Excerpted with permission from Reformation, Revolution and Rebirth: The Story of the Return of Catholicism to Reading and the Founding of St James' Parish by John Mullaney and Lindsay Mullaney (Reading: Scallop Shell Press, 2012), pp. 112-146, and reformatted for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. Omissions of references to earlier chapters, or of more specifically local history material, are marked by [...]. All images come from the book, and reproduction rights belong to the authors or to those indicated in the credits. Click on these images for larger pictures. For more information about the book, please visit the Scallop Shell Press website.

The Opening of the Church

[James Wheble (1779-1840), the son of a wealthy and well-connected Catholic of the same name, was the moving force behind the building of a new Catholic church on part of the site of the ruined Reading Abbey in Berkshire. His first wife, Maria Talbot, was the niece of the 14th Earl of Shrewsbury, and he had hoped that Dr Daniel Rock, the present (16th) Earl's chaplain, would be the minister of the church. Wheble had advanced into public life after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, and had become the the Sherriff of Berkshire on 28 June 1837. JB]

Having acquired the land and engaged Pugin as his architect, on the 14 December 1837 Wheble ended this year with another spectacular and historically important event, the first public Catholic service in Reading since the Reformation: the laying of the foundation stone of the new church.

According to a contemporary newspaper report, thirteen carriages were required to bring the party from Bulmershe (Woodley Lodge) to Reading. Alongside James Wheble and the Catholic gentry came the Bishop with sixteen of his clergy. As for the procession itself, the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church certainly seems to have caught the public eye. In a long article the Mercury reported:

First came the cross bearer in a white alb and a beautifully embroidered dalmatic; on each side of the cross walked two acolytes clothed in white surplices and handsome purple cassocks faced with crimson.... The clergy came next and lastly the Bishop in a splendid mitre and beautifully ornamental vestments and bearing in his right hand an elegantly wrought cross.

The sermon, given by Father James O'Neil, was heard in the "greatest silence" by between two and three thousand people. It was followed by the singing of Psalms 83, 126, 50, 86 and 121. It was reported that "the chant of the Miserere was particularly beautiful," after which the Bishop, "assisted by Mr Welby Pugin, the architect," laid the first stone of the building. The service was concluded with the singing of the Te Deum.

Pugin and the Norman-Romanesque Style

The fact that Pugin agreed to design the church in the Norman Romanesque style is surprising considering his entrenched views about the "correct style" for a Christian church, namely what we now refer to as neo-Gothic. This has generated much debate, some of it even casting doubt on Pugin's role and interest in the building. Indeed it is a fact that was commented on in contemporary records. The Tablet, in reporting the event, stated that: "Every external part of the edifice is in strict accordance with the spirit and style of the architecture of the age to which it refers; and whatever difference of opinion may be allowed of different styles, there can be none in the decision that no other style would have been appropriate to the sacred spot on which it stands." This appears to have been, and has remained, the prevailing opinion and explanation as to why Pugin, such a vociferous advocate of the neo-Gothic, agreed to design a church in the Norman Romanesque style. It is most likely that Wheble wanted his new church to be in the same architectural style as Reading's ruined Abbey.

In early 1838 William Fletcher published a book, Reading, Past and Present, in which there appears a print of St James' Church. See figure 1. The wording is as follows: "A. Welby Pugin is the Architect, and we have been favoured with the opportunity of supplying our readers with a sketch of the Church, by James Wheble, Esq. of Woodley Lodge." It is an interesting sketch, as it appears to show the finished church, whereas at the time of its execution, 1837 or 1838, it is unlikely that the building was so far advanced. It is, however, a remarkably accurate representation of the final building and one might be excused for surmising that Pugin himself had a hand in its production. The drawing is signed "Fletcher del." This indicates that Fletcher was the artist, "del" being the abbreviation for "delineate" or "drawn by." Fletcher does also give some attribution to Wheble. Could it be that Wheble allowed Fletcher to see Pugin's plans from which he composed the picture we now see?

Fig 1. Courtesy Reading Library.

There are certain elements of this print that merit closer examination. First of all the tower in the background to the right is that of St Lawrence's Church. On the far left can be seen the Abbey Ruins. As for the structure itself, the west end gable kneeler is missing. A kneeler is the architectural term for the stones on which the gable-end coping rests. The illustration of the completed church shown in figure 2, possibly by Marianna Frederica Cowslade, clearly shows its presence.

The stonework around the apse appears to reach to the ground whereas the evidence we have from the existing structure, now inside the church but originally on the outside, is that the facing was of flint below the gable, matching the body of the nave and frontage. It also appears that the stringcourses, which are a continuation of the window dripstones and which tie into the buttresses, are missing.

A couple of the windows appear to have pointed arches. The cross on top of the bellcote is out of proportion. Today the cross at the west end is no longer there though there are later photographs, even as late as the 1950s, which show it in position and in proportion. Most significant of all is the buttress at the northeast angle. The existing building has a much wider and deeper buttress than shown in Fletcher's book. Early photographs and even earlier sketches indicate that the church was built with this "double" buttress. It seems a fair conclusion to say that the drawing was an artistic impression of what the church would look like but that alterations or refinements were made at the time of building.

Fig 2. Courtesy Reading Library.

I referred above to another sketch of the church, possibly by Marianna Frederica Cowslade. This can be found in a volume of drawings held in Reading Library. The catalogue date is given as 1833. This is not possible since the Church was not even planned until 1836 to 1837. Moreover if one looks closely it is possible to spot an early steam locomotive in the distance and the railway only came to Reading in 1840.

The volume is ascribed to Marianna Frederica but this may be because her name appears on the first page and it could indicate that the book merely belonged to her. Whatever its provenance, the sketch is interesting in showing not just the Church but also one of the very few contemporary images of the adjoining Presbytery. Marianna (sometimes spelt Marianah) Frederica Cowslade was the daughter of Frederic Cowslade and Anne Walpole. [...] Frederic became joint owner of the Mercury with his brother Henry. At the time of the 1841 Census the family lived at 6 Market Place, the site of the Mercury offices. [...]

The Official Opening of St James 1840

The building of St James' Church appears to have met with several problems. One, which I shall not discuss in depth, but which should be mentioned, was opposition from some townsfolk. It centred on the question of the right of way which cut across the grounds where the Church was being built. Whether the outcry stemmed from anti-Catholic feeling or was a justifiable grievance is hard at this distance in time to judge. It was probably a combination of the two. There is copious correspondence in the local press over this issue. The Cowslade Manuscript hints at other problems, citing: "the vexatious obstacles and delays which had prolonged the erection of the new building." Unfortunately Miss Cowslade is not specific in giving details. If we remember that the Foundation stone was laid in late 1837, and the Church was operational by August 1840, we may think that thirty-two months is not, in fact, an unreasonable time.

Pugin was the designer of the building. He had converted to Catholicism in 1835 and was the most prominent Catholic architect of his day. The directory of British Listed Buildings says that St James' was Pugin's first church design. As seen above, he was present at the ceremony of laying the first stone. This was at the "southern angle" of the building. Unfortunately researches to date have failed to locate it. It was possibly moved or built over during the 1926 extensions. It is clear that despite being engaged in designing several churches in Wexford, Ireland, and others in England, not least the building of a new Catholic Church (later Cathedral) of St Chad's, Birmingham, Pugin kept an eye on proceedings in Reading. His visit to Reading in August 1840 is documented in his own letter, which refers to his contact with James Wheble and to "furnishing him with drawings for an entrance gateway & a stone cross to stand in (the) cemetery."

The Church was opened in August 1840. The occasion was not however the joyous, celebratory event that had been planned by James Wheble. Arrangements had been made that the Church should be officially opened on the 5 August, the Feast of the Blessed Virgin ad Nives, or Our Lady of the Snows. In the event James Wheble died of a heart attack on the 20th of July, within three weeks of the proposed ceremony. The Reading Mercury reported his death in its issue of the 27 July, commenting on his being "a true Christian with no regard to Sects" whose "purse was open to all Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters." On the 1 August the paper reported on his funeral procession in the following words:

On Tuesday morning last the remains of James Wheble were conveyed from Woodley lodge to the Catholic Burying Ground at Winchester to be deposited in the family vault. The sad procession left the mansion at half past eight o'clock; the mourning coaches contained five sons of the deceased, and those clerical and other gentleman who particularly shared his friendship and confidence. The cortège was joined for some miles by the carriages of all the leading gentleman of Reading and of the neighbourhood for many miles round, forming altogether a good and solemn spectacle, and offering a last tribute to the memory of one who will be long and deservedly regretted.

At Winchester, the funeral procession was met by other carriages in which were several clerical gentlemen, friends and relatives of the deceased. The burial service was performed by the Rev. --- Delaney of Winchester. The tomb closed over the mortal remains amid the deep and heartfelt sorrow of the numerous assemblage. Never were outward demonstrations of respect evinced by truer mourners. To those who have to lament the sudden and irreparable loss of such a person and such a friend it must be consoling to receive clear proofs of almost universal sympathy and to cherish the recollection of a life whose constant aim was to give glory to God and show goodwill to men.

In spite of this tragedy it was decided to proceed with the opening as scheduled. Miss Cowslade wrote that the service "was executed to the letter, by the Bishop and Clergy of the Diocese, who, with closed doors, consecrated the building on that day." The Tablet, a few days later, also reported the event. Both accounts refer to the unkind comments by some Reading people about the inscriptions on the Baptismal font. As mentioned above, James Wheble, during his excavations of the ruins, had discovered this piece of masonry which is probably a capital from the old Abbey cloister. Anticipating the opening ceremony, Wheble commissioned a pair of brass plates to be attached to the two worn surfaces of the stonework. These are still present and can be seen on the baptismal font which now stands at the East end of the North aisle of the Church. The inscription reads: "The foundation stone of St. James's Church was laid Dec. 14, 1837, and Divine Service was first performed therein on the Feast of the B.V. ad Nives, Aug 5, 1840."

Miss Cowslade merely writes: "Comments, especially painful to Catholics' ears were consequent upon this premature inscription." The Tablet gives a fuller report: "Comments and moralisms have not been spared in certain classes on the temerity of recording, as past, events that are to come. But those who do not confound the anxious zeal of a good Christian, in a holy cause with the vain glory of mere human ambition, are inclined to regard this inscription, piously borne out as it has been, rather as prophetic than as presumptuous" [...]. It should be noted that 1840 was also the foundation year of this prestigious Catholic paper.

The opening service of consecration was low key, in memory of its founder and in consideration for his mourning family. The Tablet commented that: "On the following Sunday, the sound of their own church bell, a new sound to the Catholic inhabitants of Reading, was hailed by them with mingled grief and gratitude, and assembled them all under the stately roof of the newly completed building." In fact the building was not totally completed. As mentioned above, Pugin visited the Church in late August and wrote a letter, postmarked the 22nd, to Father Ringrose, listing ten items which required urgent attention. Amongst these was the decoration of the Altar and of the Chancel [...] On 28 November, Bishop Griffiths returned to Reading and consecrated the High Altar.

In 1840, on the 10 March, James Wheble had written a will by which "the above land, Church and other buildings "came into the possession of his son James Joseph Wheble who "desired" to convey them to the Church authorities. Consequently an agreement was drawn up in March 1841 between Bishop Thomas Griffiths (Vicar Apostolic, London), and James Joseph Wheble, that the "Church and other buildings be conveyed" to the Church. The final act in the founding of the new church of St James and the closure of the Chapel of the Resurrection is to be found in a document from the Registrar of Reading, dated 13 September 1841, which states that St James' Church "was substituted for the registered building now disused, named Vastern Street Chapel." According to the 1851 Census there was accommodation in St. James' for two hundred and sixty two people, whilst an Ordnance Survey map for 1875 puts the figure at two hundred and seventy eight.

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Last modified 21 December 2012