St Paul’s and Cambridge Camden Society

The site occupied by the church on the corner of Hills Road and the new road which was to become known as St Paul’s Road was sold by Caius College in 1839 to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and two years later the church of St Paul’s was built. The new church was a source of considerable embarrassment at the time, its “debased perpendicular style” provoking a vicious attack from the newly formed Cambridge Camden Society.


St Paul’s was built to the design of Ambrose Poynter who was also responsible for two other Cambridge churches: Christ Church (1839) and St Andrew the Great (1842-3). At this time, the Cambridge Camden Society had just been established with A W Pugin as one of its founder members to oppose the resurgence of classicism in church design and to re-establish the “true principles of Gothic architecture” as expounded by Pugin. In short, they proposed to attack anything that did not conform in style and detailing to the middle-pointed period of the late fourteenth century.

St Paul’s church, basically a loose interpretation of St Mary the Great in red brick, was an easy target for the newly formed society. In the first edition of their magazine, “The Ecclesiologist”, (November 1841) the church came under searing attack in an article entitled “New Churches”:                                                                       

“The church is of no particular style or shape but it may be described as a conspicuous red brick building something between Elizabethan and debased Perpendicular architecture … the huge clock, the disproportionate octagonal turrets, the great four-centred belfry, windows without cuspings or mouldings … the square clerestory windows; the enormous windows in the aisles … the graduated parapet of the nave … are quite indefensible.”

A major crime, according to the article, was that the church disregarded one of the Camden Society’s basic tenets, which was that a church should have a large chancel. St Paul’s, probably for reasons of economy, at first possessed “no chancel whatever.” It was in fact, said the article, “ a thoroughly correct and comprehensive idea of a cheap church of the nineteenth century.” 

The attack was too much for some of the most prominent members of the society who were shocked by its disrespectful tone and feared that it would discourage church building in general. The editors of “The Ecclesiologist” were forced to reprint the issue with an apology and a revised version of the article. The revised article was not much milder, however, stating that “there is no reasons a priori why a church which costs £5,000 should not, as far as it goes, be as good a design and built with a true a feeling of the beautiful and Catholick as Lincoln Minster itself”.                                                                                                             

The “apology” generously proposed that “if the architect has felt himself aggrieved … the committee are ready to make amends … by offering their suggestion on the plan of a third church which …he has been employed to build in this town.” One wonders whether this gracious offer of assistance with the design of St Andrew the Great was accepted by Poynter. 

Pugin himself was furious with the decision to revise the article, embodying as it did the principles which he so vehemently advocated and reprinted the original in full in one of his later publications. The criticism was to have some success, however, for in 1864, St Paul’s was treated to the addition of a chancel.   

The interior of St Paul’s church is now roughly half the size it used to be prior to 1996 and the creation of the Centre at St Paul’s. In the above photograph, the terra cotta wall marks the division between the church and the Centre. The Upper Hall on the first floor of the Centre is immediately behind the cross; the Lower Hall in the Centre is on the other side of the terra cotta wall.

Apart from being a place of regular worship on Sundays, St Paul’s church is used throughout the week for numerous activities. The chairs  – which have replaced the original pews – can be moved to create a large space suitable for exhibitions, performances and displays. Alternatively, with the chairs in place, the church is an ideal setting for concerts, lectures and presentations. The church has a capacity of 250.

The photograph above right shows the interior of the church as it used to be before conversion ten years ago. The glass/wooden screen doors in the centre back of the photograph are now in the Lower Hall and separate it from the Lower Tower Room.