The growth of Birmingham
In the Middle Ages Birmingham was a small market town, located around the church of St Martin in the Bull Ring. In 1660 the population of Birmingham was around 6000 people and by 1732 it was estimated to have risen to 15,000. The rapid growth of the town meant the existing parish church of St Martins was no longer adequate to service the population and a new parish church was required.
In 1708 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing the appointment of a commission to oversee the creation of a new Parish – High Town – and the construction of a new parish church. As its name suggests, High Town was the highest point in Birmingham and became an exclusive address for the growing numbers of wealthy merchants, manufacturers and professionals seeking to escape the cramped timber-framed houses, narrow streets and overcrowding of what became known as the ‘Low Town’.
The site on which the new church was to be located was a field called The Horse Close. The land was sold by the Phillips family at a very low cost – a gesture subsequently and unusually acknowledged in the choice of St Philip’s as the name for the new church.
Design and consturction of St Philip’s
The task of designing the new church was given to architect Thomas Archer from Umberslade Hall near Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire.
Thomas studied at Trinity College, Oxford. Following his graduation in 1686, he embarked on a four-year ‘Grand Tour’ of Western Europe. He visited Padua and almost certainly Rome. He was inspired by the work of famous architects such as Bernini and Borromini, later choosing to design St Philip’s in the Italian Baroque style, albeit in a more restrained version more suited to Protestant England.
Construction began in 1709 and the main body of the church was completed by 1715. Building works were overseen by William Smith of Warwick, and the names of the various craftsmen involved are listed in the building accounts.
The total cost of the building was just over £5000, nearly all of which was raised by local subscription. There was no tower on the original building. It was likely that an arch over the central west end window would have been in place to give the church a proper frontage.
A new parish church
The parish church of St Philip’s was consecrated on on the 4 October 1715.
There were originally three wooden galleries at mezzanine level in a manner typical of English Baroque churches. The organ and choir were originally located in the mezzanine gallery that ran across the west end of the nave, obscuring any view through into the town.
The organ also dates from 1715 and was originally built by Schwarbrick. It has since been moved from its original position in a West end gallery, enlarged and modernized, most recently by Nicholsons in 1993.
Archer’s church originally had a shallow apse chancel at the east end which housed the alter and communion table. The alter was separated from the nave by a beautiful wrought-iron rail made by Robert Bakewell of Derby in 1715. These railings have survived, although they no longer functions as the alter rail after being relocated in 1982. Original wrought-iron details can also still be seen supporting the hand rail on the stairs in the main porch.
The construction of the church also led to a number of new residential developments, which were built from stone and brick and designed in a fashionable classical style. Two such developments were Temple Row and The Square.
“When I first saw St Philip’s in the year 1741, at a proper distance, uncrowded with houses for there were non to the north, New-hall excepted, untarnished with smoke, and illuminated by a western sun, I was delighted with it’s appearance, and thought it then, what I do now, and what others will in future, the pride of the place.” William Hutton, 1783
The addition of the tower
The tower and clock were added between 1725 and 1730 with a gift of £600 from King George I/ The weather vane incorporates a boar’s head which is part of the family crest of Sir Richard Gough of Edgbaston, the man responsible for securing the money needed for the tower’s completion after he sent a petition to the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole.
19th century developments
By the second half of the 19th century, Birmingham had grown into a major industrial centre with a population of nearly half a million people: nearly 10 times that of a century before. This had many impacts on St Philip’s as the parish church continued to serve the growing community around it.
In 1850, new pews were installed and the clock in tower was replaced.
In 1858 the burial ground was closed to further burials, conditions were very poor and potentially a threat to public health “offensive to the surrounding neighbourhood, especially in the summer months.” There are about 100 monuments left visible today. It is estimated that around 60,000 are buried in the ground of St Philip’s, dating back from it’s early days as a parish church.
Other significant alterations to the church during the 19th century included the complete replacement of the external stonework of the nave. The original stone used for the building had come from the Archer family’s own quarries in Rowington in Warwickshire. However, this proved to be far too soft and the nave was refaced in more robust Staffordshire Hollington stone between 1859 and 1871. As part of these works a large number of memorials that had previously adorned the exterior of the church were removed.
In 1880, the attractive etched glass windows that can still be seen today were installed in the North and South Aisles. These were made by the Birmingham firm Hardman & Co at a cost of £200.
In 1884, in response to changes in Anglican Liturgy, the Birmingham Architect J A Chatwin was given the task of enlarging and reordering of the church. He replaced Archer’s shallow apse with a much bigger chancel with six fine near Corinthian columns, and designed new stalls for the choir and clergy that remain in use today. Chatwin can also be credited for designing many other buildings in the locality of St Philip’s, including the prestigious Grand Hotel on Colmore Row, which opened in 1879.
He also moved the organ to it’s present position on the north side of the new chancel and removed the west gallery to open up the view of the west window from the nave.
The Burnaby monument, which continues to be a key feature of Cathedral Square, was erected in 1885, in memory of Frederick G Burnaby.
Stained-glass windows installed
Chatwin had always intended the windows in his extended chancel to house stained-glass.
The church was fortunate to have been given a substantial donation from congregation member and wealthy heiress Emma Chadwick Villers-Wilkes. This enabled a commission by the famous Arts and Crafts firm of Morris and Co to construct three new stained-glass windows designed by the great Birmingham artists Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones chose the four scenes to be depicted from the life of Christ.
The final window was installed in the west end of the cathedral in memory of Bishop Bowlby.
Elongated figures with heads and feet out of proportion to the length of the bodies is a features of Burne-Jones later style, echoing early medieval Romanesque sculpture that he had studied in France and Italy.
Despite their unusual size, painterly design and rich colouring they were immediately admired. Their very difference from the norm of stained-glass windows in churches seems to have touched a deep chord with almost everyone who viewed them, right through to the present day.
The church that became a cathedral
In 1889, Birmingham was granted city status by Queen Victoria.
This was followed, in 1905, by the creation of the new Birmingham Diocese, led by the great theologian and Christian Socialist, Bishop Charles Gore. Gore was acutely aware of the poverty and social problems facing many of the ordinary citizens of Birmingham, so rather than build an expensive new cathedral, he decided instead to elevate St Philip’s Church to cathedral status. Even so, a number of changes were required to enable the church to fulfil it’s new role.
It was at this time that a Bishop’s throne (cathedra) and canon’s stalls were installed, the c1850 pews were removed from the nave and replaced with chairs, and Art Nouveau chandeliers provided new electric lighting.
In 1911, the churchyard was remodelled as a public garden for use by city centre workers. Today, it is estimated that over 20,000 people a day pass through the square.
In 1914 the Cathedral was the subject of suffragette activity where women attempting to raise the profile of their cause painted slogans inside the building and on the windows. This was the same year that the statue of Bishop Gore by Stirling Lee, that can be seen outside the cathedral today, was unveiled.
Between 1914 and 1935, the cathedral bells were considered to be in a dangerous condition and were hardly used. New bells were cast by the firm Gillett and Johnston in 1937 and erected in a new frame in time for the Coronation of King George VI. Two further bells were added in 1949 following the post-war restoration of the cathedral. The bells at St Philip’s are considered by many to produce one of the finest peals in the country – but with such clarity comes a greater challenge to ring them accurately. Our bells are rung on a regular basis by The St Martins Guild of Church Bell Ringers.
World War II
Victorian railings and bollards in Cathedral Square were removed in 1940 as part of the government’s propaganda drive to recycle metal for the war effort (although, like the vast majority of historic metalwork taken during the war, were never actually used for anything). Photos from the time show concrete air raid shelters in the grounds of the cathedral.
The stained-glass windows in the cathedral building were also removed for safe keeping in 1939, courtesy of the Civic Society, who provided a grant of £375 from it’s charitable fund to remove windows and provide suitable boarding. This foresight was remarkable as the cathedral suffered considerable damage caused by an incendiary bomb dropped in October 1940. During this time, the window frames were boarded up and the area used for worship was significantly reduced. A further grant of £640, also from The Civic Society, was also provided to replace the windows into their frames after war.
By 1948 the building had been completely restored and rededicated.
Even during the war, plans were being made for how life might start to return to normal once the war was over. It prompted Provost and Chapter to consider the option of building a bigger cathedral. Plans were drawn up and presented in 1942, and if they had been implemented would have seen the creation of Britain’s first Art Deco cathedral and a much larger cathedral than what we still see today.
The tower was refaced in new Staffordshire (Hollington) stone 10 years later in 1958.
More recent renovations
In the early 1980’s the altar was re-ordered and extensive internal re-decoration took place.
An underground meeting room and song school installed in the the former burial vaults and opened by Queen Elizabeth II on Maundy Thursday in 1989.
In 1995 a new memorial was erected in Cathedral Square in memory of the 21 people who died in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. An annual memorial service continues to be held at the cathedral.
Between 1998 and 2003, a restoration programme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, saw the reintroduction of 18th Century style railings in Cathedral Square, York stone pathways, benches and new tree planting.
Extensive external repairs took place to St Philip’s in 2014, followed by investigation work in subsequent years to understand the level of conservation required on the four stained-glass windows. Work to conserve these is due to start in 2023.