Things You Didn't Know About Westminster Cathedral

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 89 months ago

Last Updated 27 January 2017

Things You Didn't Know About Westminster Cathedral

It's one of the singularly most striking churches in London. Here are a few things you might not have known about Westminster Cathedral.

Photo: Joan E

1. A spot for sinners

The land upon which Westminster Cathedral is built has a rather colourful pre-cathedral history. It was known as Bulinga Fen in medieval times and was originally marshland. After the Reformation, the area became a pleasure garden with a bull-baiting ring. Then, during the English Civil War, Scottish prisoners were held here... perhaps this is why Westminster Cathedral is the head Roman Catholic church in all parts of the UK except Scotland.

In 1826, Middlesex County Prison was built here. The prison closed in 1877 and its foundations were found to be so sturdy that they were reused when the cathedral went up in its place. So if you're ever feeling imprisoned by a particularly long sermon at the church, just remember, you're sitting in a place where some had it a lot worse.

2. It's unfinished

Don't worry, the cathedral is structurally sound. However, the mosaics on the inside are still being completed to this day. The cathedral's architect, John Francis Bentley, died before it opened in 1903, but it was always known that covering the vast inside with mosaics would take at least a century. Some protest that the individual mosaic artists' designs clash with Bentley's original Byzantine vision.

Photo: Treble2309

3. Tragedy

On 23 February 1924, Margaret Ann Davey and her two young children plummeted to their deaths from atop one of the cathedral's towers. An inquest was held and found that Davey 'was of unsound mind'; it sounds like she was suffering from what today is known as depression. There was a rail on the tower, to prevent accidents, but after the deaths, a large iron cage was placed to stop similar incidents (rather like at The Monument).

4. Hitchcockian

Another person fell to their death from the cathedral tower in 1940 — fortunately, this case was purely fictional. In Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, an assassin named Rowley plummets from the tower. Most of the film was shot in America, but this particular scene was shot on site.

This isn't the master of suspense's only connection to Westminster Cathedral. When Hitchcock died in 1980, his funeral was held in California, but there was a memorial service for him at the cathedral.

Photo: Matt Brown

5. Unique organ

Westminster Cathedral's organ is unique in that it can be played from two different consoles — the only British cathedral where this is the case. The mischievous side of us wonders what would happen if two people tried to play it at once...

6. Missing monkey

In the chapel of St George and the English Martyrs lies an altarpiece carved in stone by sculptor Eric Gill. Except there's something missing. When Gill created the piece, he'd included a monkey, kneeling beside St Thomas More, reaching up to the crucified Christ in the centre. Go there today and that monkey is absent.

There are two questions that must be answered about this monkey. Firstly, why was it there originally? Secondly, why was it removed? The first question is simple enough to answer: Thomas More had a small zoo of his own and was very fond of his pet monkey.

The reason for the monkey's removal is a little more complex. Gill died before the piece's completion, leaving it to be finished by his assistant. Not only had Gill died, but so did the cardinal who commissioned it. He'd been succeeded by one Cardinal Bernard Griffin, who upon seeing the altarpiece, took a disliking to the monkey and ordered its removal. The decision was taken without any public consultation, and garnered much criticism among the Catholic community. Griffin never publicly explained his decision, but it is widely believed that he felt the monkey was an inappropriate distraction.

Photo: Joyce Dela Paz

7. It's not a mosque

You might think this one's a little obvious given its name, but not everyone has always found it so easy. Its neo-Byzantine style led it to being confused with a mosque in 2014 by the UKIP South Thanet Twitter account.

The controversy arose after the BBC held a poll outside the Cathedral asking whether people felt Nigel Farage had what it took to be prime minister. The Twitter account complained that the BBC was being biased by taking the poll outside a mosque. Except, it isn't a mosque. Silly UKIP tweeter.