Building » Cambridge – University Catholic Chaplaincy

Cambridge – University Catholic Chaplaincy

Guildhall Street, Cambridge, CB2 3NH

A careful 1970s addition to the sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings of Fisher House by Gerard Goalen & Partner, and a building of considerable architectural interest in its own right. The exterior is a self-effacing composition in brown brick, while the interior of the main worship space is in a more Brutalist idiom, with the beams of the concrete frame exposed. The altar was originally placed on a small dais in the corner, possibly reflecting the original weekday use of the space as a market hall. It was refurbished to serve exclusively as a church in 2011, when the walls were lined out and whitened, and new furnishings provided.

The repeal of the Test Acts in 1871 allowed Catholics one again to study at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. However this was not encouraged by Cardinal Manning, who wished to establish a separate university for Catholics in London. Pressure from the laity led to a review after Manning’s death, and in 1896 a papal indult allowed Catholics once again to study at the ancient universities. The establishment of the Oxford and Cambridge Catholic Education Board followed, and Henry Fitzalan-Howard, fifteenth Duke of Norfolk, purchased property at St Edmund’s House, Cambridge where a chaplaincy was established. This subsequently relocated several times before arriving at the former Black Swan Inn in Guildhall Street in 1924. This building comprised two separate timber-framed buildings dating from the seventeenth century. It was re-named Fisher House, in honour of the Catholic martyr (St) John Fisher, a former Chancellor of Cambridge University.

In 1967 a proposal was put forward to demolish two old billiard halls next to the inn and build a chapel seating 500. The proposal was later scaled down by the architects, Gerard Goalen & Partner, to provide a smaller chapel with other accommodation. In this revised scheme from 1972 the ground floor was to be left mostly open, while the first floor was to contain the library and buttery and the cantilevered top floor a chapel and assembly room. A rapid rise in building costs led to further revisions; one of the old halls fronting Guildhall Place was retained and refurbished to accommodate a weekday chapel and library, with a new assembly hall alongside for Sunday Mass on the remainder of the site. The building was opened by the Archbishop of Birmingham on 30 October 1976. The hall was originally dual-purpose, being rented out during the week to market traders to provide an income. Sanctuary furniture for both the hall and weekday chapel was designed by the architects, with altar furnishings by David John. After a successful fundraising appeal in 2008 it became possible for the hall to become exclusively a place of worship. It was remodelled and reordered by Freeland Rees Roberts architects, with the walls and ceilings lined out and whitened, but Goalen’s exposed concrete framing and timber roof structure were retained. The new chapel was opened in 2011, and provided with a new stone altar in 2015, consecrated by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool.


Goalen’s building forms the south side of a rectangle of buildings enclosing a central courtyard. On the north side is Fisher House, on the west side a former billiard hall, now converted for chaplaincy use and on the east side is a multi-storey car park. Goalen’s building comprises the main assembly hall, which has an octagonal roof and a rectangular addition to the west under a separate pitched roof. Only the south front of Goalen’s building is readily visible and this is built of brown brick with roof coverings of natural slate. The assembly hall has a canted front with a projecting continuous clerestorey under the eaves. The wall below the clerestorey is now blind but there was originally a long rectangular window at low level, lighting the main worship space, the outline of which is still visible. The building to the left has a projecting bay window at first floor level and a strip clerestorey across the base of the shallow roof-gable which continues across the side elevation to Guildhall Place. Towards the inner courtyard the assembly building has a lean-to roof over the northern part of the hall and the entrance passage.

Inside the assembly hall, the members of the concrete frame are exposed. Originally the two massive ring beams were exposed for their whole length with brick panels above and below. The continuous clerestorey of the octagonal roof is clear-glazed and the elaborate timber structure is exposed. Along the west side of the octagon is a first floor gallery connecting to the building behind. The original brickwork has now been lined and painted white, with the wall behind the altar covered to full height and returned with another angled wall to create a canted sanctuary space. Small segmental-arched recesses in the canted sides contain the tabernacle and president’s chair, while a larger recess behind the altar contains a version of a Cimabue crucifix, commissioned from the Hamilton Kerr Institute. The stone altar (2015) was supplied by Aidan Hart & Co, church furnishers. The floor covering is of light timber, replacing the original woodblock.

List description (Fisher House)


Late C16 / Early C17. 2 houses at right angles to each other linked later. 2 storeys with attics; modern brick ground floor with projecting upper storey of circa 1700; timber-framed and plastered; 3 windows, flush frames segmental heads, hung sashes with glazing bars; modillioned wood eaves cornice; 3 hipped dormers. One room has C18 panelling from No 58 St Andrew’s Street. 1 good staircase. (RCHM 158).

Heritage Details

Architect: Gerard Goalen & Partner

Original Date: 1976

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed