The Roman Catholic Cathedral, St Mary & St Boniface, Plymouth. Some of its pre 1858 and its early history

by Old Plymouth Society
Published March 2012

As a part of the new structure, when the Catholic Hierarchy was re- established in 1850, Plymouth Diocese was formed. Plymouth was nominated the Cathedral Centre because, although Exeter had its own historical precedent, there was a large Irish population and more Catholics in Plymouth. Furthermore, a new law prevented the restored Catholic Diocese from using the same titles as had been established in the Church of England diocese.

Its origins though go back to Thomas Flynn, an Irish Franciscan, who arrived in Plymouth in 1792 to work among the Irish workforce. His chapel was a hired room over a stable at the George Inn, Devonport, in those days known as Dock. He started the Plymouth Registers in 1792. Eventually his place was taken by one of the many French priests, Reverend Louis Guilbert, who had been exiled during the French Revolution and sought refuge in England. He was instrumental in securing the erection of a public chapel dedicated to St Mary in Stonehouse near what was then the Royal Naval Hospital, known to us today as The Millfields. This chapel opened in 1801.

Plymouth’s first Roman Catholic bishop was George Errington, a Yorkshire man. When he came to Plymouth in 1851, he soon overcame the bigotry of the town towards Catholics and concentrated on building up a Chapter of Canons and Deaneries of the Diocese. He provided support for his few priests and supported his missions. Particularly active in the Stonehouse Mission, he celebrated the Sacraments and visited the sick and dying. He became especially fond of his weekly visit to Dartmoor Prison. His principal church at that time was St Mary’s, the chapel erected by Guilbert.

Canon William Vaughan became the 2nd Roman Catholic bishop of Plymouth. Born in London in 1814, his family provided many English bishops. At the age of 41, when he first came to Plymouth, there were only twenty-three missions and twenty-three priests in the Plymouth Diocese. After his forty-seven years as a bishop, there were one hundred priests, thirteen male religious houses, twenty-eight nuns’ houses, four orphanages, twenty-seven elementary schools and five schools for older children. Indeed, both Notre Dame School for girls and St Boniface College for boys grew out of his Cathedral. Truly, Bishop Vaughan was a Founding Father of the Plymouth Diocese. His appointment of 47 years made him the longest serving Bishop of anyone in England.

Although when he took over, St. Mary’s at Stonehouse was the Pro-Cathedral, Bishop Vaughan decided that a fitting new building was required. On 20th February 1856, a syndicate of gentlemen, Reverend Walter Buckle and John Rutherford Shortland as well as Bishop Vaughan bought a portion of “Fivefields” on Eldad Hill at what was then the town’s outskirts, adjacent to a lane now named Wyndham Street. A guaranteed sum of £220 had to be paid by 25 March. The cost agreed was 1 s 3d (6p) per square foot. The site chosen was the favoured residence of the Irish population as well as beggars, tramps and costermongers. Of the balance of the purchase money just over £1185 was handed over on 24th April and a mortgage was entered with a Mr Bewes for the remaining £1000, which was paid off on 24th August 1857. A Bristol based company, the Hansom Brothers, became the architects. Joseph Aloysius Hansom, a celebrated architect and himself a Roman Catholic, designed many churches and public buildings, but perhaps he is most famous for patenting the Hansom cab in 1834. He earned the princely sum of £300 for this! Mr. W. Roberts of Stonehouse, a builder, won the contract to build the shell of the cathedral. His tender came to £3804 and was accepted on 22nd May 1856, by a Committee which consisted of the Bishop, Richard Townsend, Esquire, Chief Engineer of Keyham Dockyard and James Cahill Esquire, Clerk of the Government Works at Devonport. Edmund Bastard of Kitley, promised £1000 and a successful appeal was launched to raise the rest of the money throughout the diocese and country. The ground was staked out on 10th June and work started soon after on 22nd June. However, the final result of the whole project was an early neo – gothic English style building, richly finished with a Puginesque high altar and reredos, together with many other highly decorative details. The walls built from rough ashlar extend to 150 feet long. The building is 50 feet wide and 70 feet across the transept. The doorways and windows are finished with worked Bath stone. All was not that easy though, there was a lot of pain and grief to be suffered before the cathedral finally took its place here. The same evening that the work had begun Bishop Vaughan heard that Mr Bastard was seriously ill. He had advanced £400 of the £1000 pledged. He died two days later, and was buried in the family vault in Yealmpton. Thus there was a serious shortfall in the sum of money. However, on 19 June, the day before Mr Bastard’s funeral, Miss Trelawny of Trelawne promised £3000 from herself and £1000 from a friend: over £2000 had come in from subscriptions, so all was not lost. On 28 June the foundation stone was privately laid at the east end of the building by the Bishop.

There were construction problems including subsidence caused by an English Naval Officer firing new heavy Turkish Man-of-War guns in Plymouth Sound. The major catastrophe in erecting the building happened on June 3 1857. At around 3pm about 70 feet of masonry at the western end fell in, owing, it is said in the guide book’s post script of that year, to defective materials. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the following Tuesday the whole of the remaining portion gave way, leaving only the apse, about 8 feet in length, and the outer walls – which were materially damaged – standing. Fortunately a disaster concerning the welfare of the workmen was avoided, as shortly after the roof had been completed, on 2 June the builder, Mr Roberts, had noted several defects which had concerned him enough to telegraph Joseph Hansom. He came to Plymouth immediately. On the Wednesday when he inspected the building he discovered that the Bath stone columns had not been strong enough to support the weight on them and had split, consequently the arches had to be shored up before the defective work could be removed. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for this, and realising the building was about to collapse, Hansom cleared the building of the 40 – 50 workmen and finally made his own exit, but as he did so, a piece of masonry caught and bruised his arm. Needless to say the disaster caused a great sensation and large crowds came to see the devastation. June 5 is St Boniface’s Day, the patron saint of the diocese. Still determined, but with little support from outside his small congregation, the work was completed in a more stable manner, and it was opened for public worship on Lady Day, March 25 1858.

The Bishop’s house, which fronted onto Cecil Street, was constructed and the clergy moved in on the 23rd September 1857. It consists of several large rooms and a library where there are portraits of all the eight Bishops who have served here.

The Cathedral together with the Nunnery of the Little Sisters of the Poor with schools adjoining formed a cruciform group in the early English style. The cathedral was made up of the choir with aisles, transepts with eastern chapels and nave aisles. The entrance was through the tower – small doors were a trade mark of Hansom – it must have been difficult to manoeuvre coffins etc. through these entrances which were initially two doors with a granite pillar between them. There was seating for over 600 people. The Feast of the Annunciation is 25th March. It was the same date that it is said that the Virgin Mary told Bernadette – I am the Immaculate Conception, in Lourdes, France. It is much thought of that both the well known shrine at Lourdes and this cathedral had their beginnings at the same time. The original organ used at the opening ceremony was bought from St Martin’s in the Fields Church, London. It incorporated parts of an earlier organ associated with the famous composer, Handel. The Cathedral would have only been blessed at this service, as it was not possible to consecrate the cathedral until it was free of debt. This service took place on September 22nd 1880. Apart from suffering minor damage during the war, the building has stood proud for 150 years.

The spire was added to the tower in 1866 and is said to be the tallest spire in Devon, rising to 205 feet. Baring Gould described it as a “lanky stalk of asparagus”. A bell named Peter hangs in the tower and calls people to worship.

The large window in the south transept, erected in 1904, with a tablet beneath, is in memory of Bishop Vaughan. After setting up many churches, convents and schools, he died in 1904. His last few years were spent in semi retirement at St Augustine’s Priory at Abbotskerswell, where he was initially buried in the nuns cemetery.

The small window above the Blessed Sacrament altar was donated by Anne Trelawny in memory of her father, Henry, and shows their patrons, St Henry, Bishop of Uppsala, Martyr, around 1156 and St Anne, Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Miss Trelawny was the lady who contributed to the cost of building the cathedral.

Beneath the floor of the Lady Chapel is a vault in which 4 former bishops of Plymouth are buried. Bishop Cyril Restieaux, who served the Cathedral as Bishop for 31 years from 1955, and helped the blitzed city to rebuild itself during the post war years, served the community for 43 years. He asked to be buried here. It was necessary to hire a JCB to excavate the ground under the Chapel. Some months after his burial, three former bishops were dis-interred, re-coffined and buried on top of him. These were William Vaughan, who died in 1904, Charles Graham who was bishop here from 1902 until 1911 and John Keily who served as bishop from 1911 to 1929. The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Plympton was built as a memorial to him.

William Vaughan had been buried in a lead coffin and when it was opened his ring and rosary were in good condition, but his velvet slippers had lost all their nap it is thought some moths must have been buried with him!

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