A Brief History of St Paul’s
Opened for worship in the Year of Revolutions, 1848, when Europe was aflame with civil unrest and the Communist Manifesto was first published, S. Paul’s was built by Fr Henry Michell Wagner as a church for his son, Arthur Henry Wagner, and as a statement in oak, Caen stone and flint to proclaim the tenets of the Catholic Revival in the poor Fishery area behind West Street.
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Setting the Scene
On 14 July 1833, John Keble, Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, preached his sermon entitled “National Apostasy,” which inaugurated the Tractarian or Oxford Movement. This resolved to improve the quality and nature of worship in England. Following more closely the Gospel precepts it emphasized the value of ecclesiastic tradition, asceticism, charity and devotional worship.
In nineteenth century Brighton, notorious as the centre of Regency vice and the boom town of the sea-side development and fast expanding slums, new premises were needed for the poor who could not afford to rent pews in the fashionable churches.
Magnificent new churches and decent housing were provided in abundance by the Wagner family, led by the Rev. Henry Michell Wagner, vicar of Brighton for forty-six years from 1824 – 1870. Largely at his own cost, he immediately founded and built the new church of St. Peter, the present parish church of Brighton, opened in 1824, in which space was reserved for those unable to pay for the privilege.
In contrast, St George’s Kemp Town was built in the same year as an investment by the entrepreneur Thomas Read Kemp. While the church impressed the King and court, the pew rents never covered Kemp’s costs, his investment failed and he eventually died bankrupt.
Twenty-four years later, Fr. Wagner commissioned St. Paul’s Church in West Street, soon to become one of the most famous churches in the history of the Catholic Revival.
The Building of St Paul’s
Saint Paul’s church was built for a rich young man and for the inhabitants of the poor ‘fishery’ area to the West of West Street. The slums have long gone but the legacy of the young man continues to enlighten what is still a very rough area of Brighton.
As soon as he had been ordained, was appointed to Saint Paul’s in 1850 and remained here until his death in
1902. An account of his life can be found at:
This very early photograph of West Street in the 1860s, before the road was widened, shows St. Paul’s Church (enhanced) very much unfinished. The distinctive Gothic lantern has yet to be built. The tower is capped only with a tall, unsightly wooden gable, no doubt left deliberately ugly so that enthusiasm to complete the structure would not falter.
Already by this time St. Paul’s no longer tended just to the poor fishing community but was a very popular society church and West Street itself was being regenerated, as shown by the commercial premises in the foreground which is boarded up ready for redevelopment. Brighton was very proud of its gas street lighting which indicates that this was now a smart area of town.
Saint Paul’s was opened on October 18th, 1848, and consecrated exactly a year later. It was built by Richard Cromwell Carpenter in the true spirit of the Oxford Movement and the Gothic Revival. While Saint Peter’s had gothic decoration, Saint Paul’s was built with newly researched gothic proportions, structures and symbolism. It was immediately acclaimed as a place of beauty.
With its inspiring furnishings, the fine stained glass and the traditional style of service, which referred back to before the Reformation, the church attracted a large congregation but also considerable controversy.
The old taunt of ‘the Sunday Opera at St. Paul’s’ mocked the as yet very simple ceremonial at St. Paul’s and Fr. Arthur Douglas Wagner’s uncompromising teaching on the sacraments. Suspicion and anti-papist politics eventually broke out into open violence.
Violence flared in 1865. At the trial of Constance Kent, who had murdered her half-brother in 1860, Fr. Wagner refused to give evidence that she had disclosed during confession.
His critics exploded with rage and the arguments continued for years, extending to the House of Commons with calls for a Select Committee to inquire into the manner in which divine service was rendered in S. Paul’s, with particular reference to the practice of sacramental confession.
The violence extended to the Sisters of St. Mary’s Home, where Constance had found refuge, and even ladies attending the church who were insulted and pelted with stones.
A scandal was created about the sum of £1,000 that Constance Kent tried to give Fr. Wagner, even though he refused the money.
During a similar case in 1873 Fr. Wagner was set upon in West Street by roughs, and violently assaulted. His assailants went to prison but Fr. Wagner characteristically supported their wives and families at his own expense.
The Bishop of Chichester was under pressure to ban sacramental confession, but he observed that the practice was clearly contemplated by the Book of Common Prayer.
Confessors for the Faith
Fr Wagner gave example and encouragement to many curates. The clergy house in West Street, now a night club, was full of scholarly and enterprising young men who assisted with the parish duties and fought prolonged battles with the Church Association and the Brighton Gazette, the strong arm of the anti-ritualists which had a lot to answer for in terms of incitement and riot.
Father Charles Beanlands
One of Fr. Wagner’s first curates, he served at S. Paul’s from 1849-1860. After eleven years at S. Paul’s he was given the ‘cure’ of the developing Montpelier area of the Town and, with the financial support of two sisters, Sarah and Mary Windle, founded the Church of S. Michael & All Angels, Brighton.
George Bodley, whom Fr. Beanlands would have known at S. Paul’s, was commissioned to built the church in the years 1860-1862. There, developing the ritualism he found at S. Paul’s, Fr. Beanlands made S. Michael’s the most ritually advanced church in Brighton and one of the most extreme in the country. He introduced vestments in about a year of arrival (among the very first in the reformed Church of England), and in 1867 elevation and adoration of the Host were observed by a discontented Protestant informer.
When challenged over ritualism at S. Michael’s, by the Vicar of Brighton (H.M. Wagner), to produce the names of a dozen parishioners in favour, the churchwardens replied with a petition supported by 236!
A curate of Fr Beanlands, Fr. Thomas Perry, was beaten-up at a public meeting at the Town Hall (1865) as he tried to speak in favour of sacramental confession, in support of Fr. Arthur Wagner. Another of his early curates, Fr. Charles Walker, was the author of the ‘Ritual Reason Why’(1866), before going over to Rome. Fr. Beanlands was noted for his artistic and discriminating taste, as well as for his courteousness and gentleness, but also as being ‘zealous for what he believed to be right and earnest in promulgating the doctrines of the theological school of which he is so worthy a member.’ (Brighton Gazette 1874).
Bishop of Chichester: Go! Go! You insolent, rebellious boy. What with your nonsense, incense and candles you’ll be setting the church on fire.
Master P-rc-s: Just what I’d like to do. There!
Fr. John Purchas
Considered an eccentric even by many of his fellow ritualist clergy, Fr Purchas (1823-1872) came to Brighton in 1861 to be a curate at S. Paul’s until he acquired the Chapel of S. James, in St James’ Street, where he was perpetual curate from 1866 until his early death in 1872. Fr. Purchas reopened the chapel with such an ornate ceremony that in 1867 the Bishop of Chichester prohibited him from preaching there for a year. Extending the ritual of High Anglicanism, Fr Purchas introduced such extreme practices as the use of vestments: the cope, chasuble, alb and biretta. He also lit candles on the altar, used crucifixes, images, and holy water, together with processions, incense and flowers in the sanctuary.
There was fierce opposition to this behaviour and in 1869 Fr Purchas was charged before the Arches Court of Canterbury with infringing the law of the established church by ritualistic practices.
The case eventually went before the Privy Council. It happened that the censorious Bishop A.T. Gilbert of Chichester and Charles Elphinstone, the promoter of the case, both died in 1870 but the final judgement in 1871 went against Fr Purchas. However, he was not without support. The Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England were blasted by a Remonstrance signed by nearly five thousand clergy.
Fr Purchas continued in his ways for another year until his death in 1872. His struggle is summed up the sermon delivered at his funeral Rest in Death.
Fr Purchas was a prolific writer. His most celebrated work is the Directorium Anglicanum (1858), “a manual of directions for the right celebration of the holy communion, for the saying of matins and evensong, and for the performance of other rites and ceremonies of the church, according to ancient uses of the church of England.”
Other works include: Poems and Ballads (1846); The Book of Feasts; Sermons (1853); The Priest’s Dream: an Allegory (1856); and The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife: Three Sermons (1866).
Fr. Richard William Enraght, SSC
There was further great controversy concerning Fr. Enraght, 1837-1898, a great Anglo-Catholic hero. He was a curate with Fr Wagner at S. Paul’s from 1867 until 1871,when he was appointed Priest in Charge of the District Church of St Andrew Portslade by Sea, until 1874.
An officer of the Society of the Holy Cross, Fr Enraght wrote a series of controversial books and articles on Catholic Worship and the sacraments which led, after many years of conflict with the press and various clerics, to prosecution and his imprisonment in 1880.
This confession for the faith so embarrassed the church authorities that the Church of England soon abandoned its effort to repress ritualism.
The Church of The Resurrection
The Church of the Resurrection, which was larger than S. Bartholomew’s, stood in Russell Place as a simple chapel of ease to St Paul’s.
The adjacent Cannon Brewery objected to the proposed height of the building, so the architect, R.H. Carpenter, built it partly below ground. It was reached by thirty-two steps. The red-brick exterior was extremely plain, while the interior had a north aisle and a very tall nave.
The church was consecrated in 1878 but closed in about 1912, and it was then used as a meat market until it was demolished in 1968.
Maintaining the Tradition
Gone are the days when Saint Paul’s was the most fashionable and the most controversial church in the South of England, but today the priests and congregation continue Fr. Wagner’s work as best they can.
Close attention to ceremonial detail, the quality of the vestments, the high standard of the church music all continue Fr. Wagner’s tradition. Confessionals, pioneered at Saint Paul’s, are no longer unusual in the Anglican Church.
The daily Mass is key to the church’s mission as it its great devotion to Our Lady as the Mother of God, expressing our true belief in the Incarnation. Her feasts are always observed at St. Paul’s with a sung Mass and special devotion.
In the 1970s and again in the ’90s, redevelopment to the North and South threatened to engulf and even demolish the building. The church was re-organised to take a Nave Altar in 1978. The pulpit and lectern swapped positions, the shrine of Our Lady was relocated.
The hurricane in 1987 could have destroyed the church but it only caused incidental damage. The tower was due for major repairs and these were allowed by the sale of the High Altar triptych by Edward Burne-Jones, his first commissioned work. The tower is now safe and the details like the carved oak dragons and pinnacle have been replaced. There was a major restoration of the stained glass in 1990-92, when the original designs by Pugin were reconstructed.
In 2011 the Benefices of S Paul’s and S Michael’s were joined in a united benefice. Each parish remained separate with its own churchwardens and PCC.
In 2021 this benefice was disolved and on 1st May 2022 Father Ben Eadon CMP, the Vicar of St Bartholomew’s Brighton, became Vicar of St Paul’s Brighton, in plurality.