Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral stands on a noisy corner opposite the Imperial War Museum. There is an irony in its location as in 1780 a crowd estimated to number between 25,000 and 100,000 gathered on the very spot to protest at the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 which gave the first limited freedoms since the time of Mary I for Catholics to practice their religion. Led by Lord George Gordon, the mob marched to the house of Commons to present a petition to repeal the Act. What are called the Gordon Riots followed which lasted for a week and led to the storming and destruction of the few Catholic chapels that existed in London at that time.
In 1786, some years after the passing of the Act, now that the clergy were allowed to celebrate mass and administer the sacraments openly without fear of imprisonment, the Revd. Thomas Walsh hired a room in Bandy Leg Walk, which was located between Blackman Street (now Borough High Street) and Gravel Lane. This enabled the large number of Catholics living in the area who mostly came from Ireland to practice their religion. The accommodation was basic: writing in 1834, the Catholic magazine described the premises as “… a wooden shack, it contained 200 and in every respect was a most miserable dwelling for a house of sacrifice.”
It was soon apparent that larger premises were required. Subscriptions were raised, a site found in London Road and the Chapel of St George’s Fields formally opened in 1793. With a flagged courtyard and two rows of leafy walnut trees, it is said to have had the appearance more of a private house than a chapel.
Father Thomas Doyle was sent to St George’s Chapel as assistant priest in 1820 and became the first Chaplain in 1829. Born in England of Irish parents, he threw himself into the work of the church and it was said of him “no priest ever laboured more zealously than he; early and late, in the rigours of winter and the heats of summer he was untiring in his visitation of the sick and poor, penetrating into the fever-stricken courts and slums of Southwark and Lambeth when pestilence was raging and carrying his life in his hands.”
The congregation grew quickly, almost entirely due to the large numbers arriving from Ireland forced to emigrate because of famine and persecution. Most were poor labourers, many working on the building of the railways, or their widows and orphans. In 1820, the congregation was estimated to be 4,000 which had grown to about 20,000 after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. By 1827, the Chapel in London Road no longer served the needs of the congregation as it could only accommodate about 600 people and this was only possible if they were packed in tight together. There were four services held on Sundays at 8am, 9am, 10am and 11am and weekdays services were held at 8am, 9am and 10am.
Father Doyle conceived of a plan for a grand parish church to seat 3,000 and began to raise money. He did not have much success in London and travelled to Europe where he received large donations from the Kings of Bavaria, Sardinia, France and the Belgians, the Emperor of Austria, the Queen of Spain and several German Grand Dukes. Other donations were received ranged that came from the English Catholic aristocracy to the pennies from the poor of the district.
By 1838 enough money had been raised to make a start and the architect Pugin appointed. An ideal plot of land was found opposite Bethlem Hospital, owned by the Bridge House Estates, but Father Doyle was unsuccessful in his bid, instead he bought the plot next to it for £3,200. Included in the conditions of sale, Bridge House Estates stipulated that the church was to be completed in six years when the purchase money was to be paid and there was to be no image or emblem of a religious nature on the exterior of the building.
Pugin and the Building Committee had a disagreement over costs, the first designs were rejected and Pugin resigned. It was decided to hold a competition for the design of the building which attracted four entrants, Pugin included who had been persuaded to enter. In the event Pugin’s gothic design won the competition and work to the foundations commenced in 1840. Progress was very slow and Father Doyle was constantly fund-raising to pay for the next section of construction. The London Illustrated News of 24 December 1842 described the building as “well advanced, though the works have not been progressing with the required rapidity for some months past, owing to the state of the weather and to the deficiency of funds.” The article praises the gothic design, and to counter the still prevalent anti-Pope sentiments ends the article “The report that the Pope of Rome has largely contributed to the erection of this edifice is, we hear, totally without foundation. The church has been built in reality by the pence of the poor.”
By 1844 the Church had a roof and although a lot of work still remained the Church, Convent and Priests’ house were handed over. The last service held at the Chapel in London Road was held on 2 July 1848 and the consecration of the new Catholic Church of St George was held on 4 July 1848. The service was conducted by Bishop, later Cardinal, Wiseman and those in the procession included all the English Bishops, 260 priests, and members of the Benedictine, Cistercian, Passionist, Oratorian, Franciscan, Dominican and Institute of Charity religious orders. The Illustrated London News of 15 July 1848 reported that “As the procession moved down the middle of the nave, the grandeur of the edifice itself, the gorgeous appearance of the high altar, refulgent with gold and gems, and brilliantly lighted up, the magnificence of the vestments of the Bishops, the singular appearance of the regular clergy, all in their respective habits formed a coup d’oeil which those who were present can never forget. Alas, despite such magnificence, insufficient money had been raised to build the steeple that had been a part of Pugin’s design and was never built.
Large numbers were still arriving into London from Ireland and, as the numbers of Catholics in Britain grew, the Catholic church reinstated the full Hierarchy in 1850 and established 13 sees and the Archdiocese of Westminster. St George’s Church was elevated to the Cathedral of the Diocese of Southwark and Father Doyle created Provost and Administrator of the Diocese and continued in this role until his death in 1879. Seven years after his death, celebrations were held to commemorate the centenary of the St George’s Catholic Mission in Southwark, but despite an acknowledgement in The Times obituary to Father Doyle (9 June 1879) that “it was mainly through Dr Doyle’s exertions that the large Roman Catholic Cathedral was built … “, extraordinarily no sermon or address that marked the centenary of the Cathedral mentioned Father Doyle.
Father Doyle was great friends with the Editor of the Catholic publication ‘The Tablet’, Frederick Lucas, and conducted a vast correspondence to the publication, signing himself Father Thomas, that shows a great sense of humour and of compassion. The following is just an extract from just one letter he wrote which was in response to a scurrilous book written by M Michelet entitled ‘Priests, Women and Families’:
"Our friend Father Thomas cannot write anything this week. The real truth is that the old gentleman has been, is, and will be for some time, very much engaged with M Michelet's friends and ladies, and with the gentlemen too of the Borough.
“The ladies of the Borough are not like the Parisian dames and demoiselles, for whom the incomparable Michelet feels so deeply interested. Oh! dear, not at all, by no means. These ladies of the Borough, while away their vacant hours on the curbstone in gazing on Seville oranges, sheeps' trotters, and baked potatoes, which articles they sell, but do not eat. Other classes of these ladies prepare rabbit and cat skins, carry loads on their heads, or sift ashes in the dust yards."
A street short street that leads off London Road on the spot where the smaller St George’s Chapel was located is named after Thomas Doyle.
John Butt became the fourth Bishop of Southwark in 1885 and carried out many reforms including a new school, changes to the fabric of the building and abolition of charges for seats in the Cathedral. He also formed four smaller parishes: St George’s, The Borough, Walworth and Vauxhall. Tucked in almost underneath the railway bridge, the Church of the Precious Blood opened as the parish church in the Borough in what is now O’Meara Street in 1892.
On 16 April 1941 during World War II an incendiary bomb fell on the roof of the Cathedral and within minutes the entire building was on fire . It was only when reconstruction works commenced 12 years later the full extent of the destruction became apparent. Of Pugin’s original church, three chapels and 2 chantries had survived as well as the altar frontispiece which was cleaned and restored. The reconstructed Cathedral was designed by Romily Bernard Croze and incorporated a clerestory over the nave which improved the lighting. The new building was rededicated and opened on 4 July 1958.
Bogan, Bernard The Great Link: A History of St George's Cathedral, Southwark 1786 - 1958, London 1958