St George's RC Cathedral and Church of the Precious Blood

In 1780 a crowd of what is estimated to have been between 25,000 and 100,000 gathered on St Georges Fields in 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 1778 Act. What are now called the Gordon Riots subsequently 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. There is an irony in the tradition that grew up that the altar of St Georges RC Cathedral was built over the very spot where the rioters had gathered all those years previously.

In 1786 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 where the large number of Catholics, who were mostly from Ireland, were able 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.

St Georges Cathedral

St George's RC Cathedral, St George's Road

It was soon apparent that larger premises were required. Subscriptions were raised, a site found in London Road and the Chapel of St Georges 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 Georges 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 swiftly grew, almost entirely due to the large number of immigrants from Ireland forced to emigrate because of famine and persecution. Most were poor labourers or their widows and orphans. In 1820, the congregation was estimated to be 4,000, in 1820 it had grown to 7,000 and after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, it was estimated to be 20,000. By 1827, the Chapel in London Road no longer served the needs of the congregation as, in the free part, it could only accommodate about 600 people and that was only if they were packed together very densely which made the act of kneeling very difficult if not impossible. 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 Austrian, the Queen of Spain and several German Grand Dukes. Other donations that were received ranged 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 Pugins gothic design won the competition and work to the foundations commenced in 1840. Progress was to be 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 doeil which those who were present can never forget. A golden chalice and paten were sent to mark the opening of the Church by Pope Pius IX. Alas, despite such magnificence, insufficient money had been raised to build the steeple that had been a part of Pugins design, and was never to be 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 Georges Church was elevated to the Cathedral of the Diocese of Southwark and Father Doyle created Provost and Administrator of the Diocese and he continued in this role until his death in 1879. Seven years after his death, celebrations were held to commemorate the centenary of the St Georges Catholic Mission in Southwark, but despite an acknowledgement in The Times obituary to Father Doyle (9 June 1879) that it was mainly through Dr Doyles exertions that the large Roman Catholic Cathedral was built , extraordinarily no sermon or address that marked the centenary 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:

P8110020

Church of the Most Precious Blood

St George Cathedral ruins

Sources:

Bogan, Bernard The Great Link: A History of St George's Cathedral, Southwark 1786 - 1958,London 1958
George Weight, Statistics of the Parish of St George the Martyr, Southwark, Journal of the Statistical Society, April 1840 (Google Books)
http://www.southwark-rc-cathedral.org.uk/cathedral/history.htm
http://pugin.com/pugsou.htm

The London Illustrated News: 24 December 1842: 15 July 1848
The Times: 9 June 1879