The Great Holy Work

Building St. Paul’s Church in Dundee, 1849-1855

When the new Bishop of Brechin, Alexander Penrose Forbes, arrived in Dundee in 1847, the St Paul’s congregation met in a room over a bank in Castle Street. Forbes considered that this accommodation was ‘unworthy of the worship of God’ and in 1849 it was decided to erect a new church. Forbes preached and printed a sermon announcing, ‘the great Holy work of building to the glory of God a stately church’, and a subscription fund was launched.  By February 1850, £4,076 was raised, and in early 1852 Bishop Forbes invited the distinguished architect George Gilbert Scott to Dundee to survey possible locations.

Forbes and Scott considered the comparative merits of fourteen sites and reduced these to the two most promising options. The first of these was in the Meadowside, east of Dundee High School, the present location of McManus Galleries. Scott’s initial verdict was that ‘it is a fair ordinary site, differing but little from the run of church sites. There can be little doubt that a church of good design can be placed upon it’. A disadvantage of Meadowside was the marshy ground. This was the area where the canalised, mostly underground, Dens and Scouring Burns came together, flowing into the Castle Burn. In the 1850s there was a collection of market gardens and huts in Meadowside. When Scott returned to Dundee in 1863 to build the Albert Institute (now in McManus), the boggy foundations did indeed cost extra work and expense. A lucky escape!

Scott’s favoured site was on Dundee’s historic Castlehill, which appealed to his vision of a dramatic Gothic landmark. It possessed, ‘an individuality in which the other is wholly wanting. …   it clearly defines by its own form the kind of design which we may place upon it’. There were disadvantages. The vacant plot was somewhat ‘cramped and confined’, surrounded by cottage type dwellings, workshops and shops. The crossing next to Castlehill, known as the Burnhead, at the west end of the Seagate, which followed the line of Castle Burn, was an over-crowded, down at heel, meeting point. Scott admitted that ‘from many points of view the church would be hidden, but from [others] … it would be striking and picturesque, and different from the ordinary character of new churches’.  Scott’s final argument focused on the secure foundations. ‘That on the other site may [sic] be good but it is open to a doubt, so that I feel on all points to prefer the Castlehill’.

The decision for Castlehill was made, and Bishop Forbes acquired the site, and the next door ‘Italianate villa’, Burnhead House, where he intended to live and base his ministry to the urban poor (renamed Castlehill House). They were both paid for from Forbes’ private funds.  Plans and costings were drawn up and the foundation stone of St Paul’s Church was laid in July 1853, literally building upwards from foundations in the Castle rock – in the present-day Sacristy under the Lady Chapel.

Described as Gothic Decorated in style, the new church was to be 120 ft long, with graceful columns and a spire dominating the city skyline at 220 ft. However, before building started, in March 1853, the Vestry issued a congregational letter, asking whether they should terminate the church at the top of the tower, or finish the tower and spire as planned. It was estimated the church would take £9755 to complete, minus the tower and spire, for which an added £1800 was needed. A congregational meeting decided that the spire was such an integral part of the Gothic design that they should retain it, and further appeals for funds were made – but they were always short of money. The Specifications reveal other interesting details and problems in the building process:

It was planned to site the organ on the South side of the Chancel (in Lady Chapel). However, in 1854 the Castle Street chapel was sold to a group of Congregationalists, led by the Rev. Alexander Hannay. As a condition of sale, they demanded that the organ be moved to the North side of the Chancel, to avoid any interruption to their worship. This was accepted by the Vestry, and the organ, at a cost of £800, was installed in its present position.

When St Paul’s Church was opened for worship in December 1855, at a cost of over £14,000, a considerable debt was left. In principle, Bishop Forbes was opposed to the common practice of pew rents, in which members paid for a sitting in the church, because it was a barrier to church attendance by the poor. However, he accepted the Vestry’s decision to continue pew rents, and these were set between five to forty-two shillings per year. The building was finished, but the interior was bare and undecorated, compared with today. There were no side chapels. The Lady Chapel area doubled as a clergy vestry, with a curtain separating it from the Chancel and High Altar. In accordance with contemporary practice, there were no candles on the altar, no elaborate vestments, frontals or incense. Most priests (but not Bishop Forbes) wore a black gown in the pulpit. Curtains were used to screen the walls around the wooden altar. This may have been the Castle Street altar, which is now in the Lady Chapel. The first fourteen stained glass windows which were installed were all paid for by individual contributions, at a cost of £1,1000. Some of these were paid for by members of the congregation, others by wealthy friends of Bishop Forbes. He also paid for several of the smaller, upper windows and the ‘Bishops’ windows’ in the Lady Chapel.

 In the ten years up to the Consecration in 1865 (when the debt was paid off) and in the years leading up to Bishop Forbes’ death in October 1875, and beyond, the Church was furnished and beautified in ways which enhanced Forbes’ original vision of a church focused on sacramental worship. You can read about many of these artworks, monuments and windows by clicking on the pages in Explore.