Archive: Gothic Turned Back Time Arch Priest of; the First Catholic Cathedral to Be Built in England since the Reformation, St Chad's, Stands as Testimony to a Time When the Greatest Industrial City in the World Turned Its Back on Progress. Chris Upton Tells the Story

The Birmingham Post (England), August 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

Archive: Gothic Turned Back Time Arch Priest of; the First Catholic Cathedral to Be Built in England since the Reformation, St Chad's, Stands as Testimony to a Time When the Greatest Industrial City in the World Turned Its Back on Progress. Chris Upton Tells the Story


Byline: Chris Upton

In the early years of Queen Victoria's reign, Great Britain made the first great technological leap forward. The advent of the railways, mass production and a global trading empire was turning Britain into the world's first modern economy.

Yet just as the future arrived in all its mechanistic force, the architects and designers of the age were turning back the clock by 400 years. Not only that, many of the nation's leading thinkers and theologians were also intent on reversing 300 years of history and reclaiming a Catholic heritage that the Reformation had long since swept away.

These two contradictory motions were not unrelated. Just as the British were the first to turn their back on the old world, they were also the first to regret it.

Futurephobia was as alive in the 1830s as much as it is today, hiding behind the Elizabethan windows and Georgian front doors of suburban England. And so, just as the 1830s was the age of the train, Civil Registration and the Reform Acts, it was also the decade of the Gothic Revival and the return of Catholicism.

Inevitably in a place like Birmingham, where the modern world had begun, there was also a sneaking desire to turn back the hands of time.

In 1835, Charles Barry redesigned the old grammar school in New Street as if it were a medieval chapel, while in 1838 Thomas Rickman built one of the first new Gothicstyle churches in the country down in Hockley.

Meanwhile, across the town, something grander, larger and more profoundly medieval than either of these was beginning to rise.

Birmingham already had a couple of Catholic churches, but at the time they were built modesty and invisibility had been the key features of their design.

Buoyed up by the Catholic Emancipation Act and by the increasing numbers of Catholics coming to Birmingham, the heads of the church now wanted something altogether grander.

There was even talk of a new diocese or archdiocese of Birmingham, governing a territory stretching from the Wirral to Land's End. They needed a cathedral church as boundless as its see.

The only limiting factor, and it was a considerable one, was a chronic lack of funds. In 1834, when the idea was first mooted, the Birmingham Catholics went to Thomas Rickman, since he was already working in the town and was likely to produce a building in the required Gothic style. If Catholicism was to be born again, it at least should do so as if nothing else, either in theology or architecture, had mattered in the intervening three centuries.

Rickman was, in fact, a Quaker, but any religious convictions he had came a poor second to his architectural professionalism, and he duly produced his design.

These plans then gathered dust in a drawer for lack of money. When the scheme was revived a few years later, and Rickman's design dusted off again, the Catholics went for advice to the man who was rapidly becoming the arch priest of Gothic. …

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