St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Derby, built 1838-39, was the first complete design of the foremost designer of the English Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852).
Its foundation stone was laid on June 28th 1837, the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation.
Previously the few Catholics in Derby had worshipped in a small building in Chapel Street.
Built to the north of Derby town centre, at precisely the time when the approaching railways were about to cause rapid growth in population, St Mary’s was an acknowledgement that many of the workers who would migrate to the new railway works would be Irish in origin.
The site was constricted and funds limited. Pugin set out the building with the sanctuary to the north and a tall tower, 100 feet high, placed centrally at the south (liturgical west) front.
The church would have been even more prominent if Pugin’s slender spire, supported by flying buttresses, had been built: its tip would have reached two hundred feet above street level.
In the absence of a spire, a white Portland stone statue of St Mary was mounted on top of the tower and unveiled on Trinity Sunday 1928.
Now that many of the surrounding buildings have been cleared the plainness of the side walls is noticeable.
Though the exterior of St Mary’s is elegant and understated, the interior was richly decorated.
Pugin designed a whole range of fittings and metal furniture in collaboration with the Birmingham manufacturer, John Hardman. The panoply of lamps, crosses, candlesticks, vessels and altar furniture first seen at the consecration ceremony were the earliest products of a partnership which lasted to the end of the architect’s life.
The Derby Mercury reported that “the appearance of the clergy, upwards of fifty in number, surrounding the Altar, was extremely gorgeous”.
The Catholic newcomers were not welcomed to Derby by the established Anglicans.
In 1846 the great bulk of the Anglican parish church of St Alkmund, designed by the local architect Henry Isaac Stevens (1806-1873), was built, blocking the view of St Mary’s from the town centre. It was traditionally said to have been the “Anglicans’ revenge” for the construction of Pugin’s church.
Ironically, when St Alkmund’s was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Inner Ring Road, some of its stone was offered for the construction of a new East Porch for St Mary’s.
The footbridge across the underpass leads directly to St Mary’s main entrance, and there is now an unimpeded view between Pugin’s elegant Gothic Revival church and the superb medieval Perpendicular tower of the Anglican cathedral of All Saints’.
St Mary’s Church is listed Grade II*.
The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.