It’s big. Enormous. I’d even go so far as to say it’s monstrous, as in “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly and frightening” monstrous. Except it’s not imaginary. It’s all too real.
Liverpool Cathedral is the largest Cathedral, nay, religious building, in Great Britain. At 207 years (including the Lady Chapel, it’s the longest Cathedral in the world.
Then there’s the height. It doesn’t have a spire but is 331 feet high, making it the world’s tallest non-spired church building. There’s nothing inconspicuous about it.
Liverpool was the last one of the three cathedrals built in the 20th century that we visited, the other two being Coventry and Guildford. I dislike Coventry because it’s aggressively pointless—the shell of the old Cathedral could easily have been restored, and we’d have been spared a prickly building. Guildford’s exterior is unattractive but somewhat excusable because post-war funds were short; the interior is fairly palatable.
Liverpool is both ugly on the outside and dark in its cavernous interior.
The genesis of Liverpool Cathedral is quite similar to Guildford‘s. A new diocese was created in 1880 to accommodate a growing population. Temporary quarters in the parish church of St Peter were found to be inadequately small. Ironically, the Rector of Liverpool deemed St Peter’s “ugly and hideous”. So you decided to replace it with a larger version of the same?
The Liverpool Cathedral Act of 1902 authorized the purchase of a site and funds to build a Cathedral, stipulating that St Peter’s Church should be demolished and its site sold to provide endowment funds as soon as part of the new Cathedral building was habitable.
A year later, a public invitation was issued for architects to provide portfolios of their work to two giants of Victorian architecture, R. Norman Shaw and G. F Bodley. From there, a short list of candidates was asked to submit designs for a Cathedral in the Gothic style, later expanded to include designs of “Renaissance or Classical character”.
This was a big deal in architectural circles. It was only the third Cathedral to be built from scratch since the Reformation—St Paul’s Cathedral had followed the Great Fire of London in 1666, and Truro Cathedral began in 1880.
Here’s where things began to go awry. Though 103 architects submitted entries, including prominent Charles Rennie Macintosh, Charles Reilly, Temple Moore and Austin and Paley, the committee gave the nod to 22-year-old Giles Gilbert Scott, grandson of the great George Gilbert Scott. Below is the design that won the award. Note that it doesn’t look much like the Cathedral that was eventually built…
There is no question Scott had the design chops; he had been steeped in Gothic revival architecture since he was dandled on his grandfather’s knee. But he had produced no buildings of his own design—he was still an articling student under Temple Moore (ironically, one of the other contestants).
Further, one of the judges, G. F Bodley, had been a close friend of his father. Can you spell nepotism? In light of the younger Scott’s inexperience, it was further decided that Bodley would be his partner and overseer on the project. Nothing about this competition was either open or above board.
Work began almost immediately. So did the deterioration of the relationship between Scott and Bodley, who quickly accepted commissions to design two cathedrals in the US, necessitating frequent absences. Bodley died suddenly in 1907, leaving Scott as the sole architect—lucky for Scott, less so for Bodley.
In no time flat, Scott submitted an entirely new plan for the main body of the Cathedral. Gone were the two western towers with a single transept. Enter a single central tower 280 get high, topped with a lantern and flanked by twin transepts.
The Cathedral Committee’s collective eyebrows soared at such a radical change and suggested that Scott put more thought into the ideas before resubmitting them. In November 1910, the new plans were approved. I wonder how they would have viewed today’s Cathedral.
While they afforded additional interior space, much of the exterior Gothic detailing was tossed aside, leaving us with the modern, lumbering style of the current building.
By 1910, the Lady Chapel was complete and ready for consecration and subsequent occupancy. As stipulated, the parish church, St. Peter’s, was to be demolished shortly thereafter. Therefore, on St Peter’s Day, June 29, was chosen for the consecration of the Lady Chapel in honour of its predecessor.
The Lady Chapel, designed by the then-deceased Bodley, is quite Victorian—heavily embellished and dark like the rest of the Cathedral.
The stained glass window is lovely.
The reredos is a froth of filigree work.
Through its stained glass, the chapel pays homage to women of many backgrounds and professions considered to be significant contributors to society, including Julian of Norwich; the mother of Henry VII, Lady Margaret Beaufort; social reformer Elizabeth Fry: Queen Victoria; Grace Darling, the light keeper’s daughter who helped rescue the shipwrecked Forfarshire; poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and suffragette Anne Jemima Clough.
These photos are taken from the gallery that overlooks the Lady Chapel.
Usually, the Lady Chapel sits to the east of the Sanctuary, a glorious climax to the liturgical heart of the Cathedral. Here, a bleak hallway leads to access at ground level, as though to a storage space containing the photocopier—another bizarre design feature.
The First World War brought construction to a halt. Work resumed in 1920 when the stone quarry providing the red sandstone reopened, and the workforce had been refreshed. By 1924, the chancel, an ambulatory, the chapter house (below) and vestries were complete.
July 19, 1924, marked the 20th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone and was chosen as the date for the consecration, attended by King George V and Queen Mary, Archbishops and Bishops from around the globe.
Scott returned to the drawing board before beginning on the next section of the Cathedral, which comprised the under-tower and the central transept. The revised tower now climbed higher and more narrowly than his last revision from 1910.
Work resumed in 1925 and continued steadily until World War II began in 1939. The Cathedral sustained some damage during the Blitz of May 1940. The central section was ready for occupation by July 1941, and Scott placed the final stone on the tower’s pinnacle in February 1942.
But – there was still the nave to build! In 1942, Scott once more submitted revised plans, but due to the war, work would not begin until 1948. It took until 1955 to repair the bomb damage, particularly to the Lady Chapel.
The new plans for the nave created a so-called Great Space, separating the two transepts at the centre of the building, bisected by the Dulverton Bridge. An annexe or meeting space is on one side of the bridge, down a few steps.
On the other, towards the liturgical east of the building, is the actual nave.
Which culminates with the Perpendicular style stained glass window.
Beneath which is the massive sanctuary reredos.
Choir stalls line both sides of the Sanctuary.
A side chapel has “The Leaves of the Trees” memorial in front of the altar.
Working back towards the exit, we pass under the crossing with a cafe to one side. Go figure. There is certainly enough room for it, but it highlights this very strange Cathedral’s “event space” feel.
While there, I took the opportunity to visit the ladies’ washroom, comprising three stalls in an impossibly small space. There was barely enough room to stand between the toilets and the sinks. In the largest Cathedral in England. Why on earth???
The inexperienced young Scott of 1903 was 79 when he died in 1960—the Cathedral was still incomplete. Simon Jenkins of England’s Cathedrals notes, “In the Lancashire rain, its dripping flanks might be those of a beached whale, waiting to be eased back into the Mersey”; building it was “a venture of medieval longevity”. If only it has been worth the wait.
Frederick Thomas, who had worked with Scott for many years, succeeded him as the named architect. But—wait for it —he submitted new plans! This time for the Cathedral’s west front. The liturgical west front that is. The Cathedral is sited on a north-south axis, the only possible orientation, perched as it is on the edge of a precipice overlooking the St James Cemetery (unrelated to the Cathedral).
Richard Gilbert Scott inherited his father’s practice and was left to complete several jobs, including Liverpool Cathedral. After adding two bays to the nave (using cheaper materials: concrete and fibreglass), he resigned in protest over the drastic changes to his father’s design, namely the West End. Doesn’t look very Gothic, does it?
A service of thanksgiving and dedication was held in October 1978, drawing the Liverpool Cathedral saga to a close. The “hulk on the hill’ was finally complete.