Building » Swansea – St David’s Priory

Swansea – St David’s Priory

St David’s Place, Swansea, SA1 3NG

  • St David's Priory website

The earliest surviving nineteenth century Catholic church in Swansea, built by the charismatic Fr Charles Kavanagh and opened in 1847. The designer was the Bristol architect Charles Hansom and his church, in a conventional Geometrical Gothic style, comprised a nave and south aisle. In 1864 the building was lengthened and given a north aisle. A large new presbytery was also embedded in the church at the end of the south aisle. The architect for these additions was Benjamin Bucknall, a former pupil of Hansom. Embellished over time, the interior was stripped of many of its furnishings and finishes in the twentieth century; however, much of the original architectural character remains.

The first Catholic chapel in Swansea was in Nelson Street, adapted from a stable building and opened in 1810. Construction was funded in part by Mrs Fitzherbert, consort of the Prince Regent, who used Swansea as a watering place. The chapel was served by an émigré priest, Abbé Albert Sejan, said to have been formerly chaplain to Louis XVI (centenary booklet, p.13). The chapel appears to have been a hybrid Classical/Gothic design.

The present church was built through the efforts of the Rev. Charles Kavanagh, who arrived in Swansea from Newport in 1839. A major donor was Lady Catherine Eyre, who gave £3000 for the building of churches in Swansea and Cardiff, with the stipulation that they should be dedicated to the patron saint of Wales. Besides Swansea, Fr Kavanagh’s mission territory at first included Aberavon, Neath and Llanelli. The industrial expansion of the Swansea area drew many Catholic workers, particularly from Ireland, their numbers increasing rapidly after the Great Famine of 1846. Many of these immigrants were housed in poor conditions and suffered greatly during the Swansea cholera epidemic of 1849, when Fr Kavanagh played a prominent part in assisting the sick. The chapel in Nelson Street had become inadequate as well as dilapidated, and money for a new church was raised by public subscription and from the estate of Mrs Shewin. The church (cost £1300) opened on 8 September 1847, when Dr Ullathorne, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, preached. The architect was Charles Hansom of Bristol, and the building contractor a Mr Taylor of Coventry. A medieval stained glass window depicting the Resurrection was donated by George Grant Francis, the Swansea antiquary and civic leader.

Fr Kavanagh died in October 1856 and was succeeded by the Rev. Peter Lewis, who served for seventeen years and was an active builder, being largely responsible for the school, convent and the first church at Greenhill (qv), to the north of the city centre. He also enlarged St David’s church, engaging Benjamin Bucknall (a former pupil of Charles Hansom and then resident in Swansea) to extend the nave by about thirty feet at the west end and to add a north aisle, which had a boarded ceiling to provide better acoustic effects for a new organ introduced at this time, made by Allen of Bristol (the present organ dates from 1994). John Newman suggests that Bucknall may have been completing Hansom’s original design. Bucknall also built a substantial presbytery, integrated into the church at the west end of the south aisle. His brother Robert was the builder. Furnishings added by Fr Lewis included a pulpit (1866), Stations of the Cross (1867) and a reredos for the high altar (1868).

In 1873 the mission was taken over by the Benedictines, and St David’s was elevated to the status of a Missionary Priory. Alterations carried out soon afterwards included a new timber floor in the sanctuary (1876), dormer windows to lighten the interior space (1882) and new altars in the Lady and Sacred Heart chapels (1883). In addition, new stalls were provided in the sanctuary and new rails around the baptistery. The church was again thoroughly refurbished at the end of the nineteenth century, The Tablet for June 1896 recording that it was completely re-roofed, the external walls repointed and the stonework refaced. A new Lady Chapel was added at this time (not in 1907, as stated in the list entry), the wood flooring of the building completed and the interior ‘tastefully and artistically redecorated’ (by Messrs Pugsley & Son, Waterloo Street, according to the South Wales Daily Post). The centenary publication also refers to a further refurbishment in 1904, when a new white stone pulpit was introduced, the sanctuary given a parquet floor and redecoration was carried out by Hardman & Co.

In 1916-18 new war memorial stained glass, also by Hardman & Co., was installed by the Rev. Augustine Egerton OSB in the sanctuary and side chapels.

In 1936 under John Murty OSB, a new oak block floor and oak benches were provided and the Stations of the Cross replaced. By 1963 this process of ‘de-Victorianisation’ had been extended to the painting over of most of the stencil decoration and the replacement of the elaborate stone reredos of the high altar by a simple timber reredos.

Since the Second Vatican Council there has been at least one further reordering, with the introduction of a forward altar, removal of the communion rails and nave pulpit, and relocation of the font from the baptistery to the west end of the nave, by the sanctuary steps. The plaster has been removed from the east wall of the sanctuary and from two walls of the Lady Chapel.

In 2009 the parish passed from the care of the Benedictines to the Diocese of Menevia.


See list descriptions for church and presbytery below.

Internally the walls of the church are mostly plastered, with stencil decoration which appears to be modern but may be heavily restored older work. The pointed arches to either side of the sanctuary have painted murals of St David in the tympana. The east end wall of the sanctuary has been stripped of plaster and the east and north walls of the northeast chapel have also been stripped. The nave arcades have pointed chamfered arches, three on the south side and four on the north side with a further smaller arch at the west end next the gallery. The west end of the nave has a boarded waggon ceiling over that part of the building added by Benjamin Bucknall in the 1860s. The ceiling was intended to enhance the performance of an organ installed at the same time. The whole interior has modern woodblock floor coverings.

The five-light east window of the sanctuary has stained glass of the Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary, St John and saints, made by John Hardman & Co and installed in 1916 as a memorial to Fr Gwydir, a priest of St David’s who, as a naval chaplain, lost his life in the wreck of the hospital ship Rohilla off Whitby in October 1914. Apparently the 1916 window replaced an earlier (original) window also by the Hardman firm. The northeast chapel (now housing the Blessed Sacrament) and southeast baptistery have three-light windows by Hardman & Co, probably dating from the 1920s. Various windows in the north aisle have 1980s stained glass by Catrin Jones and also by John Hardman Studios. In one of the north aisle windows is a panel of medieval (probably fifteenth century) stained glass showing the Resurrection, given to St David’s in 1847 and thought to originate from the English West Country.

List descriptions


Reference Number: 11615
Grade: II  
Date of Designation: 30/03/1987  
Date of Amendment: 30/03/1987  
Name of Property: St. David’s Priory R.C. Church  
Unitary Authority: Swansea  
Community: Castle  
Easting: 265645  
Northing: 192794  
Location: Within modern precinct of St David’s Centre and close to W of roundabout at bottom of Princess Way. E end to Rutland Street. Church orientated N and S.  

History: 1847. By C Hansom. Enlarged 1864 when nave lengthened and N aisle added. Renovated 1894 and 1907 when Lady Chapel added.  

Exterior: Plan of short chancel with side aisles, 5-bay aisled nave with dormer clerestory N and S porches, S vestry, confessionals and link building to Presbytery at SW. Late C13 Gothic style. Dark snecked facings, pale sandstone dressings, slate roofs, tiled ridges, stepped buttresses. Steep E gable with parapet, Gothic oculus, 5-light traceried window with impaled trefoil lights and nook shafts, 3-light aisle windows (vertical joint at N aisle). Open bellcote over chancel arch, gabled ventilators, 2-light timber dormers (compare St Peter’s RC Church, Roath, Cardiff) with cusped bargeboards and diamond leaded glazing. Low aisle walls with 2 light windows (plate tracery S aisle; for tracery N aisle), cusped arch to gabled N porch. W front with tiled polygonal stair tower flanked by paired cusped lights under strainer arches, S aisle overlapped by Presbytery. Railed forecourt with shouldered arches to stone gateways.  

Interior: Interior with scissor-braced trusses on long wall-posts to chancel, arcades to side chapels with pitched ceilings. Tall chancel arch with head-stops, alternating polygonal and round moulded piers with crocket and acanthus leaves at NW corner, roof as chancel. Panelled dados, timber W gallery and screens, boarded aisle roofs with thin ribs.  


Reference Number: 11616
Grade: II  
Date of Designation: 30/03/1987  
Date of Amendment: 30/03/1987  
Name of Property: Presbytery at St David’s R.C. Church  
Unitary Authority: Swansea  
Community: Castle  
Easting: 265645  
Northing: 192776  
Location: Adjoining SW corner of church with link building overlapping 2 bays of S aisle.  

History: Probably 1864, when church was extended.  

Exterior: 2 and 3-storey painted domestic building with advanced range on left and polygonal stair-tower to angle, lower 1-storey extension to right next porch. Slate roofs, brick stacks (stems removed), gabled dormers with cusped bargeboards, long weathercourses. Mullioned windows of 1-6 lights with incised decoration to margins. Similar style to left return elevation.  

Reason for designation: Group value.  

Heritage Details

Architect: Charles Hansom; Benjamin Bucknall

Original Date: 1847

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II