Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of St Michael's in 1839 

The question of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after the war aroused great controversy.  In 'Reconciling People: Coventry Cathedral's Story', Louise Campbell wrote : "During the 1940s, the ruins of the old Cathedral had acquired an enormous significance. It was there that a ceremony was held each November to commemorate the dead of the 1940 blitz..... Open-air services were regularly held in the ruins by Bishop Gorton.....The rubble was cleared from the ruins and grass was laid inside the nave in 1948 to create a garden of remembrance...... In 1941 the government's War Damage Commission had promised funds to build 'a plain replacement'. The proposal to sweep the remains of the old Cathedral away and construct a new cathedral seemed to Gorton and Gibson (the City Architect) a token of faith in the future". However it ignored a strong affection for the ruins in Coventry and many wanted the old cathedral church of St Michael rebuilt, rather than a new cathedral be raised, Sir Alfred prominent among them. Bishop Gorton had successfully opposed the plans for the rebuilding of a traditional cathedral produced by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and this led lead to the setting up of an advisory committee under Lord Harlech which reported in June 1947.  

Prior to the Harlech Commission's report being published, Sir Alfred, in a letter to the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 22nd January 1947, argued:

"Time and opportunity are given to us to decide the fundamental question: shall the old Cathedral be restored, or must we really build a new and hybrid structure? For what it is worth, my view has always been that restoration is the right course, and I know that many Coventry citizens are of the same opinion.....

Now let us turn to the many advantages of rebuilding the old Cathedral:

It's size was ample. It was rarely crowded except on occasions of the most exceptional kind.

It's beauty was outstanding, and it was recognised throughout the country as one of the most inspiring examples of ecclesiastical architecture.

It was hallowed by centuries of tradition and was closely interwoven with the history of the City, while it holds many sacred memories for thousands of our people.

Italy and France, by the reconstruction of many of their architectural treasures damaged in the two great wars, have already shown us that it is possible to restore old buildings to their original beauty and perfection and what they can do, we can do.

Restoration from its ashes would constitute an outstanding example of British determination to defeat all attempts by our enemies permanently to deprive us of what is most dear to us - while the retention of parts of the ruin, side by side with a new and incongruous structure, would only perpetuate the memory of one of our darkest hours...."

Sir Alfred tried to enlist the support of the Bishop as well as Lord Harlech and other leading figures but in June 1947, the Commission advocated that the rebuilding be:
- as nearly as practicable on the site of the old St Michael's;
- in the English Gothic tradition
- the architect selected by competition

After protests from the architectural profession, the Gothic proviso was dropped and no stylistic restrictions were introduced in the competition that was announced in 1950.

Basil Spence's design was chosen from the 219 entries. Sir Alfred's papers do not reveal what he thought it, though one can surmise that he would have been astonished. But he was by then 84 and although he was in good health and enjoyed fishing until the day he died (in 1957), and continued to visit the works in Coventry and attend events such as the presentation to apprentices, he would have been spent more of his time at his estate at Dunley. Nevertheless, he contributed a handsome sum to the Reconstruction Committee (£25,000 over seven years). On the consecration of the new Cathedral in 1962, his family donated the 'Eagle' Lectern sculpted by Elizabeth Frink and obtained a beautiful example of one of John Hutton's angels from the great west window, which separates the old Cathedral from the new. [That example was later given to Herry Lawford by Alfred Herbert's granddaughter, June Gracey]

Coventry Cathedral West Window showing John Hutton's saints and angels

Coventry Cathedral Great West Window

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