CHAVASSE,  Francis James  [1846 - 1928]

When Frances James Chavasse was enthroned as Bishop of Liverpool on 31st May 1900, the diocese was approaching the end of its second decade, based on the second city of the Empire, but possessing only a ‘pro-cathedral’, the parish church of St Peter’s in Church Street. Too small for hosting events of any size and unprepossessing (the rector of Liverpool described at is “ugly and hideous”) proposals for a purpose-built cathedral had been floated as early as 1886 but the project received very little support from Chavasse’s predecessor, J. C. Ryle, and was shelved.

From the very moment of his arrival in Liverpool Chavasse dedicated himself to reviving the project, determined that the aim should be the construction of a great church which would be “a worthy witness to the glory and majesty of God Himself”. In his first address to the Diocesan Conference on 23rd October 1900 he set out what he saw as the guiding principles which should apply to the new cathedral. He saw it being built piece-meal, as had the great cathedrals of the middle ages, with constituent parts coming into use before the completion of the whole. Whilst large donations from the wealthy would be welcome, he wanted the funding to be by the whole of the congregation, a cathedral “of the people, built by them, loved by them, thronged by them…their protest against the blind materialism of a money-loving age”. He was also determined that it must not be built at the cost of the diocese’s other churches or philanthropic work.

Given that there were still many evangelicals in the diocese who had supported Ryle’s opposition, Chavasse engineered remarkable progress. A committee was formed under the chairmanship of merchant Sir William Forwood, the site on St James’ Mount chosen, architects appointed and on 19th July 1904 the foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII. In 1911 Chavasse was proud to see the first part of the cathedral, the Lady Chapel, opened and used for services.

The years of the Great War were to bring many trials to Chavasse. Building work on the cathedral came to virtual halt and he suffered the personal tragedy of losing two of his sons. The youngest boy, Aidan, and his brother Noel were both killed in action in 1917. Noel Chavasse, a doctor in the R.A.M.C. was a double V.C. His other two sons also served with distinction in the army. The eldest, Christopher, Noel’s twin brother, won the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre, and later became the Bishop of Rochester. Francis Bernard won the Military Cross and later became a leading ophthalmic surgeon. There were two twin daughters, May and Marjorie, who in 1986 celebrated their 100th birthdays together.

With building on the cathedral resuming after the war Chavasse came to the decision that the consecration of the main body should mark the beginning of a younger ‘regime’ and he resigned in 1923, retiring to Oxford.

Francis James Chavasse was born on 27th September 1846 at Sutton Coldfield. He died there aged 83 on 11th March 1928. His father, Thomas, was a surgeon. He developed a curvature of the spine as a complication of measles and his poor health led to him being educated privately. He then went to Corpus Christi, Oxford to read Law and Modern History, graduating in 1869. He died in Oxford, aged 81, on 11th March 1928 and was buried in the founders’ plot in Liverpool Cathedral.

19 Abercromby Square L7

The Bishop's Palace as it would have been around the time that the Chavasse family took up residence.

19 Abercromby Square L7

The house as it appears today, now a part of the University of Liverpool


The entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is quite comprehensive and the Wikipedia entry gives a good overview. I have one biography of Chavasse Francis James Chavasse: Bishop of Liverpool by J.B. Lancelot [ Basil Blackwell 1929]. There is also a short essay by F W Dillistone in Four Bishops of Liverpool 1880-1965 [Liverpool Diocesan Centenary Committee 1985]. His role in getting the cathedral project under way is covered in Peter Kennerley's The Building of Liverpool Cathedral [Carnegie 1999].