A Church with a Mission


At the north end of Coldhams Lane you are now confronted by the bulk of Anglia House; so recent its appearance that its predecessor the Renault Garage still occupies the location in Google Map's virtual reality. What is probably not known is that this was the site of the first Catholic mass celebrated in Cambridge since 1688. The ramshackle cottage of Esther Price, in 1841, no.182 Newmarket Road (not 40 as elsewhere noted) and later renumbered, by 1911, no. 219, and now destroyed. Such was the throng in the upstairs room in 1841 that the floor threatened to collapse. Just in time, the new chapel of St Andrew in Union Road was opened in December 1842.


There had been opposition, to say the least. The Catholic community in Cambridge during the Protestant repression had been led from Sawston by the Huddleston family. It was decided by Bishop Walsh in 1826 that a Catholic mission in Cambridge was needed, not just because of the traditional families and academic status, but also because the Industrial Revolution had brought large numbers of Irish families to the area needing a place of worship. Fr Edward Huddleston was given the task in 1827; well aware of the ill-feeling that too much publicity might arouse, in 1828, he bought, by proxy, a pair of cottages in Union Road to use as a base. No. 16 Union Road became the home of the Catholic clergy; nos. 18 and 19 became the site of the new chapel and school. 


Opposition to the Catholic community was rife. As the new chapel, designed by A W N Pugin using the model of St Michael’s Longstanton, was nearing completion, on the night of 5th November 1841, a traditional occasion for rioting by undergraduates, Fr Shaley had to summon a group of ‘valiant sons of Erin’, representing the Catholic congregation to support the forces of law order against students determined to tear down the new building. Fortunately, the students were subject to a 10pm curfew and tempers cooled. Even after the building was completed, anti-Catholic students, often from Cavendish College (where Homerton is now), would infiltrate services to disrupt and make mischief. Two undergraduates were caught and their heads shaved on one occasion.


The extent of the site in control of the church grew slowly. Wanstead House, no.2 Hills Road, the home of the Eaden Lilley family in 1851, was bought by Canon Quinlivan in 1865; the grounds at the back of the house gave space to rebuild the school with a house for the teachers. It was a major financial gamble and left the mission with a debt of £500. In 1879 Quinlivan was finally able to acquire no. 1 Hills Road. Joseph Wentworth, the auctioneer, had always refused to sell his land to the mission but at the cost of £2000, half donated by the Duke of Norfolk, the Catholic mission finally had the land it needed for its new church. Even when Our Lady and the English Martyrs was being built by Rattee and Kett between 1885-90, the diary of Edward Conybeare, former C of E vicar of Barrington, later convert to Catholicism and close friend of Monsignor Scott, recorded the anti-catholic demonstrations and leafletting as well as vitriolic attacks in the local press. The vision of Scott had been to create a building as parish church for the whole Catholic community of the city, town and gown, but it would also be a cathedral for the eastern counties. Both ambitions of Monsignor Scott were thwarted; the university congregation established itself at Fisher House and Norwich was chosen to be the seat of the cathedral. In the meantime, the Catholic mission had been fortunate to find an extraordinary benefactor, Mrs Lyne-Stephens, formerly Yolande Duvernay, operatic dancer. She had inherited a fortune from her husband who had held the patent for moving dolls’ eyes. She covered the entire cost of the building and furnishings to the tune of £70,000.


It was during the two World Wars that the great edifice came into its own. From the outset, the mission met the needs of Irish soldiers and then Belgian refugees. In WWII there were large numbers of Catholics in the Polish, American, French and other allied forces based in and around Cambridge. In September 1939 the school was used as dispersal centre for 400 child evacuees from London. After the bombing of Hills Road on Shrove Tuesday 1941 the school was used as a rest centre for those left homeless. Despite the prohibition on visible lights at night, OLEM continued to hold its Christmas Midnight Masses with the permission of the Chief Constable. In July 1943 there was a sung Requiem Mass to mark the death of the Polish commander General Sikorski. German and Austrian families in the city were also ministered to as were those captive in the Italian POW camp in Trumpington.


OLEM is our partner church in the Cambridge Churches Homeless Project and also supports the Cambridge Foodbank. More information about their current activities can be found on their website.

PS. If you have ever turned off the Newmarket Road onto Ditton Lane, have you noticed the isolated shack which is the Catholic Church of St Vincent de Paul? This strange building has a history; once used for St Laurence’s in High Street, Chesterton, before that it was the men’s club and church hall for OLEM in Hills Road, as well as  an evacuation centre for those fleeing the flying bomb offensive in London in 1944. But its actual origin was as one of the prefabricated huts that made up the First Eastern General Military Hospital on the Backs in WWI. It may be the only surviving remnant of those buildings. The cost was donated by Baron von Huegel and his wife Eliza, curator of the Museum of Archaeology, whose house, Croft Cottage in Barton Road became a busy centre for Catholics of all ages.


Most this information has been gleaned from ‘Catholics in Cambridge' ed. Nicholas Rogers published by Gracewing 2003. The information above and much more can be found on the CapturingCambridge.org website by using the interactive map or search engine.