Building » +Nottingham – Cathedral Church of St Barnabas

+Nottingham – Cathedral Church of St Barnabas

Derby Road, Nottingham

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

The cathedral church of the Diocese of Nottingham. Built in one phase by A.W.N Pugin with his builder George Myers, and funded in large part by Pugin’s patron Lord Shrewsbury. The stone-built cathedral and its 150ft spire are conspicuous landmarks on the Derby Road to the west of Nottingham city centre. It is designed in Early English style rather than Pugin’s favoured Middle Pointed, the design inspired in part by the medieval Cistercian house at Croxton, Staffordshire. By contrast with the simplicity of the exterior, the original design of the interior was one of great richness and colour. This has undergone several transformations, attempting variously to dilute or reinstate something of the colour and atmosphere intended by Pugin; the most recent reordering and redecoration (1993) sought to reinstate some of that character. The main volumes of Pugin’s interior survive, and notably his decorative scheme for the Blessed Sacrament chapel (restored in 1933). There are also later features of interest. The contemporary boundary wall and presbytery (now Cathedral House) form a good group with the cathedral. The 1960s extension to Cathedral House and the Cathedral Hall of the 1970s are not of special architectural or historic interest.

In 1825 Fr Robert Willson took charge of the Nottingham mission, the congregation then numbering about 150. Three years later the church of St John the Evangelist in George Street was opened, built from designs by Edmund Willson of Lincoln, the brother of Fr Willson. This building survives today, in secular use.

With the growth of the Catholic population, a new and larger church became necessary. In 1841 Fr Willson acquired a site of 10,000 square yards, prominently located on the outskirts of the town alongside the Derby Road. The cost of site acquisition together with the building of a church and presbytery was estimated at £20,000, towards which the Earl of Shrewsbury gave £7,000 and the Revd Waldo Sibthorpe, an Anglican convert, £2,000. Shrewsbury’s protégé A.W.N. Pugin was appointed architect and on 10 November 1842 the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, assistant to Bishop Walsh, Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District. The builders were Myers and Co. of London, Pugin’s favoured builders.

In 1842 Fr Willson was appointed first Bishop of Hobart, Australia, arriving there on 11 May 1844. He was therefore not present for the consecration of his Nottingham church, which took place later that year on 27 August. The ceremonial was led by Bishop Wiseman, who came with relics of St Barnabas, brought from Rome. At the time of its opening, this was the largest Catholic church built in England since the Reformation. Pugin’s presbytery was occupied from 1844 and his nearby convent buildings for the Sisters of Mercy followed in 1846.

With the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 St Barnabas’ became the cathedral church of the newly-established Diocese of Nottingham, and the first Bishop, Joseph Hendren, was enthroned here in December 1851.

Under Bishop Bagshawe (third Bishop of Nottingham, 1874-1901), the Italianate tastes of the London Oratory were introduced, somewhat at odds with the full-blown Gothic character of Pugin’s Cathedral. Gothic vestments were banned, Mozart and Gounod were more likely to be sung than plainchant, the gates to Pugin’s rood screen were removed and marble altar rails were introduced. Further changes took place under the fourth Bishop, Robert Brindle (1901-15). Pugin’s rood screen was removed from the sanctuary and re-erected at the west end. A new high altar was introduced, along with an Austrian oak bishop’s throne given by the King of Spain.

This trend was put into reverse by the fifth Bishop, Thomas Dunn (1916-31), who introduced the daily recitation of the Divine Office by the cathedral clergy and gave a more prominent place to the use of plainchant in the liturgy, as encouraged by Pope St Pius X. Bishop Dunn set out his programme for restoring the Puginian character of the cathedral in a letter published in the Diocesan Yearbook for 1925 (84-85). Employing F.A. Walters as his architect, the high altar installed by Bishop Brindle (which Dunn described as ‘enough to make the angels weep by its unsightliness’) was replaced, the rood beam was restored to its original place, and Italianate altars were removed from the transepts. A shrine to St Joseph was set up in the north transept, from designs by J. Sydney Brocklesby ‘of medieval style, richly gilt, and picked out in glowing colours’ (Diocesan Yearbook, 1924, 71).

Bishop Brindle’s successor, John Francis McNulty moved away from Cathedral House, establishing the property in Cavendish Road East as the Bishop’s House. He continued Bishop Dunn’s sympathetic work in the cathedral, being responsible for the redecoration and restoration of the Blessed Sacrament chapel largely to Pugin’s original designs, by Alphege Pippet in 1933 (as a memorial to Bishop Dunn).

Bishop Edward Ellis was the seventh Bishop of Nottingham, from 1944 to 1974, seeing the diocese through the post-war years and the upheaval that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The stained glass had been removed from the cathedral for safety during the war, and a decision was taken not to reinstate the Pugin/Wailes glass in the transepts and at the west end but to replace it with new, lighter glass designed by Joseph Nuttgens (c1948). In 1951 the crypt, the burial place of several bishops, was renovated in memory of Bishop McNulty, with a new entrance and steps formed on the north side. At about the same time, new oak confessionals in Gothic style were added at the west end of the aisles, designed and made by R. Bridgeman of Lichfield.

In 1962 there was a major internal reordering (Architects Weightman & Bullen of Liverpool and York). The oak cathedra was removed and a new one installed in the position previously occupied by the high altar. The latter was replaced with a new Portland stone high altar on a white marble extension to the sanctuary under the tower. The rood beam and figures of St Mary and St John on either side of the suspended crucifix were removed. Timber screens were removed from the entrances to the ambulatories and new mahogany benches replaced the original pitch pine pews (some of which ended up at St Hugh’s, Bilborough, qv). The interior was redecorated in lighter colours and new lighting installed. These works reflected the taste of the times and anticipated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, convening at that time. The Buildings of England wrote: ‘The whole effect could hardly be further from the richness of decoration and atmosphere that Pugin intended’.

In 1969 a flat-roofed extension to Cathedral House was built from designs by Peter Bartlett of Bartlett & Gray of West Bridgford. This was to house accommodation for the Daughters of Divine Charity, who looked after the cathedral and Cathedral House.

In 1977 the Cathedral Hall was rebuilt from designs by Richard Eberlin FRIBA, largely replacing a previous hall built in 1898. Extending into the cathedral garden, this has an octagonal form, designed to evoke a medieval chapter house.

A further major reordering of the cathedral took place in 1993, under Bishop McGuiness, to mark the 150th anniversary of the church (architects Smith & Roper of Buxton). This involved a new high altar, lectern, sanctuary seating and cathedra, and the reinstatement of the rood figures of St Mary and St John. Level changes were reduced and new doors fitted at the main entrance, along with a ramp in the northern ambulatory, to allow for improved circulation. A new font was installed at the east end of the south aisle and a new encaustic tile floor laid throughout. Some of Pugin’s previously covered painted decoration was reinstated, notably the roundels in the spandrels of the nave and transepts. At the west end new confessionals rooms were formed from the oak of three smaller former confessionals. These works too reflected their times, marking a move away from the iconoclasm of the 1960s towards a renewed respect for Pugin’s original design intention.

The most recent significant addition has been the tomb in the northern ambulatory housing the translated remains of the Venerable Mary Potter, founder in Nottingham of the Little Company of Mary. This was designed by Smith & Roper with carving by John Shaw of Lincolnshire. In 2017 the remains of Bishop Willson, who had died in 1866 on a return trip to Nottingham, were exhumed from the crypt and reinterred in Tasmania.


The church is built in the Early English Gothic style, chosen primarily for reasons of economy, and modelled in part on the Cistercian Abbey of Croxton, Staffordshire, founded by one of Lord Shrewsbury’s ancestors, with the plan ‘strictly from the Large parochial churches of Nottinghamshire’ (letter from Pugin to Lord Shrewsbury).

Although the largest post-Reformation Catholic church in England at the time of its construction, the dimensions are not great by cathedral standards (it was not of course originally built as a cathedral). However, the 150ft spire is given greater prominence by the location of the building on an elevated site on the edge of the city centre. The other main dimensions are as follows: 190ft from east to west; transepts are 83 by 20ft and 34ft high; the nave is 76ft by 22ft, the aisles each 15ft 6ins wide; the choir 37 by 22ft.

The list description (below) offers a fairly full account of the cathedral. However, the following features are not mentioned:

  • The crypt. This lies below the retrochoir and is reached by a flight of steps formed from the northern ambulatory in 1951. It has a vaulted roof and is the burial place of several bishops.
  • The organ in the north ambulatory dates from 1913 and is by Norman & Beard, incorporating some pipework from an earlier organ by Gray & Davison. It was refurbished by Hill, Norman & Beard in 1989.
  • The Portland stone statue of St Hugh in the southeast chapel has been variously attributed to Eric Gill or Joseph Cribb, a pupil of Gill, but is by the Catholic sculptor Philip Lindsey Clarke. It was made in 1949 for St Hugh’s College, Tollerton, the junior diocesan seminary (Diocesan yearbook, 1950, p.116). A companion statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary made for St Hugh’s College is now at St Peter and St Paul, Lincoln (qv).
  • The brass memorial to Bishop Brindle in floor of the south sanctuary aisle is by F. A. Walters, c.1921.
  • The canopy to Walters’ high altar is now suspended high over the forward altar, at the crossing.

Entry amended by AHP 14.09.23

List description


Roman Catholic church, created a cathedral in 1851. 1841-44. By Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin for John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, and Ambrose Philipps de Lisle. Altered late C19, 1927, 1962. Restored 1933 and c1990. Ashlar with slate roofs. Gothic Revival style.

PLAN: cruciform plan, nearly symmetrical, with crossing tower and spire.

EXTERIOR: plinth, coped gables with crosses. Windows are mainly plain lancets. Choir with eastern chapel and side chapels, crossing and transepts, nave with aisles and 3 porches. East end has a projecting central gable with 3  graduated lancets. Side chapels have single lancets to east and 2 lancets to the returns. Choir has a round east window with plate tracery, and 3 pairs of lancets to the clerestory. Side chapels have buttresses to east, and 3 lancets. Transepts have buttresses to east, and very tall triple lancets with quatrefoils above, all with hood moulds. Organ chamber, to north-east, has 2 lancets. Blessed Sacrament chapel, to south east, has 3 lancets. sacristy corridor, to south east, linked to adjoining presbytery. Square crossing tower, 2 stages, has a recessed bell stage with two 2-light pointed arched openings with moulded surrounds. Octagonal broach spire with diagonal buttresses containing niches. Between them, single lucarnes. Nave has 5 pairs of clerestory lancets. West end has clasping buttresses and a moulded doorcase with hood mould and triple shafts. Above it, a triple lancet and quatrefoils. Aisles have 4 side lancets and single west windows. Off-centre porches with moulded pointed arched doorways.

INTERIOR: Pugin’s decorative scheme was never completed, and was further reduced late C19 and 1962. The Blessed Sacrament (SE) chapel was restored to Pugin’s design by Alphege Pippet in 1933. Redecorated 1971-74. Double chamfered arches throughout. Choir has arch braced roof, and arcades with quatrefoil piers, 3 bays, with wooden screens. East end has a moulded double arch with octagonal pier. West arch, flanked by figures in niches, has a hanging crucifix by Pugin. Crypt, 3 bays, has segmental pointed arches on round piers, and contains the tombs of 5 bishops. Blessed Sacrament chapel has elaborate stencilled decoration. North arcade, 3 bays, with wooden screen. Arch braced roof with wall shafts and angel corbels. East end has a baldacchino with marble pillars and cusped arch, under a gable. Windows have stained glass, that to south designed by Pugin and made by Wailes. Central east chapel has arch and screen on each side, aumbry, piscina and sedilia to east, and ashlar blind arcade at east end. North and south chapels are similar, without sedilia. All have scissor braced roofs. Ambulatory, 3 bays, has shrine with figure on bracket, and door to Presbytery at south end. Crossing has an arcaded corbel table with 4 pointed arched openings above it, and cross beam ceiling. Transepts have stained glass windows. On the east sides, pointed arches into the organ chamber and south- east chapel. Nave has arcades, 5 bays, with octagonal piers, double clerestory windows and strutted king post roof with collar purlins. Aisles have lean to roofs and eastern arches. Fittings include C19 square font on round columns. Other fittings mid and late C20. Aisle windows have stained glass by Pugin. Transepts have stained glass, mid C20, by Nuttgens. No memorials of special interest.

Attached boundary wall, ashlar with gabled coping, bordering Derby Road and North Circus Street. Approx 60m x 40m.

Heritage Details

Architect: A.W.N. Pugin

Original Date: 1844

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*