Building » Wigton – St Cuthbert

Wigton – St Cuthbert

Burnfoot, Wigton CA7 9HU.

One of the oldest Catholic churches still in use in Cumbria. Described by Pevsner as ‘a remarkably substantial building for its date and construction’, it is an early sign of both Catholic and Gothic revival in the county. Its architect Ignatius Bonomi was a ‘competent and prolific designer in many styles’ (Stevens Curl, 1999), and this church demonstrates his ease of handling Gothic massing and detail. The building is also part of a complex which originated as a convent, much of which still exists.

Wigton received its market charter in 1262 and a memorial fountain now marks the site of the wooden market cross. From 1745 the town became a centre for textile manufacture and textile printing. In 1821 there were eleven factories in the town and a population of over 4,600. At this time, there were four churches, two banks, two ‘posting houses’ and around 23 public houses. The population of Wigton peaked at nearly 5,500 by 1841, after which the town’s fortunes declined (partly due to a decline in industry, but also because a new railway linked to Carlisle in 1843). The population declined throughout the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth century, but had risen again to around 5,000 by the end of the 1980s.

According to Conlan (1987) there were 310 Roman Catholics registered as living in Cumberland in 1767, only two of whom lived in Wigton. They were Richard Williamson, a gardener, and John Toole, a ‘soapboiler’. However growth of the town saw the arrival of many Irish Catholics and John McKay, a Catholic shopkeeper and brewer resident in Wigton, and a Catholic MP named Philip Howard lobbied Archbishop Patrick Curtis of Armagh and Bishop Thomas Kelly of Dromore to provide a priest. Archbishop Curtis agreed to this in November 1830, and Fr John Dowdall arrived in the following month.

The first church was a rectangular structure, smaller than the present church but on the same site. It was described as a ‘miserable garret (Conlan),  hardly  sufficient  for  the  300  or  so  weavers  and mechanics (and their families) who made up the congregation. However, with a brewery and printing works nearby, the location meant that workers passed within fifty yards of the church every day. According to the marriage register covering 1832 to 1855, the church provided a place of marriage for Catholics from Penrith, Maryport, Cockermouth, Carlisle and even Durham.

Fundraising for the present church began under Bishop Penswick in 1831 and plans were drawn up by Ignatius Bonomi of Durham in May 1836. St Cuthbert’s was built in 1837, and is amongst the oldest Catholic churches still in use in Cumbria: the first chapel at Warwick  Bridge was replaced in 1841, while churches at Workington (1810), Ulverston (1821) and Carlisle (1825) have since been replaced or closed.

It was apparently envisaged that the finished church would be T-shaped, with a nave, sanctuary, two transepts and two sacristies behind the high altar. Conlan writes:

‘In the event while the nave was certainly built as planned in 1836-37, it is doubtful whether the sanctuary was built until 1857 and only one transept was ever completed. The vestries were never built in one unit as envisaged but as two small separate units in 1857. From the start the nave had two aisles and the high altar was surmounted by a large altar-piece rather than a window. The windows in the church were of diamond leaded format in wooden frames.’

In the third bay of the west wall of the church is an arch where the second transept was to be built, with a larger arch in the fourth bay dating from 1857. Apart from the latter arch, the outside of the nave is ‘more or less as it was in 1837’ (Conlan, 1987).

An unspecified building behind the church was also built in 1837; this may have been a presbytery. A house to the rear of the church and a free school attached to the mission were built in 1847.

Elizabeth Ann Aglionby, who was later to provide money to build Sacred Heart, Coniston, provided financial support to extend the church and provide a school , which was opened in November 1855 and included a range to the east of the church now used as a parish hall. Soon after this Canon Nicholas Brown directed the building of a new chancel with two small vestries attached, one of which became a sacristy. At the same time, stone mullioned windows replaced the original openings, a large stained glass window was inserted over the high altar, and the old altarpiece was moved to the transept. Canon Brown’s work also included the extension of the single transept eastwards and its division by a partition so that its east end could be used for the school.

A convent was the final stage of Canon Brown and Miss Aglionby’s joint work, and cost £3,699 when built in 1856-7. Conlan writes that it was built in the style of the Carmelite convent at Darlington. He speculates that this was done with the aim of persuading Melanie Mathieu-Calvat, who saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary at La Salette in France in 1846, to leave the Darlington convent and come to Wigton. Elizabeth Aglionby had taken a particular interest in the events at La Salette, and offered Mathieu-Calvat a house when she came to England.

A new presbytery was built by Canon Brown in 1858. It was located behind the church, and probably replaced the earlier buildings on the site. It now appears to be in private use. The convent’s long east wing is now a parish hall, and the eastern section of the transept, once part of the convent/school, is used (together with a 2003 extension to the rear) as a presbytery. The school still exists, but is in a modern building near the present church. However, it does still use one building which attaches at right angles to the church hall via a single-storey  link, formerly part of the convent complex.


‘The  Catholic church, dedicated to  St.  Cuthbert, is a neat Gothic edifice, designed by Bonomi. Its front is exceedingly handsome, and the interior is well finished, especially the ceiling and organ gallery. The altar and screen, also designed by Bonomi, have been admirably executed, and the tabernacle, which is taken from an oriental design, is a rare specimen of beauty. The altar piece, which is a copy of Raphael’s representation of Christ’s fall under the cross, by Ramsey, is considered an excellent devotional piece; and as a work of art, its tone, harmony, and style of execution, render it a picture of great worth. This church was commenced in 1835, by the Rev. John Dowdal, and finished by its present pastor, the Rev. E.  J.  Kelly, who has also erected a  commodious dwelling adjoining; and here too are other Italian paintings of no ordinary merit. To the rear of these buildings are free schools for the education of poor children, of every denomination; also a burial ground and a public walk. The church occupies a pleasant situation at the N.W. end of the town, and will seat about 500 hearers’ (Mannix and Whellan, 1847).

Pevsner (1969) describes the church as ‘a remarkably substantial building for its date and denomination’ and as ‘archaeologically accurate’. He refers in particular to the shafted lancet windows on the main façade, the side windows with Y-tracery and the east window with five stepped lancets. However, these features appear to date from the 1850s, when they would not have been so remarkable. Nevertheless, that is not to deny that Bonomi, whose ecclesiastical work was mainly Gothic, was capable of working convincingly in this style. His chapel at Brough Hall (being built at exactly the same time as St Cuthbert’s) is a remarkably accurate reproduction of the thirteenth century Archbishop’s Chapel at York.

The church is orientated north-south and is built of local sandstone. It is rectangular in plan, with five bays. There is stained glass in the triple lancet over the main entrance and in the five-light window over the high altar. The nave is a single space which originally had two alleys between the seating, but now has only a central one. The entrance to the sanctuary is marked by a plain Gothic arch which was decorated with a painted text in a picture of c.1922, now overpainted or removed. The large Raphaelesque altarpiece mentioned in the quote above was taken down and stored after the Second World War. Its present whereabouts have not been established. The pews are oak, but not original, and the wooden parquet floor is likely to date from the twentieth century. Stations of the Cross were added between 1922 and 1936. The entrance to the east transept is off the sanctuary.

Work to repair collapsed roof trusses was undertaken in 1959. The interior walls have been stripped up to cornice height to expose the sandstone, an unfortunate alteration made since 1987. Post-Vatican II liturgical alterations have included the bringing forward of the high altar, leaving the trefoil-arcaded reredos in situ. Other changes around this time included the removal of statues, the repainting of the church and the adaptation of the frames of the Stations of the Cross and their repainting in white enamel. The two side altars were also stripped of some of their decoration. There is no sign of the ‘fine Georgian pulpit’ mentioned by Pevsner in 1969.

Entry amended by AHP 21.12.2020

Heritage Details

Architect: Ignatius Bonomi

Original Date: 1837

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed