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Lutyens’ Dream

The Second Attempt to Design a Cathedral for Liverpool
Sixty-six years were to pass from the completion of the Lady Chapel, covering the notable episcopates of Bishop Bernard O’Reilly and Archbishop Thomas Whiteside, before the idea of a Cathedral was mooted again. It was, however a period of steady expansion and consolidation. In civic terms Liverpool became a city with a Lord Mayor, and ecclesiastically an Archdiocese and Metropolitan See. It was in 1922 that the second Archbishop, Frederick William Keating, held a consultation to find a suitable memorial to his predecessor, Archbishop Whiteside. The idea of a Cathedral was reborn, and in the six short years before his death £122,000 was subscribed. The promoters favoured a plan of delaying the building until sufficient capital was on hand to go forward without interruption, and so it was left to the next Archbishop to translate hopes into reality.

Dr Richard Downey made a tremendous impact on his appointment as Archbishop in 1928 at the age of 47. His native wit, remarkable eloquence and keen mind soon won for him friends in all sections of the community. Catholics rallied to his leadership with unparalleled enthusiasm. Proof of this was seen within a year of his consecration when 400,000 Catholics assembled at Thingwall Park to celebrate the centenary of Catholic emancipation in 1829. It convinced the Archbishop that the time was ripe to build.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, (1869-1944) famous for his palatial country houses, memorials to the fallen of the First World War (including the Whitehall Cenotaph) and the monumental Viceroy’s palace in New Delhi, was commissioned to design a cathedral to contrast with the Gothic gem of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott which was rising at the other end of Hope Street, where building had started in 1904. Three years later the foundation stone was laid, on Whit Monday, 5 June 1933. Pathé News recorded this event. At the suggestion of Pope Pius XI the new Cathedral was to be dedicated to Christ the King.

The central feature of his design, he decided, was to be a great dome 168 feet (51 metres) in diameter with an internal height of 300 feet (91 metres). The nave and aisles would consist of a series of barrel vaults running at right angles to each other. The High Altar would be twelve feet (4 metres) above the nave floor and a total of 53 altars would line the nave and transept, apses and sacristies. The height from the lowest step of the Western front to the top of the lantern would be a colossal 520 feet (158 metres). By comparison, the tower of the Anglican Cathedral rises to 331 feet (101.8 metres). It was to have the largest organ in the world.

Inside the West Porch would be the narthex – a great space, wrote Lutyens, which it is proposed shall be open by day and by night, without let or hindrance, and kept warm – a spiritual sanctuary for those cold and destitute. He might have added that it would be a link with the purpose of the site in the past. Building of the Crypt went on apace until 1941 when the war years brought the cessation of building, but the fund happily consolidated. In 36 years it had risen to £934,786 of which a little less than half had been expended. After the war the Crypt was completed and remains part of the present Cathedral, a magnificent fragment of what might have been. But the grandiose romanesque super-structure, the main entrance arch of which could have contained the nearby University’s clock tower, was now costed at an impossible £27 million! Once again the dream was threatened.

At the suggestion of its architect, a huge and elaborate wooden model of Lutyens’ cathedral was constructed as a fund raising initiative. This model, second only to that of St Pauls Cathedral, London, was displayed in the Royal Academy in 1933 (the year of the foundation stone laying on Brownlow Hil). The model, after 13 years of reconstruction and repair, is now on view in the Liverpool Museum at the Pierhead in the People’s Republic gallery. About 4 metres high and over 5 metres long is was made by the firm of J B Thorp in 1929. The model was the subject of a paper written for the Royal Institute of British Architects and can be accessed here.