1828 - 1865

The conflict within (part 3)

Ss Mary and John: strife with the builder

It was the building of Ss Mary & John's Church on Snowhill which caused the greatest conflict within the Catholic population of Wolverhampton. One of the main protagonists in the troubles besetting the construction of the new church was Richard Wullon, "a local Catholic builder whose name is preserved in Wullon Street, Whitmore Reans". [Nicholls op cit p. 290].

Wullon was an influential and respectable member of Wolverhampton society, and in the early 1850s he was a member of the Wolverhampton Board of Guardians. At the same time, when an appeal was made for donations to help purchase the land on Snowhill, Wullon gave £100, the largest single subscription. [List of subscribers for Snowhill land Dec 1855].

It was not surprising, therefore, that after submitting a reasonable estimate, he was awarded the contract to build the church of SS Mary & John. Despite his being a Roman Catholic, Richard Wullon was prepared to exploit his position and, in consequence, this became the source of considerable antagonism.

In an agreement signed with Bishop Ullathorne, Wullon promised to build the Snowhill church "in a good and workmanlike manner" for the sum of £3,428 and, unless the construction was impeded by frost, the builder agreed that SS Mary & John's would be completed by 1 November 1857.

This artist's impression shows a large tower and spire, which was never built.  Why and when this feature was abandoned is not known.

In August 1852, Bishop Ullathorne was dismayed to receive a communication from Wullon claiming that the latter had made errors in his tender regarding both the quantities of materials required and the costing of the materials, and warning that, as a result, the price would be higher than that originally agreed. [Letter from Wullon to Ullathorne 1st Aug 1852] The new estimate was £3,965 [Letter from Wullon to Ullathorne 30th dec1854] and this was bad news for Bishop Ullathorne and the Catholics of Wolverhampton who were struggling to raise the finance for the church building. The Bishop decided that money might be saved if the planned wooden floor was replaced by one constructed of stone, though this led to a row between him and the architect, Charles Hansom, who pointed out that "wood might not be quite so Gothic .... but it is much more comfortable, which is an important consideration, for after all we ought to think of the comfort of the people if they are to be made to visit the church frequently". [Letter from Hanson to Ullathorne 17th Sept 1851] The Bishop eventually won the argument and Wullon agreed to reduce the bill by £126 in consideration of this change and he subtracted a further £410 for other alterations which Ullathorne agreed to make in the interests of economy. It is interesting to note, however, that in response to the Bishop’s request to increase the height of the chancel arch, Wullon added £410 on to the bill which brought the total to £3,838.

The Church of Ss Mary and John, Snow Hill, today, after restoration.  Note the buttresses and side door where the tower would have been.

Apart from there being difficulties with Richard Wullon over the cost of the project, there were criticisms regarding the quality of the materials he used, in particular the stone that he intended to obtain from the quarry of his good friend, Mr Holyoake. When Bishop Ullathorne sent Rev Estcourt to Wolverhampton in February 1852, to see how the building was proceeding, the priest discovered that "Mr Wullon is merely purchasing rough buns for walling whilst he has contracted to build the whole with good stone". Estcourt went on to describe the walling stone that Wullon was buying from Holyoake as "soft and rubbishy", and warned that as a result of different stone being used, the finished building "might well look like a patchwork". [Letter from Rev Estcourt to Hanson 17th Feb 1852] During the same month, Charles Hansom visited the site and was horrified to find that Wullon was not using burrs or walling stone but, instead, was breaking up blockstone. [Letter from Hanson to Holyoake 20th Feb 1852] Wullon was ordered to abide by the terms of the contract and to use only genuine "wallers" henceforth. [Letter from Hanson to Ullathorne 21st Feb 1852].

The promise that Wullon had made to complete the building by November 1852, subject to there being no problems with frost, was also broken; the church was not ready for opening until the spring of 1855. The Catholics of Wolverhampton were lucky, perhaps, that Wullon finished their church at all, for on Tuesday 23 March 1858 he was declared bankrupt and, in order to pay off his many creditors, it was announced that there would be an unreserved sale of his house contents and stockin-trade at the end of the same month. [WC 24th Mar 1858] Wullon had anticipated this calamity and had travelled secretly to Liverpool on Saturday 6th March, from whence he had boarded the steamship "Arabia" which was bound for America. Before his departure from Wolverhampton, he had gathered together as much cash as possible, denying his creditors anything other than a few packages that were later, seized by the Liverpool police. [17th march 1858].

The downfall and hasty departure of Wullon came as a sad shock, though not as a complete surprise, to the Catholic population of Wolverhampton. Many considered that he had not only played an ignominious part in the affair of the building of the new church, but that he had let down the Catholic community by his actions and his apparent betrayal of trust. [Letter to the Catholics of Wolverhampton from "Justica" 9th June 1855].