Ratcliffe Chapel


In the late 1950s, Ratcliffe College, my former school, decided to build a new chapel to replace the 1867 chapel financed by Ambrose Phillips and the Earl of Shrewsbury, and designed by Pugin who was the architect for the original building in 1844, his son Edward and the men who patented the Hansom cab (JA & CF Hansom). Pugin was the chief and largely uncredited architect of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster. Because he was a Catholic, his name was largely overlooked and Barry got the credit. But since 1847, it has been on a throne (built by John Webb) designed by a Catholic architect that the monarch has delivered the “Gracious address”.


The new chapel, imagined in the “modern trend with basic Byzantine feeling” by Ernest Norris took two years to erect and was completed in 1960. Much of the interior was embellished with painted ironwork decorations done by Gervase and Aloysius Duffy, and with windows by Jonah Jones. The sculptures were done by Jones himself and Fr O’Malley, with two of the statues- of St Chad and St Richard modelled directly on headmasters Emery and Leetham in the style of Eric Gill, one of whose statues remains in the school. Fr Claude Leetham had a habit of rubbing his nose, and in the days when the statues were parked in the cloisters waiting to be put on-site, the boys paraded past St Richard and rubbed its nose, leaving a small mark which persists. (This story passed on by a boy who was there at the time and went on to be a priest in my day at the school). It remains a fairly impressive space, constructed of concrete, clad in brick and with a dome over a chunky clerestory. Vertical windows in the transepts make it, nevertheless, a very airy building.

ratcliffe-statueThe original chapel was deconsecrated in 1962 and used for teaching and dormitory space.

Ratcliffe’s association with great architecture extends also to the prep-school- the current in-house prep-school has just been built by a distant Pugin relative and the original at Grace Dieu manor is described by ES Purcell as “the beautiful parish church (which) underwent restoration at Pugin’s hands, the first of the old parishes to be restored upon Catholic lines with return stalls and a rood screen.”

But when the school was handed to lay-staff and the Rosminian Priests largely withdrew, a number of items went missing. This following the destruction of the baldacchino by the last Rosminian Headmaster, Fr Keith Tomlinson, who always seemed to me to be a philistine, albeit a slightly camp one, with a remit in my day simply to beat boys. I know he made alot of children miserable. No doubt he was Ratcliffe’s own John Smyth. He is probably best forgotten. Nil nisi bonum and all that, but there we are!

The Baldacchino was quite remarkable in many ways. It provided a focus to the design, which had been compromised when the then Bishop of Nottingham, Ellis, himself an Old Ratcliffian, ruled that the planned central altar “versus populum” was non-canonical, only months’ before Vatican 2 recommended exactly that sort of arrangement and which was, of course, followed in Liverpool cathedral. Ellis, though, was old fashioned and my own parish in lincolnshire continued to have services in Latin and “ad orientem” until the early 70s, some 10 years after the end of the council.


The Baldacchino (which is in this photograph and -somewhere there is a drawing I did which will resurface again sometime- I keep coming across it and will post here the next time  I do!) was an interesting modern take on a traditional architectural feature in the Latin Rite going back at least to San Apollinaire in Ravenna in the 9th Century, though we know that Constantine gifted a silver baldacchino to the Basilica of St John in Laterano. By 1600, it was considered a mandatory item, sometimes replaced by a cloth tester, promulgated by the Counter reformation in 1600 and indeed there is a good example in stone by AW Pugin in Grace Dieu.

Ratcliffe’s Baldacchino was also supported by 4 lightweight columns crafted from spitfire metal in the old Coventry factory where the planes were manufactured during the war. Today, Steve Clark has been overseeing the restoration of a spitfire for the school. Again, a link lost. The design on the baldacchino was based on an obscure verse “On Baptism” by Tertullian – “we are little fish who cleave to the great fish Jesus Christ”, this all as much a play on the Greek Christian acrostic ΙΧΘΥC as on the trade of the early apostles. One little fish was actually named on the painting- he was a boy who had just been baptised in the school. On every level, therefore, this was heritage stuff and it was, I understand, dumped in skips by Tomlinson. Simply appalling vandalism.

puginOpposite the lady chapel, and under the organ pipes were two alcoves. On these had been hung a giant rug designed and woven by AW Pugin. This, even in the 1960s, should not have been cut in two and should have been housed in the V&A! Today, I believe it was unceremoniously stripped from the church and transported to the Rosminian motherhouse in Stressa. (Maybe the rather splendid gold-plated silver pontifical chalice, which I persuaded the then Headmaster Fr Anthony Baxter to use on the school feast-day, went the same way?) and I wonder if an export-licence was either sort or acquired before British heritage of this quality and import was taken to Italy? The Pugin rug, as valuable as any of its sister-pieces found in the Palace of Westminster, was used on the sanctuary for services from the 19th Century through to the 1960s. It was a bigger version of the rug routinely used by a Bishop in the Orthodox Church. Norman St John Stevas, also an old boy of the school, and the person who devised the committee system used in Parliament, at least, would have been apoplectic. Thank God he died in ignorance.



Author: timewilson

animator director and teacher

17 thoughts on “Ratcliffe Chapel”

  1. Yes, the removal of the Baldecchino by Tomlinson -aka KAT – was a spiteful and philistine move without justification. I understand that he claimed it was unstable, which I doubt. I think he was trying get at Claude Leetham’s legacy. Apparently he disliked Claude, but was not half the man. Claude was warm. KAT was bitter and cold. The chapel is a glorious space, especially when filled with the organ playing of Br Smith. I sang at the opening and know David, Jonah’s son, very well. Kevin Myers has a new book out – A Single and Headstrong Heart – which paints a troubling, scatalogical and sensational picture of the school in the late ’60s. Not happy reading.

    1. I must agree that all my dealings with Tomlinson left a bad taste. I knew him before he was in a position to wield real power, but he always seemed a bit of a thug and his modifications of the chapel are testimony to this. It is a shame that he was not stopped by the then provincial- probably Dennis Hare but he was equally a bit odd. The Rosminians had some excellent men working in the order, notably JFMorris, AE Basil and Tom Deidun but the order’s obsession with obedience allowed for a form of ruthless authoritarianism which filtered down into both Ratcliffe and Grace Dieu.

  2. I was there! I had wondered what had happened to the Baldacchino .. Ratcliffe was very cagey. There was another smaller one over the Blessed Sacrament altar. The “spitfire” columns did look like giant cogs but this was engineering country, after all. Removal was an utter disgrace (and the wrought iron screens?) Keith Tomlinson was a new “master ” at Grace Dieu for a while in my time where he presided over us at the same time as the now notorious (and late) Bernard Collins. One problem of opening up the view is that- as the late great Adrian Smith said- you end up worshipping the school arms, especially when the celebrant faced the wall (north?). Adrian was the original organist- a brilliant musician and not recognised.
    You are quite right about the “nose”. These “cartoon” effigies really belong on exteriors.
    If you read Kevin Myers’ book which you mention, he has a different view of Jack Morris….
    Word Press seems to have used my “business” account here but these views are only my own!

    1. Bernard Collins- a nasty man and caught on camera being very perverse in response to allegations. Am afraid Tomlinson may have started off with good intentions but his mentors were not exactly shining beacons of integrity. The order itself remains obsessed with obedience over everything else, including common sense and respect for the past. Rosmini would neither have recognised nor supported the nonsense peddled in his name from the 1970s at Ratcliffe. A great shame.

  3. It’s a very interesting article, Tim, and worthy of a much wider audience.

    I should really point out that my father, Jonah Jones, was commissioned by Claude Leetham to provide all of the artwork in the new chapel as well as in the Emery Chapel. You mention that he was the maker of the windows and sculptures, but in fact he did pretty much the whole lot: the rood cross, the baldacchinos in both chapels, the war memorial, much of the altar furniture such as candlesticks, pulpits etc. He even made the wrought-iron organ grille that you attribute to the Duffys, perhaps not incorrectly because I remember that Jonah both liked and mentored Gerry Duffy and quite possibly worked with him on ideas and motifs. (I don’t remember an Aloysius. What a medieval name!)

    Many photographs of all this stuff by my excellent friend Stephen Brayne can be seen on http://www.sceneandword.org. (At the time of writing, the Flash-based website will soon be replaced by a remodelled WordPress version, with many new features, including lots more Stephen photos.)

    1. Your father was a very remarkable artist. I loved his work at Ratcliffe. Apologies for the Duffy slip- this was actually what I was told and it makes much more sense that your father should have designed this. Aloysius was also a sculptor and really quite good.

  4. Hello I found this history very interesting. I knew some of it about the church already. I lived on the grounds of the school for many years. You would have known my father. My father was Col Robinson. I am Gabriel Robinson

  5. Hello! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest writing a blog article or vice-versa? My website addresses a lot of the same topics as yours and I think we could greatly benefit from each other. If you are interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Fantastic blog by the way!

    1. Hello Tim, sorry this has taken me so long to get to! Of course I/we would be interested in any form of cooperation. Possibly my younger brother Peter, who was at Grace Dieu and then for just one year at Ratcliffe (while I was still there) , might write any article, since he is really the official biographer of our father. I’ll send him a copy of this exchange. Regards, David

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: