Bishop of Brechin, 1847-1875

Bishop Forbes founded St Paul’s church in Dundee, now St Paul’s Cathedral. This is a short introduction to his life with some suggestions for further reading.

Alexander Penrose Forbes was born in Edinburgh on 6 June 1817. He was the second son of John Hay Forbes, Lord Medwyn, a Court of Session Judge. Forbes’s family and forebears were prominent laypeople in the Scottish Episcopal Church, descended from a line of distinguished Scottish clergy and Jacobite sympathisers. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and at Haileybury College, in preparation for a legal career with the East India Company (EIC). Between 1837 and 1840 Forbes served as a junior official in Madras but was forced home on sick leave by recurrent bouts of fever.

On his return, Forbes began to consider a career in the Church, presenting his father with the choice of, ‘whether would you wish me to be – a dead Indian judge or a living Scotch curate?’  In 1840, Forbes was admitted to Oxford University, and he was ordained in October 1844, having finally resigned from the EIC. During his studies at Oxford, Forbes was deeply influenced by the Oxford Movement, which emphasised the revival of the authority and dogmas of the Early Church, and the recovery of Catholic worship practices in the English and Scottish Church. Forbes’ friendship with its leaders, such as John Newman and his lifelong mentor, Edward Pusey, helped to shape the course of his future ministry. The Oxford Movement was partly a response to the perceived diminution of faith in Britain’s fast growing industrial cities, and an attempt to nourish belief through emphasising the beauty and majesty of God in the sacraments, architecture and art, combined with practical care of the urban poor in pastoral visiting, missions and religious communities.

After serving as curate and priest in parishes in Oxford, Stonehaven and Leeds, Alexander Forbes was elected Bishop of Brechin in September 1847 at the remarkably early age of 30, thanks partly to the influence of his family circle and powerful churchmen like William Gladstone. True to his beliefs, Forbes broke with the previous practice of bishops living in Brechin and decided to live and work in the heart of industrial Dundee, as incumbent of St Paul’s Chapel in Castle Street. The St Paul’s congregation met in a room over a bank, which Forbes considered ‘unworthy of the worship of God’, unsuited for his personal vision of a church focused on the sacraments, rather than preaching, and at a time when the Scottish Episcopal Church was assuming a higher profile in public life. In 1852, Forbes commissioned the architect George Gilbert Scott to design a new church. Scott visited Dundee, and together they selected Dundee’s historic Castlehill as a unique and striking site, rising above the neighbouring slums. The foundation stone of St Paul’s Church was laid in July 1853. Described as Gothic Decorated in style, 120 ft long, with graceful columns and a spire dominating the city skyline at 220 ft, St Paul’s was opened for worship in December 1855, at a cost of over £14,000. It was consecrated ten years later on All Saints Day 1865, once the debt was cleared.

During the thirty years of his episcopate, Bishop Forbes lived next door to his church in Castlehill House. He attended to the spiritual needs of his growing congregation, gathering like-minded clergy and laity around him, including local textile merchants and manufacturers, who helped Forbes beautify St Paul’s interior and enrich worship through artwork, music, liturgy and more frequent Eucharists. In addition to his clerical duties, Forbes placed a high priority on pastoral visitation, and he was the author of many scholarly and religious works.

In the wider city of Dundee, Bishop Forbes took a keen and active interest in improving social conditions and the prospects for working people, through a combination of civic philanthropy and education. He was associated with the founding of Dundee Royal Infirmary, Baldovan Orphanage, Dundee Asylum and the Convalescent Home. Forbes helped plan and subscribed to the Albert Institute, which was designed to make art and culture accessible for all Dundonians, and he was an elected member of its Free Library Board. Day and evening classes for millworkers were introduced at St Paul’s Church School, and Forbes served on the first Dundee School Board. Under his guidance, mission churches were built in the industrial areas of Dundee, St Mary Magdalene’s, St Margaret’s in Lochee and St Salvador’s in Hilltown. Forbes’s long commitment to the religious life for men and women was realised in the founding of the Sisterhood of St Mary and St Modwenna in King Street, a community focused on pastoral care of the poor and sick. Over the years, Bishop Forbes became a familiar and well-respected figure on the streets of Dundee, reputedly with a bottle of wine, medicine or a few pennies in his pockets, along with his prayer book. He often ventured into the poorest slums to sit by the bedside of the sick and dying, and made a point of visiting inmates of hospitals, other institutions and the prison.

In St Paul’s Church, Forbes was extremely cautious with the use of ‘Romanish’ ritual and ceremony at the Eucharist, and his introduction of the Scottish Communion Office was generally supported. However, his views on doctrine courted controversy across the Diocese of Brechin and the Scottish Episcopal Church. At the Diocesan Synod in April 1857, Bishop Forbes delivered a charge to his clergy upholding the corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which initiated three years of division and counterargument within the Church. In March 1860, Forbes stood trial for heresy before his fellow Scottish bishops and was censured for erroneous teaching. During this ordeal, Forbes found a measure of consolation in ‘one of the proudest moments of [his] life’, when presented with an address by Dundee ‘mill workers and operatives of all denominations’, expressing their gratitude for his ‘numerous acts of kindness and charity to so many of [their] suffering brethren’.

Always in delicate health and overworked, Forbes travelled widely in his later years, to England, Germany and Italy, seeking a warmer climate, recuperation and the company of friends like Edward Pusey, and his wide circle of European correspondents. In 1866, Forbes was involved in the efforts to save the monastery of Monte Cassino as a religious institution, again with the backing of Gladstone. Over the 1860s, however, his hopes for an eventual reunion with the Roman Catholic Church faded and were finally dashed by the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in July 1870. Alexander Forbes died in Castlehill House from a short, unexpected illness on 8 October 1875, and was buried under the brass plate in the chancel of St Paul’s Church. His grave was said to be ‘hewn out of the solid rock of the old Castlehill, on which the foundations of the Church rest’. St Paul’s was elevated to the status of the Cathedral of the Diocese of Brechin in 1905.

Dr Aileen Black

Selected Bibliography

  • GD/EC/D10, St Paul’s Vestry Minutes (1840-52), Dundee City Archives
  • Records of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee
  • BR MS 1/1, Forbes Correspondence, Dundee University Archives
  • LC 183, Notes and press cuttings, Lamb Collection, Local Studies, Central Library, Dundee
  • Grub, G, My Years in Dundee with Bishop Forbes of Brechin, 1871-1875 (Edinburgh 1912)
  • Shepherd, D, Alexander Penrose Forbes, Bishop of Brechin: 18471875
  • Strong, R, Alexander Forbes of Brechin: The First Tractarian Bishop (Oxford 1995)
  • Strong, R, ‘Alexander Penrose Forbes’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2006)  https:///