Birmingham’s Anglican Cathedral

St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham

St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham

The parish church of St Philip was designed by Thomas Archer in 1709 and consecrated in 1715.  It was intended to serve the new northern streets, then called High Town, away from the ancient parish church of St Martin in the Bull Ring.

Archer was an interesting character, brought up in Henley-in-Arden, the son of the MP for Warwick, and as Groom Porter to Queen Anne he effectively held a patent to tax gambling across the nation.

St Philip’s was his first attempt at church-design and he went on to build St John’s, Smith Square, in London (1712-30) and St Paul’s, Deptford (1714-28).

He gave up architectural work when he was appointed Controller of Customs at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1715.  He died in May 1743 worth £100,000, which he bequeathed to his youngest nephew, Henry Archer, MP for Warwick.

As well as knowing the right people to make a lot of money, he was an exceptional designer.  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner & Alexandra Wedgwood point out that St Philip’s was “the first English church since St Paul Covent Garden to be designed by an architect who had seen for himself major Continental buildings”.

Its form is rectangular yet subtly varied and makes lively use of Doric and Corinthian orders.

The tower, which was not completed until 1725, is immediately recognisable by its scrolls and octagonal dome and may have inspired Cuthbert Brodrick’s tower for Leeds Town Hall (1853-8).

Archer’s original plan was to surmount his tower with a large cross, but this was replaced by a boar’s-head weathervane to acknowledge Sir Richard Gough’s influence in obtaining the £600 donation from King George I that enabled the lantern to be finished.

Money talks.

The Victorian architect J A Chatwin (1830-1907) extended the original chancel, adding extra Corinthian columns and a stepped entablature in white and gold to Archer’s square piers and round arches.  Ian Nairn described Chatwin’s work as “grand-slam Classical”.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1838-1898), who was born at Bennett’s Hill a short walk away and had been baptised in the church, designed for the three windows of Chatwin’s apse a triptych of the Nativity, Crucifixion and Ascension in William Morris glass, and subsequently gifted the design for the West Window which represents the Last Judgement.

St Philip’s became the cathedral when the Anglican Diocese was formed in 1905.

Incendiary bombs destroyed the roof in 1941, and the Cathedral was restored in 1947-8 by Philip and Anthony Chatwin, the son and great-nephew of J A Chatwin.

This must be one of the most intimate and welcoming of all the English cathedrals.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.

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