Scott’s first work in Wales probably stemmed from a somewhat daring appointment by Lord Melbourne in 1840, when he selected an Englishman, Newell Connop Thirlwall (1797-1875), to be the new Bishop of St. David’s. St. David’s was the largest diocese in England and Wales, embracing all the old Welsh counties of Pembroke, Cardigan, Carmarthen and Brecknock, as well as most of Radnor, west Glamorgan, parts of Montgomery and Monmouth, and even contained eleven churches outside Wales, in Herefordshire. Thirwall visited every part of his huge diocese, inspecting schools and churches, supplemented out of his pocket the poorest parishes and their charities, and in his first year learnt Welsh. He also embarked on a programme of building or restoring Anglican churches throughout his diocese. This programme seems to have started in 1843 when he commissioned Scott and Moffatt to survey the church at Abergwili, next to his palace.
Thirlwall probably heard about Scott through the publicity arising from his success in the competition for St. Giles, Camberwell, and he must have known Scott’s cousin, John Scott of Hull, who was an undergraduate at Trinity when Thirlwall was the assistant tutor there, at the same time as Whewell and Peacock. By the time Thirlwall retired in 1874 he had completed 183 new churches or restorations, with work in hand for another thirty. Scott, however, made a rather modest contribution to this impressive programme. In 1849, he built a Commissioners church at Llanelli, eleven miles west of Swansea, rebuilt the church at Llandeillo, east of Abergwilli, between 1848 and 1851, and repaired the fine Perpendicular church at Llywel, west of Penpont, in 1869. But his greatest achievements in Thirlwall’s domain were the major restorations of his cathedral at St. David’s and the priory church at Brecon.
The monastic buildings of Brecon were constructed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and after its dissolution in 1538, the prior’s house became a private residence. The second Marquess Camden, who had inherited the medieval prior’s house, spent some time there in 1858. He was something of an antiquarian as, in 1864, he was elected President of the Archaeological Institute, and after his stay in Brecon, offered to restore the chancel if the parishioners would undertake the rest of the church. Camden probably knew Scott through the Archaeological Institute, and certainly his sister-in-law, Caroline Mordaunt, was employing Scott at the time at Walton. But it was most likely his connection with Thirlwall, as well as his established reputation as a church restorer, which led Scott to visit Brecon in November 1858. It was only a few days after that visit that he received his Foreign Office appointment, which may explain the reason why he did not produced a report on Brecon Priory until 17 November 1860.
The problems arising from the size of the diocese of St. David’s had led, over many years, to discussions about dividing it and, by 1860, Brecon Priory was being suggested as the new cathedral for central Wales. It was no doubt this proposal which was the spur that led to Scott being commissioned to produce his report and for a meeting, to be held in November 1860, to raise funds to support Camden’s offer. Thirlwall was chairman of the meeting, and it was decided that the vicar, the Reverend Garnons Williams (1829-1908), would send out letters appealing for funds. The Ecclesiologist predicted that Scott’s restoration ‘will be really a satisfactory one’.
Scott’s main proposals were to complete the chancel vaulting, restore the transept roofs to their original pitch, re-lay the floors, check the foundations and walls and repair as necessary, and repair the roof and upper stories of the tower. £1,050 was promised immediately after the meeting and on 1 June 1860, The Builder announced that James and Price of Cardiff had been appointed builders to restore the chancel for the Marquess Camden, and although public subscriptions were not yet sufficient, they would also restore the tower and transepts. However, extra funds must have quickly appeared as only nine months later, on 29 March 1862, The Builder stated that it was intended that the ‘restored chancel and transept’ would reopen on 23 April 1862. Camden had contributed £2,000, the public subscriptions had raised £2,500, and the work was supervised by A. A. Walton, who had worked at Durham, before settling in Brecon. Scott’s programme was one of repairing and tidying-up and making the old building more like the mid-Victorian idea of an Anglican cathedral. It did not require the wholesale restoration which he so often had to carry out. At this stage, his major innovations were the vaulting to the chancel, which he carried out in significantly different stone, new roofs to the chancel and transepts, and new side windows to the northern chapel. The nave had not been started when, probably because of lack of funds, the work came to a halt. Soon after he launched the appeal, it became clear that Garnons Williams would be leaving Brecon as, in 1861, he inherited the family estate at Abercamlais, five miles west of Brecon.
In November 1872, another meeting was held to discuss the raising of funds to enable the next stage of the restoration of Brecon Priory to proceed. This took place in the Shire Hall at Brecon, with Thirlwall, now seventy-five, present. Scott produced a second report, which the meeting adopted and agreed to set up a committee to raise funds under the chairmanship of the new vicar of Brecon, Herbert Williams, Garnon’s younger brother. An application for funds was made to the Incorporated Church Building Society, and on 21 July 1873, Thomas Collins, who was already working on Tewkesbury Abbey for Scott, and William Cullis signed a contract to carry out works on the nave for £1,675, the north aisle for £750 and the south aisle for £515.
Scott’s second phase at Brecon seems even more restrained than his earlier effort, but the contract figures indicate that the work, particularly on the nave, was much more extensive than it at first appears. At the west end a hipped roof was replaced by a gable with a new stair turret on the southern corner, making the front into an asymmetrical composition. New straight parapets replaced battlements over the side walls of the nave and a new porch was provided, largely following the design of the old one. The north aisle was repaired but the south aisle, which was in a poor state having at one time been part of the cloisters and later used for guild chapels, was rebuilt by Scott following the design of the north aisle. Scott also examined the remains of the south-east chapels and reconstructed the chapel next to the chancel as a vestry and organ chamber, following its fifteenth century plan, but reusing thirteenth century masonry which he had discovered in the ruins. Internally, in the nave Scott lowered the floor and removed the ceiling to reveal a range of post-medieval roof trusses to which he added some decorative elements, but it was at the crossing that he made the greatest changes. Here he removed Wyatt’s screen and provided a new pulpit, and he also designed new choir stalls, altar rails and candlesticks, which were donated by the dowager Marchioness of Camden in memory of her husband, who had died in 1872.
Scott’s last work at Brecon, in 1875, was to make the façade of the east end of the building more imposing by placing a pair of spirelets, each surrounded by four pinnacles, on top of the corner buttresses. By the time of Scott’s death, the account had not been settled and, in February 1880, Charles Baker King noted in the office ledger that, ‘Mr. Cobb refuses to pay’. Brecon Priory only became the cathedral of the new diocese of Swansea and Brecon in 1923. This followed the separation of Wales from the Church of England and the establishment of the Church of Wales with its own Archbishop at Bangor, in 1920.
Royal Commission for Historic Monument, Wales, The Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist, Brecon(1994), pp. 6-7, 18, 24.
Storer, J., History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Churches of Great Britain (Rivingtons, Murray, Hatchard, Clarke, Taylor and Sherwood, Neely and Jones, London, 1816), vol. II, St Davids.
The Complete Peerage, Gibbs, V. (ed.) (The St Catherine Press, London, 1910-59), p. 502.
Cole, D., The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott (The Architectural Press, London, 1980), p. 97.
The Ecclesiologist, XXI (1860), pp. 398-9.
The Builder, XIX, 1 June 1861, p. 380.
The Builder, XX, 29 March 1862, p. 230.
The Builder, XX, 10 May 1862, p. 337.
The Builder, XXX, 9 November 1872, p. 893.
Royal Commission for Historic Monument, Wales, The Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist, Brecon (1994), pp. 12, 24-6, 41, 51-2, 55.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 22 [c].
The Builder, XXXI, 1873, p. 316.
RIBA Drawings Collection, Ledger of Scott’s Office, 1875-1914, p. 54.