Town Walls, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY1
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
The cathedral church of the Diocese of Shrewsbury, built from designs by E. W. Pugin, under the patronage of the seventeenth Earl of Shrewsbury. This was Pugin’s first major commission, taken over from his late father A. W. N. Pugin at the age of just nineteen. The external appearance is relatively modest, its plan confined by site constraints; an intended tower and spire were never built. The cathedral has been augmented and enriched over the years, with additions by Edmund Kirby and fittings by E. W. Pugin, Hardman, Margaret Rope and others. The building has landmark quality within its immediate setting and when viewed from the River Severn, and with other cathedral buildings forms a good group in the Town Centre Conservation Area.
The first resident Catholic priest in Shrewsbury in modern times was the Rev. Francis Jakeman, who arrived in 1731. A chapel was built in Town Walls in 1776, on the initiative of Sir Edward Smythe of Acton Burnell. This was fifteen years before the building of public Catholic chapels became legal, and testifies to the toleration of the town, or the influence of Sir Edward, or both. However, the building was discreetly located behind the priest’s house, which in turn was set back from the road.
This chapel was enlarged in 1826 and provided with a gallery, to seat 250. ‘The discretion which had been in order when the chapel had first been established, before the abolition of penal restraints, was no longer necessary. Now the building of stone and stucco was fronted by a porch which overlooked the street. This was surmounted by a plain cross. The whole building was strictly classical in style with not a hint of the Gothic’ (J. Phillips, Shrewsbury: A Catholic Community, from Marmion, Millennium Essays etc, 2000, p.57). According to Phillips (p.58) the architect for these additions was John Carline (1761-1834), from the local family of architects, builders and sculptors.
This chapel was again extended in 1840, but it was clear that in due course a new and larger church would be needed. The main reason for the increase in the Catholic population was the arrival of Irish labourers for the building of the Great Western Railway, many of whom stayed. In the 1851 census the congregation was given as 700. The site of what is now the cathedral was purchased in the late 1840s by a hosier and carpenter, Mr Perks.
With the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, the Diocese of Shrewsbury was created in part in honour of the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, a great benefactor to the Church in England. However, there was not yet an existing building in the town of sufficient dignity and size to serve as a cathedral, and Pugin’s church of St Alban at Macclesfield became the pro-cathedral. Shrewsbury was not in all respects an obvious centre for the diocese, given the concentration of Catholics in its northern part, particularly on the Wirral. However, when he turned his mind to this, the Rt Revd James Brown (elected first Bishop of Shrewsbury in 1851), secured a site for a cathedral not in Shrewsbury or on the Wirral, but in Chester. This was next to the medieval St John’s church, and included a Georgian house which might serve as the bishop’s residence. He sought support for this proposal from A. W. N. Pugin, who demurred, out of deference to Lord Shrewsbury, who had already asked him to prepare designs for a cathedral at Shrewsbury. The earl wrote to the bishop, insisting that any thought of development at Chester should be set aside until the church at Shrewsbury (towards which construction he had offered to pay £15,000) had been completed.
In March 1852 Lord Shrewsbury wrote to A. W. N. Pugin: ‘Please God, we shall be laying the foundations about this time next year. I hope it stands upon a rock & will stand firm till the last day’ (quoted in Rosemary Hill’s biography of Pugin, p. 485). Pugin may have drafted initial designs, but by then he was descending into final stages of madness and he died in 1852 (as did the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury). The task passed to his son Edward Welby Pugin, and patronage to Bertram, seventeenth Earl, both then aged only nineteen. Pugin prepared designs for a cathedral in his father’s favoured Middle Pointed style, capable of seating 1,000. At the southwest corner a tower and spire of 227 feet was proposed. The expected cost was up to £10,000. The proposals found favour with the seventeenth Earl, except for Pugin’s designs for a rood screen, for which the Earl did not share his father’s (and Pugin’s) enthusiasm: ‘I think it greatly too heavy and will very much tend to prevent persons seeing the altar, a thing I much regret’ (Phillips, p.80). The idea was dropped.
The foundation stone was laid on 12 December 1853. Lord Shrewsbury chose the dedication, to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and St Peter of Alcantara, the latter a Spanish Franciscan from whose intercession he had benefitted. However, Pope Pius IX suggested a change of the first part of the dedication, to Our Lady Help of Christians.
E. W. Pugin prepared a design with a tower and spire but (ironically, in view of the sixteenth Earl’s prayer) this could not be realised, due to weak foundations. When it became apparent that the new church was not to have the cathedralesque qualities envisaged by its architect, the seventeenth Earl offered instead to fund a new cathedral at Birkenhead, and E. W. Pugin prepared ambitions plans for another church with a huge tower and spire. However, Rome was not happy with the prospect of locating the centres of two dioceses so close to one another across the Mersey, perhaps mindful of the tensions that had arisen between Westminster and Southwark. Pugin’s church of Our Lady at Birkenhead was not to become the cathedral, although it was completed (again minus its intended tower sand spire) in 1862.
The builders for Shrewsbury Cathedral were initially Pugin’s favoured firm, Myers of London, later replaced by a more local firm, Wullen of Wolverhampton. The cathedral was opened in October 1856, only a couple of months after the early death, at the age of 23, of Bertram Talbot, seventeenth Earl of Shrewsbury.
In 1868 Bishop Brown moved from Salter’s Hall, Newport to no. 11 Belmont, a Georgian house adjoining the cathedral.
The north aisle chapel (originally the Blessed Sacrament altar) was refitted as the Sacred Heart chapel in 1885, with a new altar by J. A. Pippett of Hardman & Co., as a memorial to Bishop Brown, who died in 1881. Pippett also carried out a lot of painted decoration in the cathedral, now largely lost or concealed.
The cathedral was consecrated in 1890. In the following year, the foundation stone was laid for a new school near the 1776 chapel, from designs by Edmund Kirby. Soon after this the old chapel was demolished. Kirby’s school was demolished in the 1980s.
The cathedral parish was divided in the post-war years, with separate parishes created in Harlescott and Monkmoor. In 1954 new Stations of the Cross by Philip Lindsey Clarke were installed as a memorial to Bishop Moriarty, the old Stations going to St Peter’s Wythenshawe. The cathedral was reordered in 1984 by Richard O’Mahony & Partners. A richly-carved stone pulpit donated by Canon Cholmondeley, stalls, altar rails, nave pews and a vestibule screen were all removed. New furnishings included a forward altar and ambo in Grinshill stone.
The beautiful polygonal south chapel (dedicated to St Winifred and now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel) was added by Edmund Kirby in 1901, at a cost of £2,000, donated by Mr and Mrs Florens Burke. Kirby also prepared plans for a polygonal baptistery extending to the northwest, but this was not built. South and west porches were added in 1906-07, again from designs by Kirby (builder Joseph Heyes). At the same time the inner narthex was raised to the level of the nave and the gallery above it extended.
In 2015 the entrance porch was adapted to make it safer and more accessible, with new blue-painted cast iron railings (Architect Andrew Arrol). This work was part-funded by a World War I centenary grant, which also allowed for the refurbishment of a war memorial plaque and the creation of a memorial chapel.
In 2022 red marble and alabaster altar dating from 1896 was installed in the sanctuary (donated by Ely Cathedral, where it had been located in a side chapel). Along with the uncovering and restoration of Minton tiles in the sanctuary this formed part of a programme of improvements undertaken by Bishop Mark Davies, reversing the 1980s liturgical reordering.
The list entry (see below) adequately describes the exterior, but is brief in its description of the interior. The west front faces roughly southeast but, as in the list description, liturgical compass points are here used.
Internally the church has a conventional plan, of nave with aisles and sanctuary with flanking chapels. The choir gallery is located above the principal entrance doors; a secondary entrance is available to the southwest, both contain flights of six stone steps. The sacristy and confessionals are located off the north wall, where there is also access to lavatories and the cathedral offices and presbytery. Access for the disabled is also from an entrance to the north. Interior stone dressings are Bath stone from Painswick, and the walls are plastered and plain painted. The open timber roof has gilt wrought iron ties and the floor is of polished pine parquet. Seating takes the form of modern moveable chairs. The hanging rood at the chancel arch dates from of 1885 and replaced a simple cross designed by E.W. Pugin. The sanctuary has a Minton tile floor (now restored to view having been carpeted in post-Vatican II reordering) and an alabaster and marble forward altar, introduced in 2022. The high altar, reredos and font are all original fittings of the 1860s by E.W. Pugin, made in Caen stone font by Lane & Lewis of Birmingham. The font was a gift of the widow of the Earl of Shrewsbury. It has an elaborate wrought iron and gilt cover by Hardman, and relief Caen marble panels to a marble columned base. It was moved from the baptistery, in the northwest corner of the Cathedral, to the front of the sanctuary in 1984. The low-relief stone Stations of the Cross were carved by Philip Lindsey Clark (1889-1977) and installed in 1954 as a memorial to Bishop Moriarty (d.1949).
The cathedral is rich in stained glass: the east window was donated by Canon Cholmondeley and is by Hardman (1862); many of the nave windows are also by Hardman, and the cathedral also contains an exquisite series of seven stained glass windows in translucent slab glass by the arts and crafts artist and nun Margaret Rope (1882-1953). The west window (1910) depicts the English Martyrs from the Romans to the Reformation and was Rope’s first major commission; other windows are the Visitation (1911), Baptism (1907), the Soldier Window (1917), St Laurence (1915), the Congress Window (1921), and St Ambrose (1934). Several of the replaced nineteenth century windows have been installed in Shrewsbury Convent School. An armorial window in the porch is by Trena M. Cox (1960).
Entry amended by AHP, January 2023.
SJ4912SW TOWN WALLS 653-1/15/683 (North side) 10/01/53 Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians and St Peter
Roman Catholic cathedral. 1856. By Edward Welby Pugin, possibly to designs initially prepared by his father Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Coursed and squared sandstone rubble with plain tiled roof. PLAN: nave and 2 aisles, chancel.
EXTERIOR: nave of 5-and-a-half bays with bellcote corbelled out over 5-light window in western gable. West porch with cusped moulded arched doorway and traceried windows in each side. Ornate canopy over statue on gable apex. Within, a deep moulded west doorway with short shafts. Lean-to aisles with eastern chapels with steeply pitched roofs. The bays are articulated by slim buttresses, and each bay has 3-light Decorated window with triple quatrefoils to clerestory. The easternmost bay is narrower. Porch and ante-room added to west of south aisle, with quatrefoil frieze to parapet, and gabled porch entrance with shouldered archway.
INTERIOR: nave arcade of 5-and-a-half bays with narrow eastern bay. Octagonal shafts in a very Early Gothic style, with steep pointed arches. Western gallery. Nave roof has wall posts which carry wrought-iron ties, and alternating cross-bracing and arched trusses. Deep moulding to steeply pointed chancel arch, with rood of 1885 hanging from the apex. Coved panelled ceiling to chancel. Gilded reredos with triangular arched traceried panels with figures in high relief. South aisle chapel with canted apsidal end, formed like a reliquary with marbled shafts to sedilia and to entrance arch, with heavily foliate capitals and cusped triangular arcading all around the walls. North aisle chapel has richly gilded and traceried altar. The chapels and chancel were decorated by J Pippet of Hardman and Co.
STAINED GLASS: very rich in stained glass, mostly in a medieval idiom: the large west window depicts the English Martyrs, while in the south aisle, various windows between 1898 and 1906. North aisle chapel has 2 windows by Margaret Rope showing scenes from the Lives of the Saints, dated 1917. Stained glass also in chancel and south aisle, largely c1911, some by Margaret Rope, the rest probably Hardman and Co. Chancel east window 1862 by Hardman. Low relief stone Stations of the Cross, 1952 by Philip Lindsey Clarke. (The Buildings of England: Pevsner N: Shropshire: Harmondsworth: 1958-).
Listing NGR: SJ4915512228
Wall and lych gate adjoining
SJ4912SW TOWN WALLS 653-1/15/682 (North West side) Length of wall with gate adjoining Roman Catholic Cathedral
Wall and gate. c1860. Coursed and squared sandstone with buttresses and raking copings. Small lych-gate with leaded bell-cast roof supported on timber struts and with cross finial on ridge. Included for group value.
Listing NGR: SJ4914412208
Architect: E. W. Pugin; later additions by E. Kirby
Original Date: 1856
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*