Chris Price
(page revised November 2007)

It might have been expected that so influential and generous a benefactor as Douglas Horsfall would have funded some part of the great cathedral that was rising in Liverpool at the time of his other benefactions. That he did not do so is perhaps evidence of the religious climate of the time and of the strong differences of doctrine and opinion not merely between the different Christian denominations of Victorian Liverpool but also between the various parties and widely different churchmanship within the Anglican Church.

The story of Saint Faith’s, as reflected in the three published histories of the church, itself bears powerful witness to the hostility and suspicion it faced at the time of its foundation and indeed for very many years after. Before it was consecrated, an appeal was made to the Archbishop of York not to permit ‘this mass-house’ to be opened. For years demonstrators paraded opposite the church, protesting at its ‘popery’. Stones were thrown at visiting preachers, and when a visiting Episcopal preacher, waving his arms vigorously in the pulpit, set fire to his garments with the candles placed there, it was regarded as a judgement on the doctrinal unsoundness of having candles there in the first place. Tradition has it that local bus conductors would shout ‘change here for Rome’ outside Saint Faith’s. And in more recent years, this writer remembers the Protestant Truth Society picketing the church when for the first time a Roman Catholic priest attended for a service during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. When Archbishop Robert Runcie first revisited his old church after taking office, those same protestors were only diverted from interrupting the Eucharist by an organist’s entirely pardonable untruth when he told them that he was going in to play for a funeral! That same day those determined bigots shouted the Archbishop down as he attempted to preach in a Liverpool Anglican Church.

Against this background, Douglas Horsfall’s offer to fund the reredos for the new cathedral was bound to be controversial. Peter Kennerley, in his excellent book, ‘The Building of Liverpool Cathedral’ tells the story. (Italic interpolations by this writer.)


(In 1906) diocesan politics almost caused a major upset in the plans for the Chancel. The actual planning of many of the main features was years ahead of the building process, and the negotiations surrounding one feature provoked the most unfortunate violent hostilities within the diocese. Mr H. Douglas Horsfall (Kennerley actually spells his name as 'Horsefall' throughout) was a member of the original Cathedral Committee. Autocratic in manner, and a very rich man, he was generous in his gifts to the Church… He was a man used to having his own way.

‘His giving was always specific: "that money must be used to  further the interests and extend the teaching of what we may term the Catholic party in the Church of England". Mr Horsfall did not make any donation to the general building fund, but was anxious to donate £5,000 for the provision of the reredos. His letter to the Bishop (Chavasse) reveals something of his character and mode of operation:

Had there been none to consider but myself, I should have liked to have put a great Crucifix with the simple legend “Sic Deus dilexit mundum”. But this I recognised as impossible, and should be content with a pictorial representation of the scene of the Crucifixion and if this is declined, I am quite content to believe that the money which I had destined for the glory of God ‘in a holy and beautiful house’ is required by him for another purpose, and that good will come out of what I could not but regard as a serious evil. For it will indeed be a serious matter and have far-reaching effects if such an offering is declined.

The threatening tone of these words is unmistakable.

Sir William Forwood, (ex Lord Mayor of Liverpool and Chairman of the Cathedral Executive) for one, felt considerable animosity towards both Horsfall and his plans: ‘I think he must have known that the Reredos he wished would not be acceptable and the new offer would place us in a difficulty and therefore I cannot fel kindly disposed towards him.’

In a letter to Mr Bodley (the architect), who had been approached by Horsfall, Bishop Chavasse described the potential donor as ‘a good and devout man’, but as Bishop he was clear in his mind that the acceptance of such a gift would be deeply offensive to some members of the Church:

“The Diocese has put a trust in me of which I am unworthy. Men of all schools of thought have subscribed to the Cathedral on the definite understanding that, as Bishop, I should allow nothing to be introduced into the building which can offend reasonable churchmen. If, when they enter the Choir, the prominent object upon which their eyes rest is a large Crucifix, if when they come to the Holy Communion the prominent figure before which they kneel is that of our Lord upon the Cross, they will think not unnaturally that they have been betrayed. From the very first I have publicly stated that the new Cathedral will not be used as a Propaganda for any one particular set of Church views; and when it was known that a good and devout man like Mr Douglas Horsfall declined to give any subscription to the fabric of the Cathedral and desired only to present the Reredos, a certain amount of feeling was created in the Diocese and outside it. Mr Horsfall is a most munificent churchman, but … he declines to subscribe to any Diocesan object in order that he may concentrate his generous gifts on promoting in the Diocese what he calls ‘the Catholic Revival”.

All the correspondence from the Bishop, Bodley and Forwood indicates their wish for compromise. The Bishop was anxious that, among other elements, the Reredos would feature the risen Christ more strongly than the dead Christ. He felt able to accept a crucified Christ along with other scenes from his earthly ministry, but the letters from Douglas Horsfall indicate that he was not looking for compromise.. He was demanding a simple answer – positive or negative – to his offer, and was unwilling to enter into any negotiation. When no simple response was given, he threatened to put the whole matter in the hands of the press: and this he proceeded to do.

The ensuing article in the ‘Church Times’ (a periodical whose editorial policy then, as now, favoured the Horsfall position) of 23rd March 1906, under the heading ‘A Generous Offer Refused’, becomes an open attack on the Bishop by a highly partisan correspondent:

“Such discourtesy and bungling would appear to be incredible. Unhappily, they are significant of much which has happened recently in the Dicoese… A prominent member of the Evangelical section said the other week in my hearing, ‘Law is not administered in the Liverpool Diocese; it is manufactured’.

The ‘Church Times’ correspondent seemed determined to present the idea that the Church in Liverpool, High and Low, was suffering at the hands of an intolerant autocrat. The writer reveals his scorn not only for the Bishop, but for the Evangelicals.

‘The Protestant party which the Bishop emphatically calls ‘some of our best churchpeople’ are not likely to be appeased by the suggested change from Crucifixion to Ascension. They detest the idea of a Reredos. That they should be considered in this way, puny minority as they are, to the extent of slighting a Churchman who has shown his devotedness repeatedly and munificently is symptomatic of much which has happened recently.’

The whole affair reveals something of the bitterness which existed even within the Church of England, to say nothing of the strength of animosity between Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. At the grassroots in general there was little love lost between Catholic and Protestant during the first decades of the century.

As in other dealings in the diocese, the Bishop was able to steer a middle course. The Horsfall Reredos was never carved…’


The story is an intriguing and revealing one. The terminology Kennerley employs says much about his attitude: like so many he classes all non-Roman Catholic Christians as Protestants, but his account reflects the prevailing beliefs and attitudes of the time. And Bishop Chavasse may well have been successful in steering his middle course, but his statement that Christians kneeling for communion below the figure of Christ on the cross would feel themselves betrayed seems almost unbelievable today, and not merely to those who, like the people of Saint Faith’s, do just that day by day and week by week.

Sir Frederick Radcliffe, another member, along with Douglas Horsfall, of the original Cathedral Committee, succeeded  Sir William Forwood. Twenty years later, when Douglas Horsfall died, he wrote a letter to ‘The Times’ of February 17th, 1936 which throws a further interesting light on Horsfall’s relationship with Liverpool Cathedral. It was written in an attempt to clarify the situation and in response to some of the content of Douglas Horsfall's obituary in The Times of February 10th, 1936, which enshrined the controversy over the Cathedral window in the foremost journal of record of the country.

Follow this link to read the newspaper obituary. The refutation follows below:

Sir Frederick Radcliffe writes:-

‘I should like, and I think my old friend Douglas Horsfall would have wished that I should, to ask your permission to correct certain errors of fact which crept into your admirable obituary of him on Monday last. They relate to Liverpool Cathedral, of the original committee for which, formed in 1901, Sir Arthur Stanley and I are now, by Horsfall’s death, the only survivors. I can say what follows with the authority of having been joint treasurer to the committee until 1913 and then chairman until 1934.

It detracts from Horsfall’s memory in no degree to say that he never gave funds for the erection of the Cathedral the generous contributions mentioned in your notice, or indeed any contribution at all. With a concentration of purpose as rare as it is valuable, he gave his wealth to a single aim, which was the building under his own direction of beautiful churches to be devoted to the school of thought in the Church on which the foundations of his own life were laid. We knew this and never expected that he should give to the Cathedral while carrying on at his sole cost the work above described. If his methods were autocratic, they were the most proper and fruitful for work solely financed by himself. Nor is it correct to say that he offered to give the east window or any other window in the building, or that he was refused the east window because Bishop Chavasse desired it to portray the Ascension and not the Crucifixion. 

Nor is it the fact that any other donor was found or even asked to comply with the wish of the Bishop. The first and only person who ever offered or discussed the offer of the east window was Mrs T.H.Ismay, in March 1903, and her request for the privilege was at once accepted. The subject of the window is the Te Deum, and the Ascension does not appear in it, as stated.

Nothing but the extreme importance of your obituary notices in forming the legends of the future would justify me in thus troubling you, but already I find the statements above referred to as fact in many other newspapers and many sermons. Horsfall was a striking instance of generosity and singleness of purpose whose memory can stand without them, and the reflection on Bishop Chavasse is not deserved.’


It is clear enough that Horsfall at no time contributed to the Cathedral’s general building fund. It is equally clear from Radcliffe’s measured and charitable letter that he at least understood why this was so, even if Bishop Chavasse was less magnanimous in his views as to Horsfall’s motivation. Equally clearly, Horsfall neither funded a reredos or a window. There seems to be some remaining confusion, since Kennerley’s account speaks of a preference for the Ascension on the reredos and Radcliffe’s letter denies the story of a preference for the Ascension in the east window. Pending further clarification, the story of Douglas Horsfall’s association with the building and furnishing ends here. It seems more than likely to this writer that the very significant differences in churchmanship between the founding fathers of the cathedral and our founder would have been a major cause of the lack of any funding from Douglas Horsfall. Whatever the case, it is a matter for very real thanksgiving that Mr Horsfall concentrated his efforts and his generosity upon the foundation of parish churches in the ‘Anglo-Catholic’ tradition and upon the establishing of a training college for the perpetuation of that tradition. The result has been, at least in part, the increasing of the breadth and variety of Anglicanism in the Liverpool Diocese – and the establishment, support and continuing patronage of the church he founded in Great Crosby just over a century ago.

The illustrations to this page are from drawings 
by Edward Carter Preston, and quotations 
from the text of Peter Kennerley's book 
'The Building of Liverpool Cathedral'
(ISBN 0-94879-72-7; Carnegie Publishing 1991)
in which they appear.

Go to the Horsfall connection index page

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