If asked to make a list of what the British Empire exported to the colonies – tangible and intangible items – it’s unlikely that most people would, unprompted, include churches with pointed arches, towers and spires.
Wander around any city in a former British colony and it’s more than likely you’ll encounter a Gothic cathedral. On my travels I’ve found examples in Hong Kong, Singapore and every Australian city I visited. In fact, each of the major Australian cities – Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart – has not one but two cathedrals, one each for Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
Stepping inside these churches, even in tropical heat, immediately evokes Englishness, whether the denomination is Anglican or Roman Catholic. The moment you set foot in the particularly splendid Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne [http://www.stpaulscathedral.org.au], its stripey polychrome stonework is immediately recognisable as the work of William Butterfield, an English architect who never actually saw the place.
I’m intrigued by the way English ideas of architecture and worship were exported virtually intact to the other side of the world. Several major Victorian architects had a hand in Australian cathedrals: William Butterfield provided plans for the Anglican cathedrals in Adelaide and Melbourne, and fell out with the sponsors of both; George Frederick Bodley designed St David’s Cathedral, Hobart; at the end of his life, John Loughborough Pearson, builder of Truro Cathedral, designed the Anglican cathedral in Brisbane, though actual construction was overseen by his son, Frank.
Most other Australian cathedrals were designed by English immigrants: Edmund Blacket (St Andrew’s Cathedral, Perth) was born in Southwark; Benjamin Backhouse (who built St Stephen’s, Brisbane alongside a chapel by A W N Pugin) was born in Ipswich. William Wardell, designer of two magnificent Roman Catholic cathedrals (Melbourne and Sydney) was British, a friend of A W N Pugin.
I want to know more about the men and women who envisioned, conceived, constructed and paid for these resolutely European places of worship in places that had hardly seen masonry until their lifetimes.
Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Gothic Down Under: English architecture in the Antipodes explores the influence of British architects, and British-trained architects, on the design of churches and other buildings in the emerging communities of Australia and New Zealand. For details, please click here.