Churches and Religious Buildings. 2 - Non Conformism

Anyone familiar with the position of Roman Catholics from the Reformation onwards, will be aware that attitudes towards them ranged from outright persecution, through suspicion to indifference. Laws prevented Catholics from playing a full part in public life and from entering the universities, or from holding high office in the state.

After the Protestant Reformation there were plots to put the Catholic Mary of Scotland in place of the Protestant Elizabeth. Thus began an association in the public mind of Catholicism with treachery. The Gunpowder Plot, Rye House Plot and the Jacobite rebellions all served to reinforce the association. To be a Catholic was not in itself a crime but priests were hunted and persecuted. Some families did cling to the old faith with a notable example being the Giffards of Chillington Hall. The immediate heirs to the throne could not marry a Catholic and Catholics could not enter the universities, as they were not eligible under the terms of the University Tests Act, a law that was not repealed until 1872. The main impediment to public life was that Catholics were not eligible to sit in the House of Commons, as were not other non-conformists. As British public life has a habit of throwing up paradoxes which, when resolved inch us forward into the previous century it was but a short time before the position of Catholics came to a head. It was in the late 1820s that the issue was forced upon the government.

Giffard House in winter raiment.

There is a long history of Catholicism in Wolverhampton for the town was once the seat of the Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District and it was not until the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, that the administration was moved to Birmingham. Such was the importance of Wolverhampton to Catholic England that it was once known as “Little Rome”. One of the leading Catholic families was the aforementioned Giffards and it was at Mrs. Elizabeth Giffard's house in North Street that Wolverhampton’s Catholics heard mass. In 1727, the Catholic population felt safe and well established enough to build a new house and chapel on the site of an old one.
The new house, the present Giffard House, was finished in 1730. There was obviously a chapel in the house, in this case dedicated to S.S. Peter and Paul. The chapel was greatly expanded after 1826 as a memorial to Bishop Milner who was buried in the orchard at the rear of the house. The body was exhumed and placed in a new tomb in 1874 before being moved to its present position in the crypt in 1930.

In the course of expansion it became one of the first Roman Catholic churches to be built in England since the Reformation, a fact of which the congregation is justly proud. The church has recently undergone extensive restoration.

The changes in law which had freed Roman Catholic churches from appearing as private houses and the resurgence of enthusiasm for the Catholic faith, led to a spate of Catholic churches being built, especially after catholic Emancipation in 1929. In 1852, the full church hierarchy was re-established although not without a great deal of resistance from those who thought that the Roman Catholic Church was once again seeking ascendancy in England.

The interior of St. Peter and St. Paul.

In an age of increased industrialisation and mass production, many people sought the spiritual values of the Catholic faith, as they perceived them. Even those who were not converted, but chose to remain within the established church, sought to raise church architecture, decoration and layout to give added spirituality to worship.1

One of the finest Roman Catholic churches in the Wolverhampton is that of St. Mary and St. John in Snowhill. (It was originally known as St. Marie’s and St. John after the usage of the day). The church of Saint Mary and Saint John by Charles Hansom (not to be confused with his brother J.A. Hansom, the architect of Birmingham Town hall and patentee of the cab that bears his name) was built between 1851 and 1855 and cost initially £10,000. 

The church of St. Mary and St. John.

One of the prime movers behind the building of the church was John Hawksford, who later became Wolverhampton’s first Catholic Mayor. He purchased from the Duke of Cleveland’s agent land adjoining Snowhill. The purchase price was £2,000, a large sum but worth it as the site was a valuable one. The Snowhill area already had an air of sanctity about it, as there were Congregational and Unitarian chapels virtually next door to each other to say nothing of Saint John’s. The land purchased formed part of the Duke’s “Gardens” and Hawksford undertook to fence the land off from them. Bishop Ullathorne laid the foundation stone in 1851 and the work carried out by the Wolverhampton builder, Wullen, whose name is remembered in Wullen Street, Whitmore Reans. The construction of the church unfortunately coincided with the Crimean War, which led to delays and increased costs. Also, sadly, the stone used from a local quarry, unproved for building, was used and the industrial atmosphere played havoc with the fabric. 

The febrile nature of the stone revealed itself in flaking masonry and general decay. The church that Hansom proposed is much as we see it today except that his plans called for a tower and spire at the intersection of the nave. The entry point for the tower can be seen just inside the Sacred Heart Chapel.

The nave was opened on Tuesday 1st May and at the ceremony Cardinal Wiseman preached a sermon so badly that most of it was inaudible. After the opening, a “dejeuner” was held at the old Corn Exchange. When opened, the entrance at west front was a double doorway with a central stone pillar that has since been removed. Inside the nave and aisles were much as they are today except that the capitals and corbels had not yet been carved. At the time of opening there was a solid wall behind the soaring chancel arch.

The same architect between 1879 and 1880 enlarged the east end. The pillars in the nave were scraped to match the new stone of the chancel and the three medallions containing angels were carved at the base of the pulpit for the occasion. When the chancel was opened it was in the presence of the aged Cardinal Newman and Hansom the architect afterwards attended the luncheon.

As it stands today, the entire length of the building is 150 feet, but it is its width that is so noticeable, being 35 feet from centre to centre pillar. However these facts convey nothing of the interior design of the church, for it is quite simply a lovely building. Elegant, calm and with a wealth of symbolism, the apsidal chancel, which is vaulted unlike the nave, really does soar and the dark blue paint, though now peeling, enhances the noble effect. At the intersection of the nave and chancel, decorated bosses carved in floral patterns cover the ribs. One feature of the Gothic Revival style is the use of symbolism. This in the church there are three lancet windows, three arches on either side of the chancel, three windows in the apse each with three lights, symbolising the Trinity. The whole plan is cruciform. Above the arches there are clerestory windows with depressed pointed arches. The side aisles are twenty feet high and fifteen feet wide and are lit by pointed windows each with three lancets.

In the centre of the chancel is a richly carved reredos, 12 feet by 18 feet, and High Altar. There is a tabernacle surmounted by an open canopy about 20 feet high. At either side are two richly canopied niches containing statues of the two patron saints, S.S. Mary and John. The front of the high altar is carved with three panels in low relief, two of them showing Abraham offering Isaac and the Thanksgiving of Noah after the Flood; the central panel shows the crucifixion. The altar was carved by Mr. Houlton (Boulton surely?) of Cheltenham, to the design by one of the curates, Fr. John Ullathorne, nephew of the bishop, who also designed the decorations on the wall behind the high altar. The altar and its reredos are carved from Caen stone. There is also a carved marble altar rail that has survived the edicts of the Second Vatican Council. 

The rear of St. Mary and St. John.

The capitals of the pillars and the heads of the Apostles on the corbels were carved by Mr. Shepherd of Bristol, who was probably recommended by the architect who also came from that city. The same artist probably carved the two portrait heads on the arch at the entrance to the sacristy. They show two Popes, Pius IX2 who was reigning when the church was opened and Leo XIII, Pope when the chancel was opened. In 1839 or 94, the Harrison family furnished the Sacred Heart Chapel, paying for the altar, windows and benches. The altar in both this and the Lady Chapel are of Caen stone and were made by Wall of Cheltenham.

The Victorian stained glass in St. Mary and John is particularly impressive though binoculars are recommended to pick out some of the detail in the higher reaches of the building.

We begin at the Apse behind the High Altar. The three panels of the window, by Hardman and Company, are High Gothic, with stylised figures recalling medieval glass. Dark colours, particularly blue and red, predominate. Both the three major scenes and the smaller ones below have their own architectural canopies. The central panel was the first to be installed in 1880. The mail scene shows the Crucifixion, with the church’s dedicatees, St. Mary and St. John, looking on. The panel showing the Adoration of the Magi was installed in 1884. The smaller scenes below show incidents from the life of the Virgin Mary. The panel showing the Transfiguration was added in 1885. In all three scenes Jesus’ hands are raised in blessing or suffering, bringing a unifying gesture to the windows. Along the bottom runs a frieze of saints and holy men, while the three lunettes above show an angel with a star (since Mary is Queen of Heaven), Christ in Glory and an angel with John’s Gospel.

The church contains other fine examples of Hardman and Company glass:

The chapels of the North and South of the Chancel contain good Gothic windows. The figures are less stylised than those in the Apse window and represent a development of the Gothic style. The North, or Lady, Chapel window was installed in 1890. It shows three scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary: her mother dedicates her to the service of the Temple, the Annunciation and her coronation as Queen of Heaven crowned with seven stars.

The window in the south, or Sacred Heart Chapel, which dates from 1892, shows three scenes from Christ’s Passion, while in the lunettes angels hold the bread and wine of the Mass and Jesus bares his Sacred Heart, burning with love for the world.

The excellent Baptistery window illustrates a further development in the adaptation of the Gothic. Although no reference to this window could be traced in the Hardman archives before 1899, it is of such high quality that it must surely be by the firm. The panels still have Gothic canopies and stylised lilies in the foliage, but the figures are depicted in a very naturalistic way and we seem to see the faces of real people. The scenes here all feature St. Joseph. We see the marriage of Mary and Joseph, the Presentation in the Temple and Jesus and Joseph at work in the carpenter’s shop. In a premonition of Jesus’ death, they are making a cross. The lunette shows the death of Joseph, comforted by Mary and Jesus. He is patron saint of all who desire a holy death.

Lastly a note about the problematic tower and spire that were never completed. The proposed tower was to be 25 feet square at the intersection of the south transept and chancel. Above the tower there was to rise a spire, the total height being 225 feet. To take the weight of the proposed tower, Hansom thickened the pillars at the south side of the chancel arch, building inside one small stairway. Some parishioners felt that that the spire would be more imposing at the west end of the church. The obliging Hansom widened the aisle buttresses on either side of the south door, the entry door to this spire still remains. The spire and tower remained a dream until the early years of the 20th century but it was never constructed. Although the building does have an incomplete look we should be grateful that the spire was not built, for it is doubtful if the fabric of the building could have withstood the weight. The church was a constant drain on parish expenses mainly due to problems with the fabric.

St. Patrick's Church, just before demolition.

A Roman Catholic church that fell victim to the new Ring Road was St. Patrick’s which once stood in Westbury Street. The church, which was opened on the 21st May 1867 and had seating for 500, was to a design by E.W. Pugin, son of the famous A.W.N. Pugin. As an expanding and thriving town it was logical that Wolverhampton should attract migrant workers. Many of these came to the town from Ireland, especially County Galway, and these helped to swell the catholic population, which by 1881 was reckoned to be 5,000.

St. Patrick’s was mainly concerned with serving this, hence the name. When the new St. Patrick’s was built near New Cross Hospital, some of the Victorian stained glass from the old church was reused.

It is a pity that due to the Ring Road and the decline of the Snowhill area,3 Saint John’s Square is not as frequently visited as it once was. This is sad for it is one of the finest and most elegant spots in town. It also hides one of Wolverhampton’s least known gems, that of the House of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy came to the town in 1848 and became actively engaged in education, making themselves responsible for five elementary schools and training pupil teachers. In 1858 they had a convent built on Snowhill, which was the centre of their work looking after the poor. Sadly now the Sisters of Mercy have departed and gone. The house itself is a Georgian corner house but in George Street, there is an ashlared Gothic brick range and behind, an added aisle-less chapel with a polygonal apse; they are both by E.W. Pugin.

The Church of St. John itself does not qualify for this study, dating as it does from 1758 to 1786. However it does contain some Victorian features especially stained glass. Apart from two Gothic windows in the Chancel, which do jar a little, the rest of the windows fit the church’s classical style very well and exhibit a restraint unusual in the Victorians. The glass is of a remarkably high quality. One major London firm, Ward and Hughes, and one important local firm, Camm of Smethwick, are represented. There are two Ward and Hughes windows in the North and South aisles. That in the North aisle is third from the west. It is signed and dated 1882. It shows King David playing his harp, surrounded with what the Victorians thought of as “antique” instruments. The window is a superb example of the Aesthetic-influenced style, with soft classical draperies.

St. John's Church.

The window in the South Aisle (the easternmost before the chapel, dated 1884) is magnificent. It shows Wisdom with her children. Wisdom was personified by the Jews and the early Christians as a woman. The noble and Junoesque figure of Wisdom holds a lily while her children look on. The scene is surrounded by an anthropomorphic Greek border.

The chancel windows of 1852, in High Gothic style, are out of place in this setting. They show the “Six Acts of Mercy” listed by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Each window is made up of three circular medallions surrounded by foliage. Dark colours predominate and in each an angel holds a banner with a teaching of Jesus.

Other Victorian glass can be seen in the South Aisle. From the east we see:

The Presentation in the Temple, obviously a very popular subject with Victorian stained glass designers, since a version also exits in St. Peter’s and St. Mary and John. The window is dated 1893 and is in the Aesthetic Style, but the artist is not known. It is dedicated to George Higham (of the building firm that worked on the restoration of St. Peter’s) by his “brother masons” and Freemason symbols are much in evidence in the border.

The adjacent window, undated, was installed at the same time. It shows Jesus, aged twelve, disputing in the temple with the doctors of the law. It is an apt companion to the Masonic window since the temple features largely in Masonic teaching. The window is signed in the bottom left hand corner “Baguley”. George Baguley (1834-1915) was proprietor of a stained glass studio in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, established in 1867.

Lastly in the South Aisle is a window of 1901, in memory of William Garfield, who died in the Boer War. Appropriately for a soldier, the window shows Jesus blessing the Roman centurion whose servant he healed. This fine window is signed “S. Evans of Smethwick”. This is probably Samuel Evans of Smethwick, whose studio was in existence as early as 1879. Smethwick was a centre for stained glass design, with workshops including those of Chance Brothers and Camm in operation from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th.

Indeed, St. John has some examples of Camm glass, although they are from the early 20th century and strictly outside the scope of this book. Both can be seen in the North Aisle, the first two windows from the west. The first, dated 1910, shows Jesus with Mary and Martha. It is a fine window in the classical style. Next to it is a superb example of the work of Florence Camm (1847-1960), daughter of the founder of Camm and Co and important craftswomen in the Arts and Crafts style. It shows Jesus as the good shepherd.

The Gallery has two further Victorian windows both dated 1880 and unsigned. They are painted glass and have deteriorated over the years. The South window shows the Resurrection while the North has Faith, Hope and Charity. They are not vintage examples of Victorian glass painting.

Also of interest is the reredos and chancel panelling, pulpit and font, the two former of 1899. There are in the church, many encaustic tiles from the Minton factory given to St. John’s as a gift. Those east of the altar have been carpeted over as have those of the nave aisle, but many more examples are still to be seen.


1. A gem of Roman Catholic Church architecture is that of St Chad’s at Brewood. It is also the only example in the area of the work of A.N.W. Pugin.
2. Pius IX, or Pio Nono, is one of the best known Popes to non-Catholics for it was he who was Pontiff during the movement towards Italian unification. After the annexation of Rome by the new state Pius famously declared that he was a “prisoner of the Vatican”. After Pius, no Popes left the Vatican until the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929. More controversially, it was Pius who took personal charge of Eduardo, the Jewish boy brought up a catholic because a maid claimed to have secretly baptised him.
3. Since writing this the Snowhill area has been revitalised, the shops de-cluttered and the whole street turned into an attractive part of town.

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