Building » +Norwich – Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist

+Norwich – Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist

Unthank Road, Norwich, NR2 2PA

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

The cathedral church of the Diocese of East Anglia since 1976, designed by George Gilbert Scott Junior and completed after his death by his younger brother John Oldrid Scott. The building was a gift to the city of Norwich by the fifteenth Duke of Norfolk – to fulfil a vow made at Lourdes – and is a prominent city landmark. Pevsner may be right to describe its Early English style and historicism as ‘an end, not a beginning’, but the sheer quality and conviction of the detailing and materials, with the superb stained glass by Hardman and Powell, make this a remarkable and memorable building.

Before the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 , Norwich Catholics worshipped in the Duke of Norfolk’s Palace chapel on St Andrew’s Street (which appears to have survived until the 1960s as a billiard room). Just before that, in 1786, the conforming eleventh Duke succeeded, and Fr Edward Beaumont took his congregation to a house in Willow Lane. In 1791 they purchased land behind Strangers’ Hall off St John’s Alley and built a modest chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist behind some houses (demolished in 1835). Strangers’ Hall became the presbytery in 1797 and a school was built alongside in 1836. St John’s remained in use until the nave of the present church of St John the Baptist was ready in 1894. It and Strangers’ Hall were then sold, becoming the Maddermarket Theatre in 1921, in which use it remains, with the school as the scenery store.

From the mid-seventeenth century, Jesuit priests had been active in the city and secured a granary in part of the former Dominican friary cloister in 1687 for use as a chapel. It was destroyed in anti-Catholic riots the following year and after using various locations, a chapel (with priest’s house) was built 1758-62 in St Swithin’s (later Ten Bell) Lane. This became too small and in 1824 a site was purchased on the north side of Willow Lane. Building did not commence until 1827, when on 10 August the foundation stone was laid for a chapel designed by John Patience, City Surveyor. At first sight, its classical facade suggests a Nonconformist chapel, not dissimilar to the nearby Friends’ Meeting House in Goat Lane, which Patience had just built. It was opened by Bishop Weld on 2 September 1829, and the old chapel was converted into a school. In 1859, the old chapel and house were demolished and a larger school built.

A new priest, William Rowe, redecorated the Willow Lane interior and the chapel was re-opened in 1834, a contemporary account noting that ‘the efforts of the gilder and grainer have not been restrained’. J.J. Scoles undertook repairs in 1846, resulting in a further redecoration in the ‘Byzantine style’ and stained glass by William Wailes. Yet another redecoration took place in 1880.

On his arrival at St John’s in November 1876, the Revd Dr (later Canon) Richard Duckett began to raise funds and search for a site for a larger church. Bishop Amherst of Northampton was concerned not to upset the Jesuit mission, and in February 1879 rejected Fr Duckett’s proposal to buy the former Norwich Gaol site, where the cathedral now stands, because of its proximity to Willow Lane. Shortly afterwards and on his own initiative, Fr Duckett bought a site on Duke Street near St George’s Bridge. The bishop approved, as it was some distance from the Jesuit mission.  

Meanwhile, the fifteenth Duke of Norfolk (1860-1917) thought he should build a church for the Catholics of Norwich, and in October 1878 had written to Bishop Amherst offering to build one in the Early English Gothic style. Scott understood the choice of style was part of a vow made on a trip to Lourdes, when the Duke promised to build a church if he was blessed with a son. A letter of 1892 from the Duke to the City Corporation suggested the style was chosen because the city had a Norman cathedral and many Perpendicular parish churches, but ‘no examples of the pure and noble Early English style’. The Duke’s close interest in the architectural detail was to remain a major factor in the design of the church.          

The public sale of the gaol site was launched in September 1879 and after Fr Duckett directly approached the Duke, it was purchased by December. Although widely approved by Norwich Catholics, the Jesuit Superior objected. Once appointed in April 1880, Bishop Arthur Riddell began negotiating with the Jesuits and finally gave his approval for the site in October 1880. The Jesuits then withdrew from the city in January 1881, and Willow Lane was handed over to the diocese after payment of appropriate compensation. It remained the main Catholic church in Norwich until the nave of the present church of St John the Baptist was opened in 1894, after which it became a school. The school closed in 1968 and the building remained empty until converted to office use. It is listed in Grade II (no.1051793).

George Gilbert Scott Junior, the elder son of Sir G.G. Scott, had been received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal Newman in 1880. He was appointed to Norwich in February 1881. Scott believed that the Cardinal had got him the job, which the Cardinal denied, saying that the Duke ‘has his own judgement in these matters’ (the Duke had chosen French High Gothic for his first major church, now the Cathedral of Our Lady and St Phillip Howard in Arundel by J.A. Hansom 1869-73, though it also has some Early English detailing).

Scott had not previously designed a church in the Early English style, although as a scholar of English medieval architecture and as his father’s assistant on numerous restorations, he had a thorough working knowledge of it. The building takes its plan, elevations and details and ideas from many buildings of the first half of the thirteenth century but the combination is not closely paralleled anywhere. Scott’s biographer, Dr Gavin Stamp, correctly identified Lincoln Cathedral as a principal source (for instance, for the elevation and vaults) although ironically that was one of the few English cathedrals where the Scott family was not involved.

Nevertheless, Lincoln does not have the large circular arcade piers that dominate at Norwich (and which have attracted some criticism). While commonly used in Romanesque great churches, these are rarely found in c.1200 England (although two examples at Steyning and New Shoreham are close to Arundel). They are more common in Normandy and around Paris (Lisieux, Gisors, Soissons). Perhaps they were the Duke’s idea, as Scott wrote in 1885 of the ‘effect of massive simplicity which your Grace desires’. Compound piers with ever more shafts were preferred in thirteenth century England, as they integrated an elevation better with rib vaults. There is no shortage of shafting in the Norwich aisles, including extensive use of the dark fossiliferous ‘marble’ from Frosterley in Durham. Wall passages, another consistent Early English feature (particularly at clerestorey level) are here absent, although implied, e.g. in the transept blind arcading.

Correspondence demonstrates the Duke’s personal involvement in even small details, and he is credited with the choice of three great lancets for the north transept façade as well as the stained glass. As virtually the sole source of funds, his financial circumstances had an occasional effect on both progress and design choices. The tragic death of first his wife (in 1887) and then his invalid son (in 1902) also spurred changes. The mental health and repeated illness of G.G. Scott and the necessary involvement of his brother John Oldrid Scott to complete the church after his death in 1897 entailed changes in the development of the project. However, the design essentially is G.G. Scott’s, with the central tower considered by Stamp ‘one of the finest achievements of late Victorian ecclesiastical architecture’.

Thomas Burton was appointed Clerk of Works early in 1881 and began to clear the gaol and prepare the ground, filling the many chalk mines before any building could start. A ceremony described by Fr Duckett as ‘cutting of the first sod’ took place on 24 June 1882. The final plan was taking time to emerge, with the Duke, Bishop Riddell and Canon Duckett all involved. The Duke’s insistence on correct orientation meant the east end would have to be built over a substantial crypt and close to the Earlham Road, so work began on the nave. Batch & Co. completed the foundations at a cost of £2,323 10s 9d by the end of 1882, but were not awarded the building contract, which went to Rattee & Kett of Cambridge. The nave was then to be of seven bays but it was extended to nine by the time a drawing was published in The Building News of April 1884. A stone with five crosses was laid on 17 July 1884 by Bishop Riddell (south pier in the west gallery) to commemorate the start of the building of the nave above ground. A further one bay extension was adopted early in 1888 to allow for a three-bay south nave chapel (the ‘Sunken Chapel’, now St Joseph’s Chapel), as a memorial to the Duke’s beloved Duchess, Flora. This meant there was insufficient room for the 1884 Durham nine altars-style east end, perhaps compensated for by the addition of eastern aisles and then chapels to the transepts.

Rattee & Kett had built seven nave bays by 1888, when J.O. Scott took temporary charge after his brother’s withdrawal to an asylum. The decision was then taken to continue without a contractor, but with craftsmen directly employed and managed by Burton with the aid of quantity surveyors, John S. Lee & Sons. G.G. Scott continued to design and to make occasional visits, but J.O. Scott took charge of the works until 28 February 1894 when G.G. Scott formally resigned. He wrote ‘It is very satisfactory to me to know that the Duke […] consented to place the work in my brother’s hands’. 

The nave was completed and opened on 29 August 1894, the Feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, with a temporary east wall across the western piers and a small low sanctuary created in the crossing enabling work to continue on the tower above. Canon Duckett was now living in Scott’s new house called the Rectory (rather than presbytery), that had cost £11,879. An east end much as we see it now had been conditionally approved by the Corporation on 9 July 1894. J.O. Scott had added chapels to the transepts, apparently with his brother’s approval. The north transept (Walsingham) chapel was donated by Gwendolen, Duchess of Norfolk in 1909, its design based on the transept chapels at Laon Cathedral. The details of the upper parts of the tower were then ‘as yet undecided’. The stone boundary wall with iron gates was also J.O. Scott’s idea (the gates were removed in the 1970s) and further changes were made to the large sacristy built between the rectory and south transept. The architectural details of the choir are from later in the thirteenth century than the nave, in particular the tierceron vault; Bishop Northwold’s choir at Ely Cathedral (1234-53) seems to be the inspiration. The tower vault has lierne ribs of fourteenth century type.

In 1906, Thomas Burton retired and was replaced as Clerk of Works by Thomas Doré. W. Samuel Weatherley is credited with much of the drawing work, although some drawings are signed by Temple Moore, G.G. Scott’s pupil from 1875-8. The architectural stone carving is of a consistently high standard and captures the character as well as the style of medieval work. It is attributed to James Ovens, a ‘local artist’, though there seems to be too much for just one person. Dunstan Powell designed the north transept door and the east end stained glass, his father John Powell having designed the nave glass, all made by Hardman & Co. of Birmingham.

On 8 December 1910, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the church was opened and dedicated to St John the Baptist by Bishop Keating. Sadly Canon Duckett had died in July, but he had seen the building virtually complete. Curiously, there was only a temporary high altar until 1957, when one designed in Hornton stone by Adrian Gilbert Scott (G.G. Scott’s younger son) was consecrated on 25 and 26 June by Bishop Leo Parker, assisted by Bishop Restieaux of Plymouth and Bishop Joseph Rudderham of Clifton. J.O. Scott had designed an altar and reredos in 1907 to be placed between the eastern crossing piers, but despite the support of the Duke, the bishop insisted it be placed at the east end.

In the 1930s, various furnishings by James and Lilian Dagless of Walsingham were introduced, such as the altar and reredos of the Walsingham Chapel, consecrated on 10 March 1938. The north transept and Walsingham Chapel windows were destroyed by air raids in 1942 and other windows damaged. All were reinstated by Hardmans, mainly to the original designs but with some new scenes, such as the opening of the Slipper Chapel by Cardinal Bourne in 1934 in the Walsingham Chapel. The former clerestorey windows of grisaille glass, inspired by twelfth century Cistercian designs, were moved down to the aisles.

In December 1969, Canon McBride set up an ‘experimental’ temporary altar under the tower on three steps, replacing the altar rails with the presidential chair, in accordance with the guidance from Vatican II.  He also made alterations to the chapel altars. In 1976 St John’s was made the cathedral church of the new Diocese of East Anglia, with Alan Clark installed as the first bishop on 2 June. Anthony Rossi built the Portland stone apron under the tower in 1976-7, re-sited a 1961 pulpit and rebuilt the 1957 altar, leaving the tabernacle at the east end. The altar was consecrated in April 1977.

In 1984, Scott’s baptistery became the cathedral shop, and in 1986 St Joseph’s Chapel was partitioned with wooden screens, heated and carpeted for use as a weekday chapel. Purcell Miller Tritton had proposed to glaze the arches of the western gallery in 1968, but in 1991 the area was carpeted and tables and chairs introduced for a café area. In 1991, the sanctuary floor was raised, the pulpit removed and the stalls thinned out. The east end of the sanctuary had been used as a weekday chapel, but in 2000 three paintings of East Anglian saints (Felix, Etheldreda and Edmund) were placed under the east window. The north door was repaired and dedicated as the Millennium Jubilee Door and given moulded glass doors (as also was the west door), designed by Russell Taylor.

On 4 August 2007, Bishop Michael Evans consecrated a new main altar of Ancaster stone supported on legs of Frosterley marble, given by the Knights of St Columba. This was designed by Russell Taylor, who then installed twelve blue and gold riddel posts supporting red curtains around a barely furnished sanctuary, so concentrating the eye on the altar. It left the chapel of East Anglian saints beneath the east window furnished with some of the sanctuary benches. The sanctuary received a green and gold carpet and new lectern in October 2009. Underfloor heating fed by a biomass boiler (beneath raised pew platforms) was installed in the nave and transepts in 2010.

By the time Bishop Alan Hopes was installed in 2014, the curtains had been removed.

In 2018, the eastern end of the sanctuary was re-floored with a low Classical stone screen supporting a crucifix and candlesticks standing forward of the east wall on the previous main altar platform. In front of it on a new platform of two steps was placed a stone cathedra with flanking stools, all designed by Russell Taylor and incorporating Frosterley marble.

A concrete-framed parish hall by Purcell Miller Tritton had replaced the old Guild Room to the north west of the cathedral in 1972. In 2003 an extension by Anthony Rossi was approved, to provide a café, WCs and meeting spaces. A foundation stone was blessed by Bishop Michael Evans on 24 June 2004 in the presence of the eighteenth Duke of Norfolk. By 2005 the coffee area under the west gallery had moved into it. In 2009 the Narthex, an adaptation and extension of the Rossi scheme, was begun by Russell Taylor. This included a shop (freeing the baptistery) and involved the formation of an opening in the arcaded wall of the south nave aisle. The Narthex was used for the first time in January 2010, in time for the centenary celebrations, and was blessed by Bishop Michael Evans on 22 May 2010 before being formally opened by the Duke of Norfolk. 

In 2016 a large decorative lead urn from the garden of the White House at Poringland (probably acquired by the artist Geoffrey Birkbeck) was presented by Bishop Alan Hopes and placed in the cathedral garden.


The list description (below) is a basic description of the main architectural features, but could be expanded to include more on the history and furnishings, as described above. The following corrections/additions may be noted:

  • The north transept chapel is not ‘octagonal’ but has a polygonal apse.
  • The elaborate iron door hinges were designed by J.O. Scott and made by Edward Norkett.
  • The rood beam supports a crucifix and statues by Peter Rendl of Oberammergau.

The list entry for Cathedral House omits the date (1891-3).

List descriptions



Church, now cathedral. 1882 (foundation stone 1884) to 1910 by George Gilbert Scott (Jnr) and J. Oldrid Scott. Ashlar (Beer stone for nave: Ancaster weathered and Clipsham stone for tower and transepts) with lead roof. Cruciform plan with aisles and octagonal chapel off north transept. Early English style. Lancet windows in 9-bay nave, 4-bay chancel and 3-bay transepts, 5-light west window; 2-tier, 3-light east window. Flying buttresses and clerestory. Turrets at corners of nave and chancel. 2-stage crossing tower. Doors in 2-centred north porch and in north transept have elaborate iron strapwork.

Interior: Nave arcade of massive round piers; triforium and wall arcades with black (Frosterly) marble shafting; west gallery; stiff-leaf capitals and stone rib-vaulting throughout. Rood bar with crucifix. Glass by John Powell of Hardman & Powell and in the Chancel by Dunstan Powell. Cathedral House, Unthank Road (q.v.) adjoins to the south.

Listing NGR: TG 22335 08547

Cathedral House

Grade II  GV

Rectory. Late C19 by G.G. Scott. Ashlar with lead roof and 4 stone chimneys. L-plan in Early English Gothic revival style. 2 storeys and attic 6-window range. Entered through Early English door with iron strapwork in single-storey front range with crenellated parapet. Two 2-light lancets on ground floor of projecting left wing. Other flat-headed windows have shafted mullions with leaded lights. Attic Lancets. Single-storey range to right.

Listing NGR: TG 22318 08512

Boundary wall


Boundary wall of Cathedral House and Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Late C19/early C20. Ashlar with moulded coping. 3 pairs of gate piers to Earlham Road (q.v.) and 3 pairs to Unthank Road (gates removed). Steps and flanking wall lead up to porch at north-west corner of nave. Boundary wall returns around the west end of the Cathedral with a short stretch of wall to the east.

Listing NGR: TG2234008582

Heritage Details

Architect: George Gilbert Scott Jnr

Original Date: 1881

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade I