Underwood’s Chapel, 1847-1895

A guide to Radley College Chapel

The Old Chapel, 1847-1895

William Sewell and Robert Singleton, joint founders of Radley College, were in the process of negotiating a lease to rent Radley Hall for twenty years when they invited the Oxford architect, Henry Jones Underwood, to visit the site with them on 3rd April 1847 and to ‘draw out estimates for a chapel of brick which he said could be screwed together, taken down, & placed upon our permanent buildings thereafter.’ All the buildings which they proposed to erect had to be temporary since there was little prospect that Radley Hall could be bought at the end of the lease. Underwood had designed Newman’s Gothic Revival church at Littlemore in 1835-6, which became the centre of the Oxford Movement.  

Underwood’s chapel at Radley College, west end, 1855-1860

Bad news arrived on 8th May 1847 with the refusal of a potential major donation. All the ambitious building plans for the new school were put on hold, including the dining hall, classrooms and dormitory, but not the Chapel. The priorities of the founders are clearly expressed in this list: purpose-built education facilities and housing could be sacrificed – they were of secondary importance to worship and alternative arrangements could be cobbled together – whereas the plans for chapel were reduced only minimally by leaving out a proposed apse at the east end. It is worth noting that there was no question that the chapel should be used for any other school function such as an assembly or speech hall. Radley College still has no building designated specifically for those activities, although architects drew up plans for one in the 1930s. That project, like its predecessors in 1847, was abandoned for lack of funds as the country and school suffered during the Great Depression. One hundred and seventy-five years later an apse has been added to the east end of the permanent chapel built by Sir Thomas Jackson in the 1890s which replaced Underwood’s ‘temporary’ structure. It will fulfil the same function as the one planned in 1847, providing an intimate space for smaller services.  

Underwood’s chapel at Radley College, east end. Photographed by Henry Taunt in the 1880s

On 25th May, Singleton and Sewell received the revised estimate for the chapel: more than £1600, which was nearly twice the original. Should they retrench? Choose cheaper wood? A plainer roof? Failure to build the chapel as originally designed would mean not just the failure of the school but also bring deep disappointment to all those supporters who saw this experimental school as the logical outworking of the reformation of education through the Church of England. They decided to proceed as originally planned. Anything less was to doubt God himself.  

Furnishings & fittings

Sewell began collecting pieces of furniture, carved wood for the gallery and corbels and bosses from churches which were being remodelled as soon as the school was proposed. On the same day that Underwood began work on the chapel’s foundations, Sewell arrived with his latest purchase from New Bond Street in London. It was ‘a magnificent piece of carved work in three compartments, representing passages in the life of our Lord. This was very costly, the sum asked being £140, & put into perfect repair £190 – but along with the panels purchased from Hobson will crown our chapel.’ Hobson of Bristol had already supplied sixteen medieval carved panels earlier in the month which were eventually sold, but the ‘magnificent piece of carved work’ remains as the reredos, the centrepiece of Radley’s chapel. It is a mark of Sewell’s extravagance that its potential cost was more than 10% of the estimated price for the entire chapel.  

In addition to supplying recycled architectural features, Hobson was employed to carve new stalls for the chapel. The arrangement of seating within the building was a political as well as a liturgical matter. The stalls were arranged facing across the aisle ‘college-fashion’, with no hierarchy of pews. In this the chapel itself asserted one of the school’s four founding principles – collegiality. Collegiate seating also builds up the community, as noted by the school’s longest-serving Chaplain, David Coulton: ‘The chapel, has always been a special place where the Radley community can be together as a family and experience a corporate self-consciousness and a regular heartbeat as a family, aided in no small way by the collegiate seating arrangement where smiles can be shared or eyebrows raised with those sitting opposite and where boys can see and hear Radley’s Warden praying and singing with the family he oversees.’ 

The trickiest feature of the new chapel was a focal point for the east end. The east wall of Underwood’s chapel was designed to accommodate the reredos. Three stained glass windows were set high up on the wall, leaving comfortable space for the carving. But the challenge of ‘semi-popery’ was levelled at the new school even as the chapel was being built: the highly decorated Pre-Reformation reredos went into storage, but Underwood built the chapel ready to take it when the arguments had died down.  

There was no pulpit. Singleton preached the first sermon to the school on 3rd September 1848, standing on the flight of five steps which led to the altar. This created a precedent for all preaching at Radley College so Jackson’s permanent chapel built in the 1890s also lacks a pulpit with most speakers standing at the steps.

The Gothic Revival re-introduced colour into church interiors which had been whitewashed since the seventeenth century, particularly with the new use of ancient materials such as mosaic. Underwood’s chapel featured carved oak panels and stained-glass windows but its walls were originally painted plain white. Without the reredos it would have appeared austere and richly elegant as the candlelight shimmered on the newly carved golden oak by night and filled with dancing colours from the stained glass by day. Other colours were introduced in soft furnishings such as cushions as kneelers, and the beautifully embroidered changing liturgical colours visible in the bookmarks and hangings. Flowers were also used extensively. In the 1880s, the white walls were covered in elaborate stencils. The dominant feature was the west end where the organ built by Telford’s of Dublin filled the entire space set on its gallery. 

Underwood’s chapel at Radley College. West end, interior. Photographed by Henry Taunt in the 1880s

A setting for the reredos 

The reredos remained in storage until Sewell became the third Warden of Radley in 1853. When it was finally installed the polychrome paint had been over-gilded, so now it glowed golden. This may have always been Sewell’s intention and account for the projected £50 in restoration costs when it was originally bought in 1847, but Radley legend has always stated that the gilding was done to hide the colours. In 2019, much of the original colour was revealed when the reredos was conserved prior to placing it in a new setting in the new apse, although some gilding has also been retained as part of its history.  

Colourised photo of the interior of Underwood’s chapel in 1871

The earliest setting for the reredos was against the plain white wall, with a heavy painted border defining its outline. A hand-coloured photograph from the personal album of Warden Charles Martin shows that by the 1870s the wall had been embellished with a text from Matthew 16 on a red and blue scroll, surmounted by a cross. The scroll read ‘Thou art Christ the son of the living God’. The text on the wide border around the reredos read ‘thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church’. This is one of very few physical references to the full name of the school, St Peter’s College.

By 1877 both the texts and the cross had been removed to be replaced by an elaborate neo-Gothic setting for the reredos. It was now framed by a triangular, carved pediment, with trefoils containing the symbols for alpha and omega and IHS, four pillars, and, for the first time, framed by curtains. It stood on the carved base which is still in use in the 2022 setting. There was a complete overhaul of the chapel under Warden Robert Wilson in 1881. This saw the white walls completely covered in a vibrant design of stylised flowers, reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts products of Morris & Co. The setting of the reredos was remodelled with the introduction of a high cornice added as a memorial to an Old Radleian, Harold Gathorne-Hardy, who had died in June 1881; he came to Radley in 1861.

The reredos in Underwood’s chapel in 1881

Twelve years later this entire setting, including the curtains from 1877, was transferred to Jackson’s new chapel where the east end, including a newly commissioned stained-glass window, was designed specifically for it. Achieving a suitable setting for the reredos was a challenge that was not effectively solved until the 2000s when it was set into a new surround in Jackson’s chapel given in memory of F.D. Pattisson (D Social 1936). A new setting for it was unveiled in 2021 in its new home in the extended apse.

A guide to Radley College Chapel

Clare Sargent 

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