Cathedral archives: Not built to last?

By Neil Sayer

When the foundation stone for the Cathedral was laid in 1933 the city surveyor’s department allowed a temporary altar to be erected. The attendance for the ceremony was expected to be large and the former workhouse was by this stage a demolition site. The Cathedral authorities were granted permission for the altar to stand ‘for a period of four years’. Some readers may remember it still presiding over the Crypt building site well into the 1950s.

The picture shows the altar just before its first use: some curious nuns are in the foreground, and a workman up a stepladder is adding some finishing touches. The altar, like the great Cathedral itself, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. You can see from the photograph that it is clearly the work of the architect behind the Thiepval Memorial to the missing of the Somme battlefields, unveiled in 1932, and the slightly earlier Arch of Remembrance in Leicester.

Lutyens was also involved in the creation of the new imperial capital of New Delhi, a project recently completed when he was engaged to work on the Cathedral, and some of the design features of the altar could be influenced by Moghul art. It was certainly impressive at almost 100 feet tall, made of painted wood and plaster on a steel frame. There was a hanging rood and statues of the evangelists around the top of the columns. The canopy, made of glass and aluminium, was surmounted by a golden figure of Christ the King, to whom the Cathedral was to be dedicated at the suggestion of Pope Pius XI.

The foundation stone was laid with due ceremony before 40,000 people on a Whit Monday of blazing sunshine, 5 June 1933. The altar was subsequently used for services and rallies on the Cathedral site until the outbreak of the war. The last major ceremony in which the altar played a part seems to have been Archbishop Downey’s funeral in 1953, though it continued in use for open-air services and meetings until 1958. The following year the structure was reported to be in such a dilapidated state that it shouldn’t be used for any public events. It was finally dismantled and sold for scrap in the winter of 1961–62, when work towards the new Cathedral designed by Frederick Gibberd was getting under way.