Building » +Portsmouth – Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist

+Portsmouth – Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist

Edinburgh Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire

The cathedral church of the Diocese of Portsmouth. A substantial red brick and stone Decorated Gothic design by J. A. Crawley, with Stanislaus Hansom and later work by Canon Scoles and W.C. Mangan. Crawley was also architect for two other churches in the diocese, at Havant and Fareham, as well as the Catholic Cathedral in Hong Kong. Portsmouth Cathedral occupies a prominent corner site, to which it presents a handsome west front. The external massing of the apse is impressive, and there is a good wheel window with flamboyant tracery in the south transept. The interior is dignified, with a number of good fittings. The cathedral church is the primary element in a complex which includes school, Bishop’s House and Great Hall.

Catholic practice virtually disappeared in the Portsmouth area after the Reformation, and until 1791 those few Catholics who remained were served by the chaplains attached to the households of old Catholic families. Catholics in Portsea however were served by missions established in Brockhampton (Havant) in 1711 and Gosport in about 1750.

In 1792 a new chapel was opened at Unicorn Row, Portsea, with the agreement of John Marsland, a Gosport priest. Within four years a second chapel was established in Prince George Street; Bishop Douglass in his report to Rome of June 1796 states that ‘a new chapel was built at Portsea a few months ago’. So as not to attract undue attention, this was built at the back of a pair of houses (nos 22-26) with a central passage from the street for access.

After the French Revolution, many French and other priests sought refuge in the Portsmouth area, and these were to play an important role in the development of the Church in the area.

The Prince George Street chapel was enlarged and a school built adjoining it between 1848 and 1853.

On 9 December 188o the foundation stone of the present, larger church was laid by Bishop Danell of Southwark. New schools had already been opened here earlier that year, the land having been acquired from the War Office by Mgr Vertue (then Military Chaplain at Portsmouth). The Duke of Norfolk gave £4,000 towards the cost of the new church. The architect, appointed after a competition, was John Crawley of Bloomsbury. Crawley had already been responsible for Catholic churches at Havant and elsewhere in the then Southwark diocese. The contractors were Patman and Fotheringham of Theobald’s Road, London. Crawley died in 1881 and was succeeded by his partner Stanislaus Hansom, son of Joseph, who finished the transepts and side chapels to Crawley’s basic plan.

The Diocese of Southwark was divided and the new Diocese of Portsmouth created on 19 May 1882, and Crawley’s church became the cathedral. Mgr Vertue was appointed Bishop and was consecrated in London on 25 July 1882 by Cardinal Manning. The Bishop’s House was built in 1884 and the Aula Maxima followed in 1885.

The incomplete cathedral (five bays of the nave) was consecrated on 29 March 1887. Hansom’s chancel and transepts were completed in 1893, following additional acquisition of land from the Corporation. Bishop Vertue died in 1900 and his successor Bishop John Cahill added the narthex, porch and turrets at the west end, to the designs of Canon A. J. C. Scoles (in lieu of the 200 ft tower and spire originally proposed). Finally, St Patrick’s chapel was added in 1924 to the designs of W.C. Mangan.

On 10 January 1941 the Cathedral and Bishop’s House were extensively damaged by bombing. Rebuilding and restoration followed in 1946-50 under the direction of G. Raymond of Scoles and Raymond. The Aula Maxima escaped major damage.

In 1963 the north transept window was restored and new glass commissioned.

The sanctuary has undergone several reorderings, the first as early as 1906, when the original altar baldacchino were brought forward of the wrought-iron screen in the chancel. In 1971 a more radical reordering of the chancel to accommodate a new liturgical was undertaken for Bishop Worlock by Austin Winkley (contractors John Lay and Co), involving the demolition of the original baldacchino and the removal of the screen and altar rails. A new Portland stone forward altar with ceramic figures by Fritz Stellar was consecrated on 1 July of that year. Other features of the reordering included a 12 ft diameter corona over the altar, a fireclay font with flowing water and a bronze cross depicting the Risen Christ.

In 1981-2 (in advance of the centenary) further redecoration and reordering took place under the direction of John Wingfield, architect. The old school was converted to a parish centre with curial offices, and Bishop’s House was extended. In 1987 (in advance of the centenary of the church’s consecration) the confessionals were reordered, and access and facilities for disabled people provided. There has recently (2001) been a further and major remodelling and redecoration by Kanavan and Wingfield for Bishop Hollis, involving the remodelling of Winkley’s altar in historical form and the removal of the remaining features of that re-ordering. Full wheelchair access at the west end has been provided.

The 2001 reordering of the sanctuary involved the embellishment of the 1971 altar and the introduction of a new ambo, both with attached columns and richly polychromatic painted decoration. The Blessed Sacrament has been relocated to the Chapel of the Last Supper (to the south of the sanctuary), and the apse converted to the Chapel of the Word. Ceramic tiles have replaced carpet in the aisles and wood block flooring has been laid in the sanctuary.


See list description, below. This offers a fairly detailed architectural account but scarcely mentions the furnishings, which are of high quality, and predates the recent reordering and redecoration.

While not especially commending the exterior, the Buildings of England notes ‘inside, immediately, an impression of moderate grandeur; this does feel like a Cathedral (more than the Anglican Cathedral does), albeit a modest one, thanks very largely to the exquisite proportions of the nave and the width of the aisles’

The 2001 reordering of the sanctuary involved the embellishment of the 1971 altar and the introduction of a new ambo, both with attached columns and richly polychromatic painted decoration. The Blessed Sacrament has been relocated to the Chapel of the Last Supper (to the south of the sanctuary), and the apse converted to the Chapel of the Word.  Ceramic tiles have replaced carpet in the aisles and wood block flooring has been laid in the sanctuary.

Internal features of note include:

  • The carved and painted Stations of the Cross, erected in 1912 as a memorial to Bishop Cahill
  • The marble altar, wall painting and richly painted coffered ceiling of the Lady Chapel (north of the sanctuary)
  • The Chapel of the Last Supper, painted by Westlake in 1906
  • The Chapel of St Patrick, 1924 and incorporating windows by Westlake, 1907
  • Extensive collection of stained glass by Hardman and Lavers and Westlake (see list below)
  • Powerful stained glass in the north transept window, commemorating the Second Vatican Council and (later) the centenary of the diocese.

List description


Roman Catholic cathedral. 1877-81 by J Crawley; 1881-96 by J Hansom; 1906 by Canon Alexander Scoles; restored following bomb damage 1945-50; re-ordered 1971. Red brick in Flemish bond with Portland stone dressings; plain tile roof. Decorated style. PLAN: 6-bay nave with clerestory; 6-bay aisles, western bays canted, north aisle with apsidal chapel (1925) new baptistry; west portal and 2 bell turrets (1906); crossing with transepts (1886); chancel with apse, north and south chapels, and south porch (1893). EXTERIOR: offset plinth; strings; eaves bands; gableted buttresses with offsets rising into gableted and crocketed finials; traceried windows, mostly of 2-lights with 3-light windows to clerestory and some spherical triangle windows, all having hoodmoulds and sill strings (tracery of all but south transept window restored 1945-50); board doors with decorative iron hinges in pointed-arched surrounds of several orders with carved tympana; brick parapet to nave, pierced ashlar parapet to chancel, similar blind parapet to baptistry; cross finials. West end: portal has elaborate central door in projecting gableted surround flanked by 3-light windows: a door to each return; nave has tripled 2-light windows, stepped spherical triangle over, flanked by octagonal bell towers with slit windows, louvred belfry openings, spires, and metal finials. South transept has a blind arcade below round window with spherical triangle to gable. 5-light window to north transept. Decorative metal gate in front of chancel south door. INTERIOR: pointed arched arcades and openings having clustered columns with decorative leafy capitals. Vaulted wooden ceilings with moulded ribs, pierced bands, and cusped trusses; plainer roofs to aisles. Good quality fittings include marble altar and reredos to Lady Chapel, tessellated chapel floors and free standing stations of the cross.

Listing NGR: SU6610802158


Books and journals: Balfour, A, Portsmouth, (1970), 57,58; Hubbuck, R, Portsmouth, (1969-1976), 21; Lloyd, D W , Buildings of Portsmouth and its Environs, (1974), 129,130; Offord, J , Churches Chapels and Places of Worship on Portsea Island, (1989), 102-104; Pevsner, N, Lloyd, D, The Buildings of England: Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, (1973), 431,432

Heritage Details

Architect: J. Crawley, J. Hansom, A. J.C. Scoles, W.C. Mangan

Original Date: 1877

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II