hardman Chantry, the latter with painted decoration of 1877 (restored 1998).

Many of the original furnishings have been lost, but A. W. Pugin’s high altar of 1841 survives. Paid for by John Hardman Senior and Junior (who also paid for Pugin’s rood screen), this has riddel posts and an elaborately carved gable with cusped arch enclosing the relic chest of St Chad, with the crowning spire added in 1933 (by Gerald Hardman). Below this, the tabernacle is by J. H. Powell (1878). The oak choir stalls and Pugin’s oak archbishop’s throne incorporate late medieval carved woodwork, traditionally (and in the list entry) said to come from St Mary im Kapitol, Cologne but now thought to be more likely Netherlandish, with carved figures and linenfold panelling. The nineteenth century-style encaustic tile floors of the sanctuary are by H. and R. Johnson, 1992, replacing the 1960s marble. The stone forward altar, pierced with cusped openings, is of c.1992.

Pugin’s altar also survives in the Lady Chapel, 1841, with carvings of the Presentation in the Temple, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, and a contemporary reredos carved with the Virgin and Child flanked by the Annunciation and Visitation. The chapel also retains Pugin’s screen and parclose screen, and a fifteenth century statue of the Virgin and Child given by Pugin. The fibreglass statue of St Joseph is by Michael Clarke, 1969.

In the north transept is Pugin’s elaborate canopied Bath stone monument to Bishop Walsh, made by Myers and a ledger brass to John Bernard Hardman, d.1903.

Pugin’s font is now in the north aisle, octagonal and carved with the symbols of the evangelists. In the south aisle is a war memorial of 1921 by Gerald Hardman, with a relief of the Deposition and a memorial tablet to Archbishop Williams, d.1946, by G. B. Cox. Along both aisles, the Stations of the Cross are by Albrecht Franz Lieven de Vriendt of Antwerp, 1875.

In the nave, the hexagonal oak pulpit is now placed against the northwest crossing pier, moved from the south side in 1968, when it lost its tester. Incorporating statuettes of Doctors of the Church, it was made by Pugin from one of circa 1520, obtained probably from St Gertrude’s Abbey, Leuven and given by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1841. The pews, of Japanese oak, date from 1940 and were designed by G. B. Cox.  On the south side, a nineteenth century wooden statue of St Chad, holding a model of Lichfield Cathedral. At the west end of the nave, the organ (built by J. W. Walker & Sons in 1993) has a dazzlingly painted Gothic case by David Graebe.

At the northwest corner, in St Edward’s chapel, an altar of 1933 by Gerald Hardman.

Stained glass by Pugin (notably in the chancel apse, made by William Warrington and in the former baptistery, made by William Wailes); the rest largely by the Hardman firm, ranging in date from 1848 to 1928.

Finally, monuments in the crypt include that to Archbishop Ullathorne, by Peter Paul Pugin, 1890, with a reclining effigy in episcopal vestments under a four-centred canopy.

List description


Roman Catholic. 1839-41, by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin but very much mutilated both in itself and in its setting. Red brick; slate roof. In a C14 German style with a short chancel with flanking small north Lady Chapel and south vestries, an aisled nave apparently with shallow transepts, a north baptistery with stairs down to the crypt below and a north-west chapel of 1933 and 2 thin west towers with needle spires. Arcade of 5 bays with immensely tall slender clustered shafts; a sixth, taller and broader bay marks the ‘crossing’, Modern west gallery with organ. Their steeply pitched timber roof embracing nave and aisles and suggesting a crossing by means of lateral hips. Tall 2-light windows to chancel and nave. The furnishings now mostly gone. The concave-sided hexagonal pulpit with statuettes of Doctors of the Church is a piece made by Pugin from one of circa 1520 obtained probably from St Gertrude’s Abbey, Louvain. The Archbishop’s Throne and the stalls incorporate late C15 carved woodwork from St Mary in Capitol, Cologne. Still surviving some of Pugin’s stained glass made circa 1845 by W Warrington and there is other glass by Hardman and Co of circa 1865. Also by Hardman and Co, brass to the Rev John More +1856; he stands but has a pillow behind his head. In the crypt only the arch of the easternmost chapel now has any of Pugin’s painted patterning. In the crypt, too, monument to Bishop William Ullathorne OSB+1889. He lies in episcopal vestments with, on the wall behind him, a large painted tablet showing him being presented to the Virgin and Child by St Bernard and an angel.

Listing NGR: SP0696687522

Heritage Details

Architect: A. W. N. Pugin

Original Date: 1841

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II*