St George's Cathedral

Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1955.

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'St George's Cathedral', Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), (London, 1955), pp. 72-75. British History Online [accessed 21 June 2024].

. "St George's Cathedral", in Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), (London, 1955) 72-75. British History Online, accessed June 21, 2024,

. "St George's Cathedral", Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), (London, 1955). 72-75. British History Online. Web. 21 June 2024,

In this section


In 1788, in anticipation of the passing of the Catholic Relief Bill, Roman Catholics in Southwark started collecting subscriptions (fn. 201) for a chapel to replace the inadequate accommodation in a house in Bandyleg Walk with which they had previously been forced to be content. The chapel in London Road (Plate 36), an unimposing building whose site is now occupied by the South London Palace of Varieties, was blessed and opened in March, 1790, and finished in 1793. (fn. 201)

Temporary chapels were opened in Southwark for refugees from the French Revolution between 1799 and 1805, but the large influx of Irish Catholics into the rapidly expanding working-class districts of Walworth and St. George's during the first quarter of the 19th century, created a greater problem. In the 1830's a committee, in which Father Doyle was the moving spirit, was set up to discuss the possibility of building a large church to accommodate the overflowing congregation of the London Road Chapel. A. W. Pugin, who was informed of the project by the Earl of Shrewsbury, with his usual expedition produced elaborate and detailed plans for a cathedral with chapter-house, cloisters, and conventual buildings. The plans were much admired by the committee, but on a member inquiring how much it would cost to put them into execution Pugin, resenting so mundane a question, rolled up his drawings, "took his hat, wished the gentlemen good day, and walked out." (fn. 202)

In 1839 a new committee was formed which asked the architects, J. Buckler, E. M. Foxhall, A. W. Pugin, and J. J. Scoles, to send in competing designs for the church. Forewarned by previous experience the committee laid down that the buildings, which were to include a church with accommodation for 2,500 on the ground floor, a house for four clergy, and schools for 300 boys and 200 girls, were not to exceed an estimated cost of £20,000. The "style of pointed Architecture" was to be chosen but "solidity of construction" was required rather than "ornamental Architecture." (fn. 203) Pugin's designs were selected, mainly because his plan for the church contained the greatest space.

Public feeling against the Catholics still ran high and Father Doyle encountered difficulties in buying land. His first application to the City of London for the triangle of land opposite Bethlem Hospital was refused, but in April, 1840, the City authorities agreed to sell him a plot of land in St. George's Road for £3,200 provided that the buildings were erected to Pugin's design, were completed within six years, and had no "ecclesiastical Ornament" on the outside. Parliamentary sanction for the transfer had been obtained in the previous year. (fn. 204) It was thought inadvisable to have any public ceremony at the laying of the foundation stone and it was laid privately at 7 o'clock in the morning of 26th May, 1841. (fn. 203)

Most of Pugin's working drawings have unfortunately been lost, but an elevation, sketch, and plan made in 1839 and now preserved at the cathedral is reproduced on Plate 46. Pugin, writing before the building was well begun, in 1841, declared his intention of carrying out every detail "in the style of the time of Edward III. A great part of the church will be left open, without seats, and three thousand persons may be easily accommodated on the floor. No galleries of any description will be introduced, but all the internal arrangements will be strictly a revival of those which were anciently to be found in the large parochial churches of England." (fn. 205)

Pugin supervised the building to the last detail and even wished to dispense with the services of a clerk of the works, saying that the saving of his wages would be sufficient "to finish three altars." The building contractors were Messrs. Myers & Wilson, and the contract specified that the foundations and all inside walling was to be of "good hard burnt common stocks … the masonry … of Bath stone … [and] The foundations of concrete … 5 feet thick." The stained glass was by Wailes of Newcastle. (fn. 206) By 1843 work on the church was so well advanced that the school and clergy house were begun, but in spite of the persuasive tongue and pen of Father Doyle, completion of the buildings was delayed by lack of funds and the church was not formally opened until 4th July, 1848.

It is interesting to note that the first marriage to be celebrated in St. George's was that of A. W. Pugin to Jane Knill, his third wife, on 10th August, 1848. (fn. 207) Cardinal Wiseman, the first Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, was inducted at St. George's in December, 1850, and in the following year Dr. Thomas Grant was installed as the first bishop of the newly-established diocese of Southwark.

Two early additions to the fabric were the chantries in memory of Edward Petre (1849), and George Talbot (1854). The latter was never finished and endowed as intended, owing to the death of Talbot's kinsman, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had undertaken to pay for its erection, but it was later made into a Relic chapel. The Knill chantry, designed by Edward Pugin, was completed in 1857.

Major alterations to the cathedral and its ancillary buildings were carried through in 1886–90 by Bishop Butt. The schools were removed to a new site in 1887 (see p. 75) and the old site was used for a new clergy house designed by Frederick A. Walters (fn. 201) (1888). In 1889 Pugin's rood screen, which had always aroused controversy among his co-religionists, was removed so that the congregation could have a clear view of the Sanctuary. In 1890 a new chapel in honour of St. Joseph was erected on the south side of the cathedral in memory of Samuel Weld. In 1894 the long-delayed consecration of the cathedral took place.

Archbishop Amigo Jubilee Hall, built from money collected when Bishop Amigo became Archbishop after occupying the see of Southwark for thirty-four years, was opened in 1940 and, since April, 1941, when the cathedral was burnt out, it has been used for services. The architect was Robert Sharp. (fn. 207)

St. George's was 240 feet in length and 72 feet in width and filled practically the whole of the restricted site allowed for it, so that the north-east and north-west sides have always been obscured by other buildings. The 8-foot thick walls at the base of the tower were made to support a lofty tower and spire, but they were never carried higher than 64 feet. Pugin's design was based on that of the church of the Austin Friars near Old Broad Street and had the same plan, three parallel aisles without triforium or clerestory. The chancel, 40 feet long and about the same in height, was short in proportion to the length of the nave, but this and the lack of a clerestory were not considered as serious defects until after the elevation of the building to the dignity of a cathedral.

The lukewarm description of the church given in The Times' account of the consecration is typical of contemporary opinion: "The external appearance is not remarkably striking, and, if it provokes no censure, certainly challenges no extraordinary praise … Within, the nave and aisles are equally unpretending, the pillars which support them being light in structure and fluted; the roof, of plain oak; the side walls and windows perfectly plain … The elevation of the pointed Gothic arches on which the roof rests seems too low for a sublime effect and too high for elegance of detail. The side windows, which are six in number on each side, have not yet been filled with stained glass, and their blank and cheerless appearance, no doubt, added to the naked and hungry aspect of the aisles. A few paintings hung on the walls at intervals scarcely relieved this expression, which may have been designedly introduced by the architect to set off by contrast the extraordinary beauty of the great window and organ gallery at the western entrance, of the stone pulpit in the centre, and of the chancel and chapels of the sacrament and the blessed Virgin on the east … The screen which separates the chancel from the nave is formed on three arches, which rest, like those of the stone pulpit, on highly-polished marble pillars … [It] is in the style of the ancient 'rood lofts'." (fn. 208)

The Builder gave a detailed description of the chancel with its carved oak panelling and desks, the decorated stonework of the Sanctuary, and the High Altar of Caen stone with a richly gilt Tabernacle, consisting of four clusters of pinnacles supporting a canopy. It praised the design and workmanship of the altar furniture and suggested that it was in such matters that Pugin's chief excellence lay. (fn. 209)

It is now generally agreed that St. George's was not one of the best products of Pugin's restless genius, but in view of its size, the limitations imposed by the site and the small funds available, it was a remarkable achievement.

The restoration of the cathedral was begun on 5th August, 1953. In the design for the new building, which will rise from, and incorporate, the ruins of the old, the architect, Romilly B. Craze, has retained as much as possible of Pugin's original work. Owing to the extent of the damage, it has been necessary to re-design the greater part of the building, and this has been done with due regard to the existing remains of the cathedral.

It is proposed that the tower shall be nearly 180 feet high and that daily and mortuary chapels and sacristies shall be built on the liturgical south side. Lighting will be greatly improved by the provision of a clerestory rising from the rebuilt nave arcading. There will be no triforium, the bay design being based broadly upon that of the famous French church at Brou. A baptistery will be built adjacent to the tower.

Cathedral Plate

A gold monstrance and a reliquary of St. Thomas of Canterbury in gold and enamel (Plate 48) and a heavy processional cross in brass were designed by A. W. Pugin. The plate designed by Edward Pugin for the Knill chantry consists of a silver gilt cruet, a silver chalice, thurible and bell, a silver gilt and enamel paxbred, two acolyte's candlesticks and two smaller candlesticks and two torches in silver, and a silver and ebony crucifix.

Notre Dame High School, St. George's Road

Early in 1855 two Sisters of Notre Dame from the mother house at Namur came to Southwark to help in the instruction of poor Catholic children. (fn. 207) Within a short time they decided to open a secondary school for girls and for this purpose acquired the remainder of the lease (originally granted to the Philanthropic Society) of a triangle of ground on the west side of Gladstone Street. The freehold of the ground was purchased from the City Corporation in 1908 (fn. 155) and subsequently, when a scheme was mooted to build shops on the St. George's Road frontage between Gladstone Street and Lambeth Road, the Sisters bought this ground also. The plain five-storeyed buildings in red brick which comprise the school have been built at various times, the last big addition being in 1938 when a new wing was added at the rear. Both entrances are pedimented and have Roman Doric columns at each side and statues in niches above. There are cast-iron railings, with Gothic tracery to the heads of each panel, on the St. George's Road frontage.


  • 155. City Comptroller, B.H.E.
  • 201. St. George's Cathedral, Contemporary MS. notebook.
  • 202. B. Ferrey, Recollections of A. N. Welby Pugin, 1861.
  • 203. St. George's Cathedral, Minute Book of the new Catholic Church and Schools in Southwark.
  • 204. Private Act 2 & 3 Vic. cap. 27.
  • 205. A. W. Pugin, The Present State of Ecclesiastical Architecture in England, 1843, p. 33.
  • 206. T. F. Bumpus, London Churches, Ancient and Modern, 2nd Series, 1907, p. 174.
  • 207. Rev. B. Bogan, The Great Link, [1951].
  • 208. The Times, 5th July, 1848.
  • 209. The Builder, 9th Sept., 1848.