Charlie Wildman – ‘The Cathedral That Was Never Built? Catholic Modernity and Consumerism in 1930s Liverpool

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Sacred Modernities: Rethinking Modernity in a Post-Secular Age

19 September 2009

Charlie Wildman (University of Manchester)
The Cathedral That Was Never Built? Catholic Modernity and Consumerism in 1930s Liverpool

Scholars have characterised the Catholic Church in early twentieth century Britain as inherently anti-modern. For instance, in Classes and Cultures: England, 1918 – 1951, Ross McKibbin argues ‘cultural isolation from secular influences was crucial to the strength of Catholicism in England’. Similarly, Maryann Valiulis argues that the Catholic Church in Ireland constructed a form of womanhood during the 1920s, which ‘represented a bulwark against modernisation’. In particular, Liverpool’s large Irish population (perhaps 400,000 of a total population of 750,000 in the 1920s) and their strong associations with Catholicism, has caused the city to be characterised as being ‘exceptional’ and separate from broader English political and social culture. So what does this mean for an understanding of modernity in Irish-Catholic Liverpool?

Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger suggest British modernity should be studied ‘through close readings within specific locales and venues’. Therefore, the attempt to build a Catholic cathedral in Liverpool during the 1930s is used as a prism through which to explore Catholic modernity. The cathedral was to be the largest in the world outside Rome at a cost of £3,000,000 and designed by the most prominent English architect, Edwin Lutyens. Its story reveals the Catholic Church in Liverpool actually attempted to nurture a modernity that would promote a stronger sense of shared religious identity, rather than oppose it. ‘Cathedral cigarettes’ and ‘Cathedral tea’ were some of the ways the cathedral’s fundraising attempts shaped a specifically Catholic, but modern, form of consumer culture. Similarly, women were encouraged to use forms of leisure to raise money, and visual propaganda articulated a specifically Catholic urban fantasy around Liverpool. These examples are used to show how Liverpool Archdiocese reconfigured the ‘Catholic citizen’ in a classless and unifying way, not dissimilar to Stanley Baldwin’s political rhetoric. This raises questions not only about the relationship between religion and modernity in 1930s England, but also about the very concept of modernity itself.

Dr Charlie Wildman completed her PhD thesis, ‘The “Spectacle” of Interwar Manchester and Liverpool: Urban Fantasies, Consumer Cultures and Gendered Identities’, at the University of Manchester in 2007. She is especially interested in the relationship between secular and religious spaces and forms of culture. She is currently preparing this research for publication and holds the position of Teaching Fellow in Modern British Gender History at the University of Manchester.

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