Augustus Pugin and the building of St Peter’s, Woolwich
A talk in the church, Saturday 13 June 2013 by Professor Kenneth Fincham
Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52) was a leading figure in the revival of Gothic architecture. His most famous work was the Houses of Parliament, rebuilt after the fire of October 1834.
Pugin’s very considerable and highly influential work was squeezed into just seventeen years (1835 to 1852), and it included more than a hundred buildings (many of them churches) and eight major books.
1835, the year he began to practise architecture, was also the year he converted to Roman Catholicism. He saw Gothic architecture as the style for Christian architecture; as he declared: ‘after a most close and impartial investigation, I feel perfectly convinced the Roman Catholic Church is the only true one, and the only one in which the grand and sublime style of church architecture can ever be restored.’ Pugin, we should recall, was more than an architect – also a designer of furniture, metalwork, even wallpaper. In 1838, he told students of the intimate connection that linked his faith and his art: ‘All I have to implore you is to study the subject of ecclesiastical architecture with true Catholic feeling. Do not consider the restoration of ancient art as a mere matter of taste, but remember that it is most closely connected with the revival of the faith itself, and which all important objects must ever demand our most fervent prayers, and unwearied exertions.’
Let me say a little about Catholicism in Pugin’s time. Since the reformation of the mid-sixteenth century, Catholics had faced persecution for their worship and proscription from holding public office. But the early 19th century, their position had improved, marked by Catholic Emancipation in 1829, allowing them to worship freely and hold political office. Unsurprisingly, demand for new churches grew in this more favourable climate, but the church itself remained poor, since it didn’t own land, and was often dependent on rich patrons or else built as economically as might be.
St Peter’s Woolwich was erected to served the needs of Irish soldiers stationed at the Woolwich garrison, and was built on land donated by the Board of Ordnance for that purpose. The foundation stone was laid on 26 October 1842, and the church opened1 exactly a year later. The ceremony of laying the foundation stone is of some significance, since it was the first time in London that such a ceremony was performed openly since the Reformation. Just a year earlier, the foundation stone for Pugin’s St George’s Southwark was laid at 7 am, in virtual secrecy, since a protestant backlash was feared. The knowledge that there would be a large number of Irish soldiers attending the ceremony at Woolwich in 1842 probably gave Father Cornelius Cole (or Coles) the confidence to proceed in full public view.
The most striking feature of the exterior is the absence of the planned tower in the south-east corner. The explanation is the shortage of funds – just the nave and aisles were built in the 1840s – with the £4000 that had been raised. By the early 1840s Pugin came to believe the Gothic architecture celebrated asymmetry – hence the tower was planned at a corner rather than in the middle of the western exterior; note too the steep roofline of the lady chapel on the north side, not matched on the south side.
The interior uses a revival of the ‘decorated’ Gothic style of c. 1300. Like many of Pugin’s churches of the period, the roof ridges rise at a sharp angle; there are no galleries (which Pugin disliked) and no clerestory windows, which would have admitted more light, probably to avoid additional expense. While the windows in the north and south aisles have two lights (barring the three-light window next to the entry to the lady chapel), every cusp above each is different from the rest – another nice asymmetrical touch. The nave had a certain plainness or austerity, in order to contrast it with the richness of the chancel, with the altar, tabernacle and reredos. In fact, the chancel itself was not built until 1887-90, but the east window was designed by Pugin, and initially erected in the temporary east wall of the nave. The high altar dates from the early 1840s. The lady chapel is slightly smaller than Pugin planned, but it has an original (1850) ensemble of altar, reredos, stained glass and minton tiles.
Pugin’s letters survive and a few mention St Peter’s, but with little detail. However, his published correspondence includes extracts from letters of Father Cole, which indicates Pugin’s close interest in the furnishings. So on 17 October 1843, nine days before the church opened, Cole and Pugin unpacked the reredos and the tabernacle. On 7 June 1844, Cole wrote to the supplier as follows: ‘I am very sorry that Mr Pugin was very much displeased with one of the elevation candlesticks you sent for St Peter’s New Church. He advised me to send it back to you to have it altered. It is quite crooked.’
Pugin also built the sacristy and presbytery in 1845-6; in 1858 his son Edward Welby Pugin designed the School.
Thank you for inviting me to visit your lovely church.
Margaret Belcher ed. The collected letters of A. W. N. Pugin, 3 vols (2001-)
Kenneth Clark, The Gothic Revival (1962)
Rosemary Hill, ‘Pugin’s Churches’ in Architectural History 49 (2006)
‘Augustus Pugin’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
Phoebe Stanton, Pugin (1971)
I presume this means the first mass was celebrated.