Vic Keegan’s Lost London 218: The Missing Marbles of Westminster Cathedral

The magnificent Byzantine building could have been even more beautiful if Norwich had been unlucky

Westminster Cathedral, with its skyscraper campanile, looks all but lost as it flaunts its Byzantine brick magnificence in the pedestrian plaza that connects it to Victoria Street. You would never think he lost his marbles. But he has – well, some of them.

The cathedral is rightly famous for its marble floors and columns imported from 25 countries, but there is also an unsolved mystery about them. How did some of the finest marble destined for the cathedral end up in the Surrey House headquarters of insurance company Aviva in central Norwich?

One version of events – almost certainly false – is that the marbles’ journey by sea from Europe was interrupted by a strike aboard the ship. Another is that there was an accident en route which resulted in the cathedral making a successful insurance claim on the grounds that the cargo was lost, only for the marble to be recovered later, after which the insurance company Norwich Union – as Aviva was known. – took possession of it. It is much more likely that the cathedral simply ran out of money or encountered what is politely called “logistical problems”.

Whatever the reason, much of the marble intended for the cathedral was not used there. Suppliers, Farmer and Brindley, based in Lambeth, were able to offer the Norwich building’s architect, George Skipper, quantities of the highest quality colored marble from across Europe at reduced prices. Skipper persuaded the directors to break their budget and accept the treasures. That’s why being in the entrance hall of Surrey House (pictured above) is like stepping into a fairy tale palace. Pretty amazing. It inspires a sense of respect normally reserved for an abbey or cathedral.

The marble, however, is not the only thing lost in the history of Westminster Cathedral. It is now a well-established and very successful Roman Catholic institution and a much-loved tourist attraction, but its history was almost very different. It was originally to be a Gothic extravaganza inspired by Cologne Cathedral and designed by Henry Clutton, which was commissioned by Cardinal Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster – somewhat controversial as the two men were cousins.

Clutton spent six years on different versions (example below), including one that would have been only slightly smaller than his Cologne model.

But after Manning’s death and Cardinal Vaughan took office, it was accepted that the Clutton project was far too expensive, would have drawn unwelcome comparisons with Westminster Abbey and could have taken up to a century to complete. completed. Instead, John Francis Bentley’s stunning Byzantine alternative was built. It featured interior walls left empty that could be “decorated at leisure” with mosaic, a process that is still far from complete.

One important thing has not been lost in this saga. The cathedral was built on the site of Tothill Fields Bridewell Jail, which stretched from Victoria Street to Francis Street. The institution’s nine-foot-deep foundations were so strong that most of them were retained and the cathedral built on them.

You can’t see the foundations from inside the building, but in May 2014 when a trench was dug in Thirleby Road, part of Ashley Gardens flats, it revealed some of their masonry. This was seen by the London Historians group, which met nearby in what was then called the Cardinal Pub – named after Cardinal Manning – and has since reverted to its original name, Windsor Castle.

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The cathedral (above) is now a fine sight. But it wasn’t always easy to see. Until 1975, if you walked along Victoria Street, especially the south side, the view of it was obscured by a terrace of offices and shops. The opening of the place was a great success. A little piece of London that was lost sight of is no longer lost. It’s not often you can say that.

All previous episodes of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be purchased here. Follow Vic on Twitter.

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