St Philip's

Birmingham Cathedral

St Philip's Church, Birmingham Cathedral since 1905, was designed by Thomas Archer and built between 1711 and 1725. It is one of only a few churches in the English baroque style and one of the smallest cathedrals in England.


Above: St Philip's Church in 1732 viewed from Colmore Row with the spire of St Martin's-in-the-Bull Ring in the background. Image reproduced from Mapseeker - - reuse permitted for non-commercial purposes.

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Above William Westley’s map of Birmingham 1731. This is the first map of Birmingham and is oriented with West at the top. Image courtesy of the Mapseeker website - - use permitted for non-commercial purposes. 

Image from Cornish's Strangers Guide through Birmingham 1851 available from the Open Library - . 

During 18th century Birmingham became one of most populous towns in England. At a time when national population increased by 14%, the population of Birmingham increased by 900%. In 1550 St Martin’s, Birmingham parish church could conceivably accommodate most of the population of 1500 people. But by 1750 Birmingham had 24 000 inhabitants and by 1801 some 74 000. This was particularly galling for the rich inhabitants of the town who, despite their wealth, were unable to rent pews in the parish church.


There were also problems burying the dead. The small churchyard was full almost to overflowing. William Hutton wrote: ‘A considerable hill had arisen . . . so that the dead are raised up . . . and instead of the church burying the dead, the dead would, in time, have buried the church.’

The town was expanding northwards beyond New Street and the High Street in an area that became known as High Town. In 1708 the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry obtained an Act of Parliament to set up a Commission, made up of wealthy local landowners, to build a new church.


The site for the church, agricultural land known as Horse Close or Barley Close, was sold at a favourable price by members of the related Inge and Phillips families, hence the dedication. At that time the site was beyond the built-up area of the town.


St Philip's Church was designed by Thomas Archer and built between 1711 and 1725. It is one of only a few churches in the English baroque style and one of the smallest cathedrals in England. Archer had visited the great cities of Europe as a young man and was one of a small number of architects who interpreted the baroque in an English setting.


Construction started in 1709 and the church was consecrated in 1715, although lack of funding meant that the tower was unfinished. The church was built in locally-made brick and faced with calcareous limestone from the Archer family's own Rowington quarries on their Umberslade estate. It is thought that much of the timber also came from the Archer estates.


The church was built on a simple rectangular plan with an aisled nave of six bays and a shallow apsidal chancel. The liturgical arrangements and furnishings were typically 18th-century with a central three-decker pulpit, box pews and galleries on three sides.


The organ-case was built by Thomas Swarbrick in 1715 and some of the original pipe work is incorporated in the modern instrument.


Under the parliamentary act the church when consecrated became a parish church taking its parish out of that of St Martin’s.

William Hutton 1783 An History of Birmingham 2nd Edition
William Hutton 1783 An History of Birmingham 2nd Edition

At the suggestion of Sir Richard Gough of Edgbaston Hall, King George I donated £600 to complete the tower in 1725. The gilded boar's head weathervane derives from the Gough family crest in recognition of Sir Richard ‘s efforts to get the tower completed. At the time of its building the church was surrounded to the north and west and east by fields and orchards. These would soon make way for the elegant town houses of the wealthy were moving from the lower part of the industrial town.


William Hutton, in his 1783 History of Birmingham, wrote of his first impression of the church when he arrived in Birmingham:


When I first saw St. Philip's, in the year 1741, at a proper distance, uncrowded with houses, for there were none to the north, New-hall excepted, untarnished with smoke, and illuminated by a western sun, I was delighted with its appearance, and thought it then, what I do now, and what others will in future, the pride of the place.

If we assemble the beauties of the edifice, which cover a rood of ground; the spacious area of the church-yard, occupying four acres; ornamented with walks in great perfection; shaded with trees in double and treble ranks; and surrounded with buildings in elegant taste: perhaps its equal cannot be found in the British dominions.


Archer’s Umberslade sandstone did not weather well. It is not a very durable stone and cannot have been helped by the town’s industrial pollution. The church was refaced in 1869 with a more hard-wearing sandstone from Hollington in Staffordshire by the Birmingham architect J A Chatwin. The refacing of the tower was completed by P B & A B Chatwin in 1958.


In 1884 the church was enlarged by Birmingham architect, J A Chatwin in anticipation of its becoming a cathedral. Chatwin was Birmingham’s primary architect of the Gothic Revival, but his extension was sympathetic to the original baroque style, although the liturgical arrangements were in line with ecclesiological gothic tenets. The shallow apse was replaced by a full chancel and a round-arched east window was made to replace Archer’s painted panel. Archer's full-height Doric pilasters were continued with neo-classical free-standing Corinthian columns. A new high altar and choir stalls were installed and the original wrought iron rails across the apse were moved to the west end of the chancel.


Vestries were created beneath the east ends of the north and south galleries and the organ was moved to its present position at the east end of the north gallery. The west gallery, where the organ had been, was removed to create a baptistery in the base of the tower. The box pews were replaced with benches.Priot to this there was accommodation for 2000 people but only 600 of the seats were free.

Burne-Jones' Ascension window - Image by buildings fan on Flickr licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Burne-Jones' Ascension window - Image by buildings fan on Flickr licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Four stained glass windows were designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by Morris & Company to be installed in the chancel and at the west end between 1885 and 1897. The chancel windows depict three scenes from the life of Christ, the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Ascension; and the Last Judgement at the west end. The chancel windows were paid for by a regular member of the congregation of St Philip’s, Miss Emma Villers Wilkes, the daughter of a successful manufacturer of metal goods in Birmingham.


St Philip's was made the cathedral church of the newly-formed diocese of Birmingham in 1905 and the church was redecorated internally for the occasion.


During the Second World War the nave roof and interior were damaged by German incendiary bombs which necessitated the reconstruction of the west half of the roof with steel trusses and the replacement of much of the ceiling plaster.


In 1981 the timber floor of the nave was replaced with stone, the chancel floor was extended westwards and new communion rails were installed, the 18th-century altar rails being returned to their original position across the apse. The walls were redecorated in stone colours and the chancel columns decorated with false marbling. The vestries beneath the galleries were extended, the north west stair was removed and the area remodelled by the excavation of a basement and the insertion of a new structure to provide five floors of accommodation. In 1988 the crypt area was modified to create further accommodation in the undercroft.


A number of memorials inside are worthy of note, including work by Peter Hollins and Williams Hollins. The state flag of Maryland USA was presented 1922 to commemorate the work done in that state by Dr Thomas Bray of Sheldon founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Of especial importance are the magnificent east and west stained-glass windows by William Morris from designs by Edward Burne-Jones: the Ascension 1884, the Nativity and the Crucifixion 1887, and the Last Judgement 1897.


The Bells

A small bell was cast for the new church by Joseph Smith of Edgbaston and probably hung in a temporary belfry until the tower was finished in 1725; a second was bought that same year. Two years later Smith was given an order to build a frame for eight bells. By 1750 there were ten bells all by the same bellfounder, but at that date some were unringable and the ring was out-of-tune. The churchwardens ordered a new set from Thomas Lester of London. Three of these were recast in the following years.


Image above from BBC Midlands Today -


Charles Pye described the bells in 1818:

The dome in some degree resembles that of St. Paul's, in London, and in the tower underneath it are ten musical bells, and a set of chimes that play a different tune every day in the week, at the hours of one, four, seven, and ten; which tunes shift of themselves by means of the machinery.

A Description of Modern Birmingham


In 1893 James Barwell of Hockley refurbished and rehung the bells in the existing frame and bellringing was revived in the tower until the City Surveyor judged them to be unsafe in 1906. The bells were rung occasionally during the years following but were considered to be out of tune.


The bells were recast by Gillett & Johnston of Croyden as a 12 in 1937 ready for the Coronation of King George VI and hung in a new cast iron bell frame with an additional frame above. Work on the frame was carried out by Taylor's of Loughborough in 1985 and the Whitechapel foundry refurbished and rehung the bells in 2004. With a ring of 12 whose tenor weighs over 31 cwt (Only St Martin's-in-the-Bull Ring has a heavier bell), St Philip's is one of the country's premier ringing towers.


The Churchyard

One of the few remaining gravestones
One of the few remaining gravestones

The churchyard was formerly enclosed by walls and railings with several entrance gates. Believed to hold some 60 000 bodies, it was closed to all but family burials in 1859 and laid out as a garden in 1910. When the grounds were again relaid in 2001, the railings were replaced.


Most of the upright gravestones have been removed from the churchyard to open it up as a public open space. However some monuments remain.


A bronze statue at the west end made by Stirling Lee in 1914 depicts the first Bishop of Birmingham, Bishop Gore 1905-1911 and was raised during Gore's lifetime. 


A stone obelisk with a relief portrait commemorates Frederick G Burnaby who was killed while attempting to rescue General Gordon in 1882; a plain marble obelisk is a monument by Peter Hollins to Lt Col Thomas Unett who was killed in 1855 at the Battle of Sebastopol; a memorial to John Heap aged 88 and William Badger killed during Town Hall construction 1833 is the base of a column made by them and which crushed them to death when a pulley block broke.


The iron Angel Fountain set on a stone screen beneath a neo-classical pediment made c1850 was transferred from the front of Christ Church, New Street on its demolition in 1899. It was restored in 1988 and is inscribed with words of Jesus:


Whosever drinketh of this water shall thirst again but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give shall never thirst. 



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This is a Grade I listed building whose record can be found on the


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Acknowledgement - See British History Online - Victoria County History of Warwick Volume 7 The City of Birmingham ed. W B Stevens 1964 -

William Dargue 15.02.2012