Building » +Plymouth – Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Boniface

+Plymouth – Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Boniface

Wyndham Street West, Plymouth, Devon

The cathedral church of the Diocese of Plymouth, when built perhaps the grandest of the new, purpose-built Catholic cathedrals. The design is by Charles and Joseph Hansom (Joseph’s first church) and, like Charles’ slightly earlier cathedral at Nottingham, is in the Early English style. The spire was added later, also from the Hansoms’ designs. The interior has been reordered at various times over the years (most recently, and most radically, in 1994) but includes a number of important furnishings, including a Hardman brass to Bishop Vaughan, Stations of the Cross by Joseph Cribb and good side altars. The cathedral forms a good group with the contemporary Bishop’s House and school to the south, and is a landmark building on the eastern side of the city. 

Catholicism almost died out in the Plymouth area during the penal years. However, a mainly Irish congregation grew in the late 18th century in the dock area, and in 1792 a small chapel was built over a stable building attached to an inn in Plymouth Dock (as Devonport was then known). Then in 1806-07 the French émigré Abbe Louis Guilbert built a chapel dedicated to St Mary and St John the Evangelist in the Stonehouse district near the Naval Hospital. The congregation grew and in 1828 a gallery was added.

With the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 Dr George Errington was appointed first Bishop of Plymouth and the little chapel in Stonehouse was designated the cathedral of the new diocese. Errington was made an Archbishop in 1855 and moved to Westminster as Cardinal Wiseman’s co-adjutor. His successor at Plymouth was William Vaughan, previously a canon at Clifton. Vaughan was from the old Catholic Courtfield family, the nephew of Cardinal Weld and related to the future Cardinal Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster. In February 1856 Vaughan was able to purchase for £2,400 a site in an area known as Fivefields, with the help of large donations from Edmund Bastard of Kirtley and Letitia Trelawney of Cornwall. Vaughan appointed the Bristol architects Joseph and Charles Hansom to draw up plans for a cathedral in the Early English style, capable of seating 700. After further fundraising, a local builder named Roberts put in a tender to build their design, minus the spire, for £3,084. The foundation stone was laid on 28 June 1856. Construction proceeded quickly, and despite the collapse of the roof and clerestory shortly before the originally planned opening, the cathedral was opened on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1858. The adjoining Bishop’s House in Cecil Street, also built to the Hansoms’ designs, was ready for occupation in September 1857. The school buildings to the south were completed in 1859, probably from the designs of the Hansoms.

Fittings installed in time for the opening included the high altar, the stained glass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (given by Mrs Trelawney, a major donor) and the organ (placed in the Blessed Sacrament chapel, this was a reconditioned late 18th century instrument from St Martin in the Fields in London).  In 1859 a Caen stone pulpit was installed in the nave and in 1864 a stone altar designed by Joseph Hansom was installed in the Blessed Sacrament chapel and Stations of the Cross in the aisles. In November 1864 the foundation stone was laid for a new convent of Notre Dame on the adjoining site inWyndham Street.

The 207 ft tower and spire (always intended) were added in 1866, from designs by the Hansoms, at a cost of £1,500.

In 1876 the capitals of the pillars at the crossing were carved, the chancel ceiling decorated and gas lighting installed.

The cathedral was consecrated in 1880, at which time the stained glass window depicting St Boniface was installed at the west end.

In 1889 a magnificent 30 foot high stone reredos was added behind the high altar, sculpted by A.B. Wall of Cheltenham (no longer extant).

In 1893 a south wing was added to the Bishop’s House, containing a new dining room and library, at a cost of £800.

In 1902 Bishop Vaughan died and a large memorial brass with the recumbent figure of the bishop by Hardman & Co. was placed in the south transept.

In the 1920s and 30s, during the time of Bishop Keily, the building was reordered by F.A. Walters. The Lady Chapel was remodelled to become the Diocesan War Memorial, the large reredos to the high altar replaced by a triple arched structure surmounted by a statue of Our Lady, the choir gallery in the north transept was removed and the Blessed Sacrament chapel redecorated. The St Martin in the Fields organ was rebuilt by Hele’s of Milehouse and moved to the former Sacred Heart Chapel (replaced in 1997).

The cathedral suffered some damage in the Plymouth blitz, and the adjoining convent of Notre Dame more severe damage; the nuns and schoolchildren were evacuated to Teignmouth. In 1954 Bishop Grimshaw launched a fundraising appeal to carry out repairs and improvements, but he soon moved on and these were completed under his successor Cyril Restieaux. The floor of the sanctuary was relaid with wooden blocks, the walls replastered, new ceilings of woodwool slabs installed in the nave and transepts (painted sky blue), and the building rewired, all under the direction of Hugh Bankart, architect.

In 1958, the year of the building’s centenary, new stone Stations of the Cross were installed in the aisles, from designs by Joseph Cribb of Ditchling, and clearly influenced by the Stations made for Westminster Cathedral by Eric Gill, to whom Cribb was apprenticed.

The next major phase of re-ordering was also undertaken by Bishop Restieaux, in 1972, when the sanctuary was remodelled to accord with post-Vatican II liturgical practice. Walters’ arched screen behind the high altar and the choir stalls were removed, and a new forward altar of black Belgian marble introduced.

A more radical reordering took place in 1994, described below. This was part of a major grant aided repair (including stainless steel cramps and anchors to retain the stonework in the spire) and redevelopment scheme. The latter included the consolidation and extension of the school in one building and development of the derelict convent site with new sheltered accommodation (while retaining part of the façade nearest the west end of the Cathedral, which now houses the Cathedral Centre). The Centre is linked to the new main entrance doors of the cathedral by a covered way or narthex with a lead roof with a series of steeply pitched gables supported on cruciform concrete posts. The sides are in part glazed (with the words of the Our Father, Hail Mary etc etched in the glass) and in part open (under the larger gabled bay adjoining the Cathedral Centre, to allow for vehicular access to the car park behind). The area around the cathedral was repaved and relit. The architects were Harrison Sutton of Totnes.


The list description (below) describes the architecture in some detail, but there is less information on the fittings, and there have been major internal changes since the description was written.

The current internal fitting out belongs in large part to the reordering carried out in 1994 by Anthony Harrison of the Harrison Sutton Partnership for Bishop Budd. The main axes or routes are marked out with granite paving, the concept behind this being that of a ‘pilgrim’s way’.  A new white marble ambo is placed centrally at the west end of the nave by the main entrance. On the north-south axis from this are the font (south) and the chapel of reconciliation (in the north porch behind a glass screen). The nave seating faces inwards, collegiate-style, towards the central granite-paved alley. The white marble altar is placed under the crossing, and contains relics of St Boniface, patron of the Diocese, and St Cuthbert Mayne. Above this hangs a large iron corona. On the north-south axis from this are the Blessed Sacrament chapel (in the south transept), retaining its fine carved alabaster reredos and stained glass memorials to Vaughan and Anne Trelawney. To the north is the Sacred Heart chapel, with the organ chamber to the east (the organ, with a detached console, was installed in 1997).  East of the altar is the chancel or presbyterium, containing clergy seating and the cathedra, with a timber screen behind and a hanging crucifix above, dating from F.A. Walters’ work in the 1920s. The new timber furnishings are all in ash, some dark stained. Behind the cathedra screen is the Lady Chapel with its carved reredos and windows depicting the Mysteries of the Rosary. Beneath the Lady Chapel floor are interred the remains of Bishops Vaughan, Graham, Keily and Restieaux.  To the south of this is the sacristy, containing an 18th century Flemish altarpiece. In the northeast corner is the chapel of Saints Patrick and George.

As part of the reordering the woodwool slabs of the nave ceiling were covered with a plaster skim and false rafters, and finished with a more sympathetic paint scheme.

List descriptions



District: PLYMOUTH

County: DEVON

Postcode: PL1 5BW

LBS Number: 473897

Grade: II

Date Listed: 01/05/1975

NGR: SX4710054859

740-1/57/845 (South side)

01/05/75 St Mary and St Boniface Roman Catholic Cathedral (Formerly listed as: WYNDHAM STREET WEST, Plymouth St Mary & St Boniface Roman Catholic Cathedral)


Roman Catholic cathedral. 1855-58 by JA (his 1st church) and CF Hansom for Bishop Vaughan, spire added to tower in 1866; restored 1920-7 by FA Walters. Plymouth limestone rubble with limestone dressings; steep dry slate roofs with coped gable ends, chancel roof with polygonal end; tower with very steep and slender stone spire.

STYLE: Middle Pointed with Early English lancets.

PLAN: 5-bay nave with clerestory; chancel with canted E end; N an S lean-to nave aisles and chancel aisles; N and S transepts; small-plan square tower to north near W end, and presumed chapel in angle with N transept and chancel aisle.

EXTERIOR: mostly paired lancets, those to E end with quatrefoil or round tracery; rose window over triple lancets at W end of nave and similar windows to transepts. Pointed moulded arch to west door of south transept. Very slender 2-stage buttressed tower with clasping buttresses: plank double doors set in moulded pointed-arched doorway with 2 orders of engaged shafts; statue set in trefoil-headed niche above; second stage has round window above 4 lancets with engaged shafts to each side; tall 2-light windows to belfry; broached spire with Decorated 2-light windows to lucarnes. West gable wall, with 2 flanking offset buttresses, has round window with trefoils set above 3 lancets and 2 Caernarvon-arched doorways framed by pointed moulded arch on engaged shafts with cushion capitals.

INTERIOR: polygonal apse with decorative tile floor divided from chancel by pointed arch set on engaged shafts with foliate capitals; decorative wrought-iron screen and shafts to capitals supporting figures set in canopies. Chancel of 4 bays has chamfered arches of 2 orders set on marble columns with fine foliate capitals to ambulatory, with trefoil-headed recesses articulated by shafts with foliate capitals to east end. Chancel arch of 2 chamfered orders set on marble shafts with capitals; arches with engaged columns and capitals to organ chamber, south-east chapel and transepts, the latter being taller with foliate capitals. Nave of 5 bays has chamfered arches of 2 orders set on octagonal granite columns with bell capitals. Corbels to scissor-truss roof, that to chancel with painted panels.

FITTINGS include fine chancel reredos with gilt decorative canopy and decorative wrought-iron screens to south-east chapel of the Blessed Sacrament refitted 1920-7 by FA Walters.

MONUMENTS include brass with recumbent figure by Hardman & Co. to Bishop William Vaughan, d.1902. Stained glass by Hardman.

The first of the Hansoms’ churches in the south-west, and a prominent feature of the skyline of Plymouth.

(The Buildings of England: Pevsner N: Devon:London: 1989-: 645 & 646).

Listing NGR: SX4710054859

School/Bishop’s House

School/Bishop’s House

District: PLYMOUTH
County: DEVON
Postcode: PL1 5HW

LBS Number: 473230
Grade: II
Date Listed: 09/11/1998
NGR: SX4713954806


SX4654 CECIL STREET, Stonehouse
740-1/57/722 (West side)
St Boniface School


Bishop’s house, now a school. 1859, probably by JA Hansom, enlarged 1899. Plymouth limestone rubble with limestone dressings including string courses; steep dry slate roofs with coped gables; rear gabled dormers breaking the eaves and hipped dormers front and rear of original house; stone stacks with some render: end stacks except for large outbuilt lateral stack to rear of original part. Gothic Revival style. Large irregular plan with cross wing to left of original part, another wing right of porch, the 1899 part with deeper plan.

EXTERIOR: 3 storeys plus attic to original part otherwise 2 storeys plus attic; irregular 11-bay front. Transomed 2-light and 3-light mullioned windows to most of the front openings, a few with transoms to rear, many with 4-centred arched lights; relieving arches. Original house has embattled porch between wings and 4-centred arched doorway plus sidelights. Wing right of porch has 3-light windows to front, single lights to returns, and the wing has a hipped roof with the ridge running over a gabled dormer, the barge boards forming an ogee arch. 2 light windows to bay right of this and then there is a recessed 2-storey bay at far right adjoining the S aisle of the St Mary & St Boniface RC Cathedral, Wyndham Street West (qv). This bay has large gable over 2-light window breaking the eaves, over a 3-light window. 1899 part on the left has 3-light windows, the central bay breaking the eaves under a gable with a cross finial.

INTERIOR: not inspected but likely to be of interest.

Prominently sited next to the RC Cathedral (qv).

(The Buildings of England: Pevsner N: Devon: London: 1989- 674).

Listing NGR: SX4713954806

Heritage Details

Architect: J.A. and C.F. Hansom

Original Date: 1858

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II