Architects to a Diocese: Dunn and Hansom of Newcastle

A discussion of the two most prominent Catholic architects in the North of England.

Archibald Dunn’s church-building career began with an Act of God. On the night of 21 February 1855, a small Roman Catholic church that had been under construction at Blackhill, County Durham, was destroyed in a storm. Undaunted, the parishioners secured additional funds and determined to build a new church on the foundations of the old. The architect entrusted with this task was the twenty-two year old Archibald Matthias Dunn (1832-1917), whose reputation rested solely on his design for St. Nicholas’ Cemetery, Newcastle (1855-8), for which he won a competition.

Dunn was born at Wylam on 23 October 1832, and educated at the Catholic colleges of Ushaw and Stonyhurst. He received architectural training in the office of Charles Hansom (1816-88) of Bristol, before returning to Newcastle to set up practice in 1854. In designing the new church of St. Mary at Blackhill, he was obliged to take unusual precautions so as to prevent further collapse. Each of the heavy arches has a brick and concrete core and the open-truss roof is secured with iron girders to the clerestory walls. Externally, the church is dominated by its remarkable tower. A tall belfry in the form of a turret is bonded to the tower in a restless composition that wilfully disrupts its relationship with the nave. In his discussion of St. Mary’s, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner gives credit to the tower but regards the rest as ‘disappointing after this display.’ This, however, is an unduly pessimistic interpretation of what was after all Dunn’s first ecclesiastical commission. St. Mary’s represents a competent essay in church-building, but the flourish of originality displayed in the tower hints at greater promise. This promise would be more than fulfilled in Dunn’s later work.

After establishing a secure practice for himself, Dunn went into partnership with Edward Joseph Hansom (1842-1900), the son and pupil of his former mentor. Under the style of Dunn and Hansom, the firm became the foremost Catholic architects in the North of England and gained such notability from their church-building that they received three of the most prestigious Anglo-Catholic commissions since the Reformation – namely the colleges of Downside, Stonyhurst and Ushaw. Nevertheless, the importance of their contribution has rarely been recognised by architectural historians. This is partly because many of their most impressive buildings lie outside their own region. Another factor was the persistence of anti-Catholicism within Victorian society. Such prejudice was evident in the architectural press, where Catholic ‘chapels’ (as churches were often disparagingly called) received much less attention than Anglican churches. This means it is often difficult to locate Catholic buildings and practitioners within the wider development of Victorian architecture. In fact, there was a veritable Catholic Revival in architecture, a resurgence of faith that was expressed in the building of churches, chapels and schools. In dealing with this revival, architectural historians have tended to focus on canonical rather than provincial figures. It is true that Dunn and Hansom were much influenced by that prophet of the Gothic Revival A.W.N. Pugin (1812-42), who was possessed by religious fervour and who strove to regain both the architecture and the fabled piety of the Middle Ages. Yet this project could only be achieved through communal effort and mass endeavour. For this reason, the Gothic Revival can best be understood by attending to provincial architects as well as the elite.

Both Dunn and Hansom were born into the professional middle class. Dunn’s father was Matthias Dunn (1789-1869), a Catholic layman and one of the first Government Inspectors of Mines, who had once collaborated with John Dobson on a prospectus for a railway. The link between Catholic church-building and Irish immigration is well known, but is not usually expressed by such a definite connection as that which existed in the Dunn family. At the time Archibald was born, his father was busy recruiting blackleg labour from Ireland in order to break a miner’s strike in County Durham. He thereby facilitated the arrival of the very same social group for whom Dunn’s churches would be built in the following decades. Hansom’s background was even more privileged. The son of a Catholic architect, he was also the nephew of Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803-82), architect, inventor of the Hansom Cab and founder of The Builder, a leading architectural journal. Hansom, then, was the last member of an architectural dynasty analogous to that of the Pugins.

Dunn’s aspirations were signified by St. Joseph’s Church, Gateshead (1857-9), a fully-fledged example of Decorated Gothic. Sectarian controversy was prevalent in Gateshead and local Catholics had been forced to say Mass in a warehouse and a temporary wooden chapel before they could afford to build a stone church. The building represents the culmination of many years financial struggle. As early as 1850, the parish priest Father Bentham had published an appeal ‘To the Faithful Catholics of the Parish of Gateshead’ with the endorsement of Bishop Hogarth, and the sum of £3000 was eventually gathered by public subscription. Dunn’s design embodies a definite urge to reassert the Catholic Faith: every feature and interlocking volume strives for greater height; buttresses are tall and slender, and the high clerestory is articulated with lancet windows. It was originally intended to build a tower above the baptistery, but this plan had to be abandoned due to lack of funds. Indeed, Dunn and Hansom were continually frustrated in their efforts to build towers. Despite financial difficulties, the dominant elements of Dunn’s style are present in this early work. A vivid array of gargoyles lurk among the upper reaches and the interior features strikingly naturalistic carving of berries and shamrocks, which has the vitality and botanical fidelity recommended by the influential art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). The church ends with a polygonal apse. This would become the firm’s preferred method of enshrining the chancel, which according to Victorian liturgy should be more ornate than the nave. Due to its emphatic verticality and rich decoration, St. Joseph’s Church dramatically announced its presence in the townscape and religious life of Gateshead. During the opening ceremony, Dunn said he ‘rejoiced more as a Catholic than as an architect’ to see the building completed. This sense of piety never left him, and marks him out as a true successor to Pugin, for whom Gothic architecture and the Catholic Faith were indistinguishable.

The germination of so many Catholic commissions illustrates the climate of relative tolerance engendered by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, but the fundamental precondition for these buildings was the influx of workers fleeing unemployment and famine in Ireland. By 1851 the Irish-born population of Durham and Northumberland exceeded 31,000, accounting for 4.4% of the total population, and continued to increase rapidly. Many of these migrants were Catholics, creating a need for places of worship that the Church was unable to fulfil. This necessitated an intensive programme of church-building, which Dunn – as a Catholic architect venturing into practice just at this time – was ideally placed to carry out. The impetus this gave to his early career can scarcely be overstated. Regardless of Dunn’s talent, it is doubtful that he could have risen to the heights he did if not for the missionary zeal with which churches were erected in these beckoning Northern parishes. The network of new churches provided social cohesion for the uprooted Irish communities and were crucial in formulating a sense of shared ethnic and spiritual identity.

Throughout the 1860s, Dunn designed substantial churches in working class areas such as Walker (1859-60) and Blyth (1859-61). St. George’s Church, Lemington (1868-9), was built on the outskirts of Newcastle. This cheaply-built essay in Italian Gothic consists of a broad nave with porch, polygonal apse and a belfry that resembles an Italian campanile. The use of coloured brick is a demonstration of structural polychromy as celebrated by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice (1851-3). The apse features a Lombard frieze directly inspired by specific Italian prototypes. As the Gothic Revival entered its ‘High Victorian’ phase (c.1850-70), architects began to study French and Italian models, and a range of continental motifs were diffused into British architecture. The Building News advocated foreign travel, stating that:

It is the bounden duty of the architect who would really study his art, to avail himself of those facilities of visiting the greatest architectural monuments in Europe . . . It is no degradation to learn from others what we can not know ourselves.

Dunn was among the legion of young architects whom Ruskin inspired to travel, and he made numerous architectural excursions to Europe and the Far East. Dunn published a book documenting his travels in 1886 entitled Notes and Sketches of an Architect, but there is evidence that he was travelling extensively during the 1850s. In 1859 he read a paper before the Northern Architectural Association entitled ‘Notes on Continental Architecture,’ and illustrated the talk with sketches made during his tours. As the leading exponent of High Victorian Gothic in Newcastle, Dunn designed the Venetian-influenced Neville Hall (1869-72), the headquarters of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. Dunn obtained this prestigious secular commission because his father was a founding member of the Mining Institute. 


Dunn’s stylistic catholicity is further illuminated by St. Dominic’s Church (1869-73), built as part of Newcastle’s Dominican priory at a cost of £15,000. This sum was raised in subscriptions from the ‘labouring classes’ in the parish of St. Andrew. The design exhibits strong Romanesque elements, including round-headed arches and a semi-circular apse. In Ruskinian terms, it forsakes the ‘grace of Gothic’ in favour of the ‘power of Norman.’ The immense nave is firmly bonded to a fortress-like campanile. A bold cruciform plan is described by the broad nave with towering clerestory and transepts. The nave is punctured by a colossal wheel window surrounded with the emblems of the Evangelists, and a statue of St. Dominic emerges from a blind arcade of interlaced arches. According to the British Architect, the design was:

An attempt to reproduce in England a style of architecture which is peculiar to the banks of the Rhine, and may be described as semi-Romanesque. There is an absence of tracers, mouldings, and elaborate ornamentation, and the effect produced by the massive construction and breadth of treatment is in perfect accord with the religious solemnity of the place.

St. Dominic’s Church, 1869-73

With these commissions behind him, Dunn had established a substantial architectural practice and was obliged to take on a partner. In 1871 he wrote to Edward Joseph Hansom, ten years his junior, with an offer of partnership. Hansom’s career had floundered since the completion of his training. A brief but productive partnership with his father subsided when Charles Hansom began winding down the practice in anticipation of his retirement. After a fruitless appeal to his uncle Joseph Hansom, Edward was glad to accept Dunn’s offer and the two formed a partnership on 1 July 1871. There is no evidence of prior friendship between them, but it is certain that they met in Charles Hansom’s office and were at least acquainted. Hansom immediately used his considerable connections for the benefit of the firm. His lifelong friendship with William Bernard Ullathorne (1806-1889), Bishop of Birmingham, led to a number of important commissions in the midlands, including St. Bernard’s Seminary at Olton in Warwickshire (1873) and the church of St. Catherine of Sienna in Birmingham (1875, demolished).

Dunn and Hansom’s first collaboration was the tower and spire of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Newcastle (1871-2). The cathedral had been designed by no less a figure than Pugin, but due to lack of funds Pugin’s tower had never been completed. In 1870 Elizabeth Dunn (no relation) bequeathed £2000 towards its completion. As the cathedral church of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, there was no more prestigious commission available to a Catholic architect in the North East. Accordingly, Dunn and Hansom created a tower that would not only complete but also dominate the church. The elaborate stone carving – executed by Roddis of Birmingham – culminates in four crocketted pinnacles, above which rises the immense octagonal spire. The tower is often criticised for being out of proportion with the church, which is extremely small and modest for a cathedral (but typical of nineteenth-century Catholic cathedrals in this respect). However, Pugin viewed verticality as aesthetically and theologically valid because it signified heavenly aspiration, and this conviction seems to be encapsulated in Dunn and Hansom’s design. Ultimately, the tower and spire embody both the triumphalism of the Catholic Church and the earnestness of two young architects ready to elevate their practice to a national level. It cannot be denied that when seen in conjunction with its cathedral, the tower does seem unduly massive, but seen from afar it soars above the rooftops and pierces the skyline of Newcastle.

Tower and spire of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, 1871-2

Before the end of the decade Dunn and Hansom were designing the Boys’ Chapel and south front of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire (1877-89), which is reputed to be the longest scholastic façade in England. In 1877 they received a commission to convert the former Manchester Aquarium into a Catholic college dedicated to St. Bede, which they achieved by screening the existing building with an Italian Renaissance façade. As Catholic architects based in the North of England, however, they were continually faced with the prospect of designing churches for the urban poor, which increasingly meant Irish migrant communities. The new churches were paid for by public subscription, and while wealthy donors certainly made contributions, the main brunt of the cost was borne by working-class parishioners, who were among the poorest people on Tyneside. This is painfully evident in the number of small, aisleless churches that Dunn and Hansom produced throughout their career: devoid of decoration, they were little more than preaching boxes and were usually to be found in unenviable locations among gasworks, chemical works and factories. The site for Our Lady and St. Oswin’s Church (1889) at Tynemouth was acquired by buying four adjacent houses over a period of sixteen years and finally replacing them with Hansom’s modest red brick building at a cost of £1200. Another cheaply-built church was St. Benet’s at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland (1888-89), Early English in style and frugally executed in red brick.

The Anglo-Catholic Church had been predominately rural until the mid-nineteenth century, but its character was fundamentally altered by the influx of Irish migrants, who were inevitably drawn to the cities and bases of industry. However, we must not forget that the rural vestiges of Catholicism were still developing. A major occurrence was the growth of ‘Victorian new towns’ around areas of small industry. Blackhill, where Dunn had built his first church, is exemplary: the village grew in response to the nearby Consett Ironworks. In such areas, Dunn and Hansom tended to use the Romanesque or Early English styles, as these were cheaper to execute than their favoured Decorated Gothic. The Church of the Sacred Heart at Byermoor, County Durham (1876), is exemplary. The Norman windows in its low walls and semi-circular apse are reminiscent of St. Dominic’s Priory. Described as a ‘mountain chapel,’ the Sacred Heart served the mining community nestled among the hills of the Durham coalfield. St. Bede’s Church, Sacriston (1878-81), is also Romanesque, with round arches obviating the need for expensive tracery. The style was repeated at St. Mary’s Church, Whittingham in Northumberland (1891), which was built to continue the Callaly mission after the castle and estate were sold following Edward Clavering’s death in 1876.

A more ambitious project was St. Joseph’s Church (1893-5) in the developing town of West Hartlepool. The church towers above the surrounding rows of terraced streets, but like them is built of red brick. The initial designs date from 1883, but owing to difficulties in obtaining a suitable site the church was not commenced until ten years later. The industrial atmosphere has stained black the stone dressings and produced a natural polychromy that does much to accentuate the church’s muscular form. Internally, St. Joseph’s has unusually narrow aisles, allowing processions to pass freely around the church. Brick execution is usually a signifier of financial struggle, but a generous sum of £13,000 was available, and the church boasts a spectacular polygonal apse, its facetted form accentuated by tall buttresses. Illustrations in the Building News show that it was intended to build a tower, but once again the scheme was abandoned due to lack of funds. Dunn and Hansom intended to resurrect this tower in their church of St. Benet, Monkwearmouth, but here too it had to be abandoned.

Many of Dunn and Hansom’s mature churches show the influence of French Gothic, a national variant of the Gothic style that was characterised by apses, rose windows and an abiding sense of heaviness and strength. French Gothic was well suited to the renascent Catholic faith – it was a stylistic language that proclaimed the survival of the universal Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, and by its very nature it was free of any association with Anglicanism. As a nationalist, Pugin had never sanctioned the imitation of foreign forms, but he did admire the verticality of French Gothic and stated that he would ‘ever advocate its introduction, as it is a characteristic of foreign pointed architecture of which we can avail ourselves without violating the principles of our own peculiar style of English Christian architecture.’ Dunn and Hansom followed this edict to the letter, not least because French Gothic in particular thrived on the expression of structure. We can speculate that as the son of an engineer, Dunn would have admired the rationalism and structural virtuosity of Gothic, qualities Pugin had celebrated in True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841). As President of the Northern Architectural Association, Dunn gave an address entitled ‘An Ideal Architect,’ in which he argued that such a figure must be an artist, a constructor (i.e. a builder), and an engineer. It is likely that Dunn admired the inherent rationalism of the French Gothic style, which has in fact been called ‘visual engineering.’

These influences culminate in St. Cuthbert’s Chapel, the firm’s majestic contribution to Ushaw College in County Durham. A college chapel had been built to the designs of Pugin in 1844, but was soon deemed to be too small. The replacement, appropriately enlarged, was completed in 1884 by Dunn and Hansom, who endeavoured to preserve as much of Pugin’s work as possible. They adhered closely to his cruciform plan but expanded the scale and replaced Pugin’s square termination of the east end with a more ornamental apse. The vast transepts are placed at the west end in an allusion to traditional collegiate chapels. Internally, glass rather than stone predominates, making the chapel a ‘vessel of light’ in the manner of the great cathedrals. Pugin’s antechapel was retained, as was his choir screen, which was raised and lengthened to meet the dimensions of the new chapel. Despite Dunn and Hansom’s sensitivity to Pugin’s work, their own motifs are fully in force: St. Cuthbert’s is replete with gargoyles, perhaps the most consistent feature of their work; the Arms of the college and depictions of its former presidents are also included. French influence is evident in the rich and heavy character of the buttresses, which combine intricate pinnacles with strong, monolithic bases. Likewise, the impression of scale and mass given by the west face is typically French, as is the opulence of the eastern apse.

Shortly after the Ushaw project, Dunn and Hansom undertook a similar commission at St. Bede’s Church, Jarrow (1885). Built in 1860, the church was originally utilitarian in character and Dunn and Hansom were employed to beautify it. The whole of the south face was completely remodelled. Long unattributed, these additions can be credited to the firm on stylistic grounds. In the absence of a distinct chancel, they added a pair of crenellated turrets to the ritual east end to give it appropriate emphasis, and the polygonal baptistery clasped to the corner of the nave seems almost like a wistful allusion to their favourite apsidal termination. The gargoyles are wondrously expressive, even for Dunn and Hansom – a grimacing toothache-sufferer appears alongside the Green Man. The new note of richness and elaboration sounded at Jarrow reached a crescendo that same year in the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs at Cambridge (1885-90), a cruciform edifice of gleaming white stone encrusted with sculpture. Its grandeur depended on the beneficence of a single donor, Yolande Lyne-Stephens, a former dancer of the Paris Opera, whose generosity allowed the architects to transcend the usual financial obstacles and indulge in uncharacteristic splendour.

More typically, St. Michael’s Church (1889-91) in the west end of Newcastle followed in a long line of churches that Dunn and Hansom had erected in the Tyneside metropolis, rising with imposing verticality from a compact cruciform plan. The high crossing is crowned by an octagonal lantern with gargoyles projecting from each vertex. The lantern recalls that of Ely Cathedral, one of the very few examples in Britain. The exterior eschews finery in favour of bold composition, which befits the industrial landscape in which the church rests. Internally, however, there is a wealth of symbolism. Carving ‘as good as the best of the period’ adorns every surface and inside the lantern are larger-than-life-size figures of popes and saints. Ostensibly funded by public subscription, St. Michael’s reaches a level of splendour that could not have been attained without liberal donations from the Liddells of Prudhoe Hall, among others. Overall, the church cost £20,000.

St. Michael’s placement among the steeply-racked terraced streets of Newcastle’s Elswick suburb helps to clarify the issue of Victorian philanthropy. Beginning in 1883, Sir W.G. Armstrong and Benjamin Chapman Brown built a vast complex of terraced streets in close proximity to Armstrong’s Elswick Works, a munitions factory and ship yard on the banks of the Tyne. This boosted the area’s population and secured a stable workforce for the firm of Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. The church was specifically built to minister to Armstrong’s workers, many of whom were Irish Catholics. The provision of a catholic church would have helped to cohere and pacify this community. No evidence that Armstrong contributed to the funding of St. Michael’s has come to light, but his act of literally founding a township on the doorstep of his industrial plant exemplifies the complex nature of such apparent altruism. Victorian philanthropy has received much attention in historical studies, which have occasionally exposed its ulterior motives. The Catholic Church provided homes, jobs and places of worship for hundreds of people. Catholic communities were further strengthened by the formation of confraternities, literary groups and self-improvement societies of all kinds. Undoubtedly, this played a valuable social role, but by investing in these networks Victorian industrialists were able to turn them to their advantage.

However, it would be wrong to underestimate the piety or generosity of these patrons. At Prudhoe, sited high above the Tyne valley, the Irish Catholic community based around Mickley Colliery regularly completed a seven mile walk to the nearest church until the colliery-owner Matthew Liddell set aside a large room in Prudhoe Hall for saying Mass. After Liddell’s death in 1881, his widow Susanna commissioned Dunn and Hansom to design a full-scale church to his memory. Our Lady and St. Cuthbert’s Church (1889-91) is a diminutive but exquisitely detailed building with polygonal apse, whimsical belfry and lavish tracery. The north transept forms a mortuary chapel – unmistakably sepulchral in character – which is adorned with symmetrical finials and pillars of red granite. The chancel ends with a tabernacle containing statues of Christ and the Virgin and Child. The gargoyles, too, are carved with Dunn’s consummate attention to variety and expressiveness, but unusually their forms represent the signs of the zodiac. Inside is a fine wooden-truss roof with fibrous tracery woven between the structural timbers. A beautiful sculpture representing the baptism of Christ is aptly situated in the baptistery.

Our Lady and St. Cuthbert’s Church was the last major collaboration between Dunn and Hansom. Dunn retired in 1893 and moved to Wood House, Branksome Park in Bournemouth. The practice was continued by Hansom and Dunn’s son, Archibald Manuel Dunn (b.1864), who had joined in 1887. The firm went on to design a Roman Catholic oratory at Ellingham Hall in Northumberland, the seat of Sir John Haggerston. Dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary and Blessed Thomas Percy, the oratory is beautifully simple, with diagonal buttresses radiating from the aisleless nave and a sacristy projecting at the south. Ornamentation is restricted to the Perpendicular tracery of the nave windows and the curvilinear rose window at the west. Although it was a private chapel, Haggerston pledged to make the oratory available to local Catholics, and in order to meet their needs a gallery was provided at the west end.

By the 1890s, the number of original church commissions Dunn and Hansom undertook was declining, and they began to concentrate on designs for Newcastle School Board. This reflects both the gradual subsidence of church-building nationally and changes within their practice. The firm took on another partner, W. Ellison Fenwicke, in 1894 and began to operate as ‘Dunn, Hansom and Fenwicke.’35 The addition of a younger partner may have promised a new lease of life, but Edward Hansom in 1900. A. Manuel Dunn departed in 1903, but Fenwicke continued to practice under the style of Dunn, Hansom, and Fenwicke until he took on new partners in 1906, whereupon the firm became Fenwicke, Watson and Curry. Unlike his former partner, A.M. Dunn enjoyed a long retirement, during which he submitted a well-regarded but unsuccessful Gothic design for the new Roman Catholic Cathedral of Westminster. Dunn’s design was made for Cardinal Vaughan and would have cost an estimated £230,000 to execute. With only £45,000 at his disposal, Vaughan was obliged to give the commission to J.F. Bentley and the building was ultimately completed to his neo-Byzantine scheme. Dunn died on 17 January 1917, aged 84.

The very last work to exhibit the contribution of either of the firm’s original partners was St. Mary’s Church, Barnard Castle, built in the grounds of the Bowes Museum. This posthumous work was, fittingly, a memorial to the renowned patrons John and Josephine Bowes, whose bodies are interred in a tomb at the rear. Designed and commenced by Dunn, Hansom and Fenwicke, the church was delayed due to a dispute over the site and was finally completed under Fenwicke’s supervision in 1928. It is a sombre design in the Early English style and has a plain polygonal apse and short transepts. The attached belfry echoes that of the memorial chapel at Prudhoe and the rose windows are repeated from the Ellingham Hall oratory. Displayed above the projecting entrance porch are the family crests of John and Josephine Bowes.

Dunn and Hansom have left an indelible mark on the architecture of North East England. Their Catholic churches were interspersed between a diverse range of ecclesiastical and secular commissions, yet their natural preserve remained the place of worship, richly sculpted in the Gothic style and expressing their shared devotion to the Catholic Faith. These works illuminate the development of Catholicism during the second half of the nineteenth century, charting its tentative beginnings, resurgence and final triumph. The churches, schools and chapels they produced helped to foster a rebirth of Catholicism and will continue to shape Catholic worship and education into the twenty-first century. If the Building News praised these buildings as ‘noble monuments of [their] artistic skill,’ we must remember that together they constitute a cradle of faith, and it is in this dual sense that Dunn and Hansom can be regarded as the architects of the northernmost Catholic diocese in England.


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