The Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Nottingham was built in one phase by A.W.N. Pugin with his builder George Myers, and funded in part by Pugin’s patron Lord Shrewsbury.
The stone-built Cathedral and its 150ft spire are conspicuous landmarks on the Derby Road to the west of Nottingham city centre. It is designed in the Early English style rather than Pugin’s favoured Middle Pointed, the designed inspired in part by the medieval Cistercian house at Croxton, Staffordshire. By contrast with the simplicity of the exterior, the original design of the interior was one of great richness and colour. This has undergone serval transformations, attempting variously to dilute or reinstate something of the colour and atmosphere intended by Pugin; the most recent reordering and redecoration (1993) was very much a reinstatement of that character. The main volumes of Pugin’s interior service, and notably his decorative scheme for the Blessed Sacrament chapel (restored in 1933). There are also later features of interest. The contemporary boundary wall and presbytery (now Cathedral House) form a good group with the cathedral. The 1960s extension to Cathedral House and the Cathedral Hall of the 1970s are not of special architectural or historic interest.
Fr Robert Willson took charge of the Nottingham mission, the congregation then numbering about 150. Three years later the church of St John the Evangelist in George Street was opened, built from designs by Edmund Willson of Lincoln, the brother of Fr Willson. This building still exists today, in secular use. With the growth of the Catholic population, a new and larger church became necessary.
Fr Willson acquired a site of 10,000 square yards, prominently located on the outskirts of the town alongside the Derby Road. The cost of site acquisition together with the building of a church and presbytery was estimated at £20,000, towards which the Earl of Shrewsbury gave £7,000 and the Revd Waldo Sibthorpe, an Anglican convert, £2,000.
Shrewsbury’s protégé A.W.N. Pugin was appointed architect and on 10 November 1843 the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Nicholas Wiseman, assistant to Bishop Walsh, Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District. The builders were Myers and Co. of London, Pugin’s favoured builders.
The completed church was consecrated by Bishop Wiseman on 27 August 1844, who came with relics of St Barnabas, brought from Rome. At the time of its opening, this was the largest Catholic Church built in England since the Reformation. Pugin’s presbytery was occupied from 1844 and his nearby convent buildings for the Sisters of Mercy followed in 1846.
With the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 St Barnabas became the Cathedral Church of the newly-established Diocese of Nottingham, and the first Bishop, Joseph Hendren, was enthroned here in December 1851.
Under Bishop Bagshawe (third bishop of Nottingham, 1874-1901), the Italianate tastes of the London Oratory were introduced, somewhat at odds with the full-blown Gothic character of Pugin’s Cathedral. Gothic vestments were banned, Mozart and Gounod were more likely to be sung than plainchant, the gates to Pugin’s rood screen were removed and marble altar rails were introduced.
Further changes took placed under the fourth Bishop, Robert Brindle (1901-15). Pugin’s rood screen was removed from the sanctuary and re-erected at the west end. A new high altar was introduced, along with an Austrian oak bishop’s throne given by the King of Spain.
This trend was put into reverse by the fifth Bishop, Thomas Dunn, who introduced the daily recitation of the Divine Office by the Cathedral clergy and gave a more prominent place to the use of plainchant in the liturgy, as encouraged by Pope St. Pius X. Bishop Dunn set out his programme for restoring the Puginian character of the cathedral in a letter published in the Diocesan Yearbook for 1925. Employing F.A. Walters as his architect, the high altar installed by Bishop Brindle (which Dunn described as ‘enough to make the angels week by its unsightliness’) was replaced, the rood beam was restored to its original place, and Italianate altars were removed from the transepts. A shrine to St Joseph was sept up in the north transepts, from designs by J. Sydney Brocklesby ‘of medieval style, richly gilt, and picked out in glowing colours’ (Diocesan Yearbook, 1924).
Bishop Brindle’s successor, John Francis McNulty moved away from Cathedral House, establishing the property in Cavendish Road East as the Bishop’s House. He continued Bishop Dunn’s sympathetic work in the cathedral, being responsible for the redecoration and restoration of the Blessed Sacrament chapel to Pugin’s original designs, by Alphege Pippet in 1933 (as a memorial to Bishop Dunn).
Bishop Edward Ellis was the seventh Bishop of Nottingham, from 1944-1974, seeing the diocese through the post-war years and the upheaval that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
The stained glass had been removed from the Cathedral for safety during the war, and decision was taken not to reinstate the Pugin/Wailes glass in the transepts and at the west end but to replace it with new, lighter glass designed by Joseph Nuttgens (c. 1948).
The Crypt was renovated in memory of Bishop McNulty, with a new entrance and steps formed on the north side. At about the same time, new oak confessionals in Gothic style were added at the west end of the aisle, designed and made by R. Bridgeman of Lichfield.
There was a major internal reordering (Architects Weightman & Bullen of Liverpool and York). The oak cathedra was removed and a new one installed in the position previously occupied by the high altar. The latter was replaced with a new Portland stone high altar on a white marble extension to the sanctuary under the tower. The rood beam and figures of St Mary and St John on either side of the suspended crucifix were removed. Timber screens were removed from the entrances to the ambulatories and new mahogany benches replaced the original pitch pine pews (some of which ended up at St Hugh’s Bilborough). The interior was redecorated in lighter colours and new lighting installed. These works reflected the taste of the times and anticipated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, convening at that time. The Buildings of England wrote: ‘The whole effect could hardly be further from the richness of decoration and atmosphere that Pugin intended.’
A flat-roofed extension to Cathedral House was built from designs by Peter Bartlett of Bartlett & Greg of West Bridgford. The was to house accommodation for the Daughters of Divine Charity, who looked after the cathedral and Cathedral House.
The Cathedral Hall was rebuilt from designs by Richard Eberlin FRIBA, largely replacing a previous hall built in 1898. Extending into the Cathedral garden, this has an octagonal form, designed to evoke a medieval chapter house.
A further major reordering of the Cathedral took place in 1933, under Bishop McGuiness, to mark the 150th anniversary of the church (Architects Smith & Roper of Buxton). This involved a new high altar, lectern, sanctuary seating and cathedra, and the reinstatement of the rood figures of St Mary and St John. Level changes were ironed out and new doors fitted at the main entrance, along with a ramp in the northern ambulatory, to allow for improved circulation. A new font was installed at the east end of the south aisle and a new encaustic tile floor was laid throughout. Some of Pugin’s previously covered painted decoration was revealed and restored, notably the roundels in the spandrels of the nave and transepts. At the west end new confessional were formed from the orca of three smaller former confessionals, These works too reflected their times, marking a move from the iconoclasm of the 1960s towards a renewed respect for Pugin’s original design.
The most recent significant addition has been the tomb in the northern ambulatory housing the translated remains of the Venerable Mary Potter, founder in Nottingham of the Little Company of Mary. This was designed by Smith & Roper with carving by John Shaw of Lincolnshire.
The Cathedral won National Lottery support (£71,100) to celebrate its 175th Anniversary with a ‘Discovering Pugin’ project. This exciting heritage project focused on the architectural history of the building and was a partnership with Nottingham Trent University. Cutting edge scanning of the building was undertaking to measure it and to fund out about the historic paint schemes which still survive under later layers of paint. A programme of schools activities and events were also developed to help the public celebrate this 175th anniversary.
In September 2022, the Cathedral won a significant National Lottery Heritage Fund grant (circa, £800,000 reprising 60% of total costs) to restore some of Pugin’s original design work to the Cathedral. The unique partnership between the Cathedral, Nottingham Trent University and Culture Syndicates will see three chapels at the East end of the Cathedral restored to Pugin’s original vision and design. Early investigations of the paintwork by conservators have showed that Pugin’s original decorative scheme, sadly covered over with later paint, can be uncovered and brought back to us former glory. This grant marks a significant moment in the life of the Cathedral, putting the Church firmly on the heritage map of Nottingham, so that the story of Pugin and the outstanding beauty of his work can become better known to audiences both in the City, and further afield.