Birmingham Cathedral is the third smallest cathedral in the UK, and has an intriguing history that has brought us the beautiful building we have today.
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. It was built on higher land given by Elizabeth Phillips. Unusually as a compliment to the family who gave the land the church was named St Philips.
Consecrated as the parish church of St Philip’s on the 4 October 1715, Birmingham Cathedral is a rare and fine example of elegant English Baroque architecture. Particular Baroque features include the dome, volutes (scrolls), giant pilasters, oval windows, rusticated stonework and the balustrade with decorative urns.
The tower was added ten years later in 1725 with donations from the King, along with a gilded cross, weather vane and orb. The weather vane incorporates a boar’s head which is part of the family crest of Richard Gough, the man responsible for securing the money needed for the tower’s completion.
The cathedral is also home to a remarkable set of stained-glass windows designed by Birmingham born pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. More information on the windows, their creator and their restoration can be found as part of the Divine Beauty project.
Our organ 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. For more information see the National Pipe Organ Register
Originally there were three galleries (two of which remain), rows of double sided pews and a triple decker pulpit. The third gallery would have run from north to south across the west end of the nave, and would mostly have been used by the choir. The organ was originally located at the west end. The original altar rail remains in the building but no longer functions as an altar rail.
St Philip’s remained a church until 1905 when the new Diocese of Birmingham was created with Charles Gore as the first Bishop. Rather than fund a new cathedral building Bishop Gore decided to use an existing church as the cathedral and seat of the Bishop. It was at this time that a Bishop’s throne and canon’s stalls were installed as well as electric lighting.
During the Second World War the windows were removed for safe keeping courtesy of the Civic Society. The foresight was remarkable as the cathedral suffered considerable damage caused by an incendiary bomb dropped in October 1940. However by 1948 the building had been restored and rededicated.
In the 1980’s the altar was re-ordered and an underground meeting room and song school installed in the crypt. In 2000 the churchyard was renovated with new railings and paving and in 2014/15 stone repairs, new lighting and interior paintwork was completed.
There are thought to be around 60,000 burials in the Cathedral churchyard. Only a few people could afford the luxury of a headstone, and most of those that were put up have disappeared with time.
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. Very occasionally new ones are added to mark a person or event of significance, most notably there is a memorial all 21 who died in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings and it was erected in 1995.
The graves reveal the variety of professions that would be expected in a rapidly expanding town of the 18th and 19th centuries including surgeons, lawyers and craftsmen but also, reflecting the particular trades of this city, gun makers, and artists.