The origins of Oscott College lie in the mission of Andrew Bromwich, who bequeathed his house for the use of a priest to serve the Catholics of this area. Bromwich, the last English priest to be tried for treason and condemned to death (in 1679), was eventually released from prison and established the mission on his family property about two miles from here. He died there in 1702.
Throughout the eighteenth century a succession of priests maintained the mission, serving the local population of farm workers and tradespeople. A scheme to educate sons of the Catholic gentry and professional classes alongside a seminary to train priests was developed at Oscott in the late eighteenth century. The college opened in 1794 on its original site at what is now Maryvale Institute, with a small group of schoolboys and three seminary students. The missionary tradition of Andrew Bromwich and his successors flowed directly into the spirit and tradition of Oscott College, where Francis Martyn was ordained in 1805, the first priest wholly trained in England since the Reformation.
Crippled with debt by 1808, the lay trustees of the college readily relinquished control of it to Bishop John Milner. From then until the present day, it has trained priests for the Archdiocese of Birmingham, and many other English and Welsh dioceses, religious orders and overseas dioceses.
The College Building
The present home of Oscott dates from 1838. As the college expanded and Catholic life in England emerged from the penal times, it was decided to rebuild the college on a new site. This ambitious project was the brainchild of the Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District, Thomas Walsh. With the help of John, sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, George Ignatius Spencer and other benefactors, Walsh bought the land and employed Joseph Potter of Lichfield as architect.
Walsh’s intention was that Oscott would symbolise the renewal of Catholic life in England. It became the showplace of English Catholicism, and the famous historian, Lord Acton recalled that when he was a schoolboy here in the 1840’s, ‘apart from Pekin, we thought that Oscott was the centre of the world’.
The portrait of Bishop John Milner inside the main entrance connects New Oscott with its roots. Milner began the ‘New Government’ of the college on the Feast of the Assumption 1808, dedicating the college to Our Lady, and revising its scheme of studies, particularly for the student priests. He worked closely with Thomas Walsh, who succeeded him as Vicar Apostolic, and who built the new college.
In the background of Milner’s portrait can be seen the outline of the old college, now Maryvale Institute. Facing the main door are four stained glass panels depicting the arms of the first four Bishops and Archbishops of Birmingham – William Bernard Ullathorne, Edward Illsley, John McIntyre and Thomas Williams. Biographies of William Bernard Ullathorne by Judith Champ and of Edward Ilsley by Mary McInally may be ordered from Oscott, at a cost of £22 for Ullathorne and £15 for Ilsley including P&P (firstname.lastname@example.org), or may be bought on site. Both of these contain a large amount of information on Oscott during the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
The College Chapel
The chapel is the heart of the college’s life and the centre of Augustus Welby Pugin’s work at Oscott. In 1837, Pugin, the rising star of Gothic architecture, was introduced to Oscott. Potter was paid off and Pugin was given a free hand, especially in the chapel. His purpose was to create a glorious visual and spiritual experience for the visitor and worshipper, which would draw them into the mystery of Christianity and closer to God. A detailed guide to the chapel is available, which may be ordered at £3.50 inc P&P, but a few elements are highlighted below.
The main window portrays the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, bearing the infant Christ. Surrounded by radiant golden light, she is flanked by St. Catherine of Alexandria and by St. Cecilia. Next to St. Catherine is St. Gregory the Great, and alongside St. Cecilia, St. Thomas Becket. This window was designed by Pugin and manufactured by Warrington of London.
The altar was constructed by Pugin by medieval fragments and wooden sculptures to his own design. The reredos consists of medieval carved scenes set in a framework designed by Pugin. The whole reredos is topped by wooden tracery and a series of medieval carvings. Beneath the reredos and tabernacle, set into the wooden panelling are a series of sixteenth century Limoges enamel panels which depict scenes from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord.
The most striking of the side windows is the first war memorial to be erected in this country in honour of a Catholic chaplain. John Wheble offered his services as a volunteer in the Crimean War. The other windows date from the 1850s and 1860s and commemorate other college members and benefactors, whose patron saints are depicted in the main panels.
The pulpit is associated with the most significant occasion at Oscott in its early decades, the first synod of the restored Catholic hierarchy in 1852. This occasion was marked by the striking sermon preached from this pulpit by John Henry Newman. Later published as ‘The Second Spring’, the sermon was a moving account of the recovery of English Catholicism from the dark days of penal times to its Victorian splendour. It came to characterise the expression of the restoration of Catholicism, and the very title ‘The Second Spring’ passed into common usage to describe Catholic life in Victorian England.
The original choir stalls are seventeenth century French oak, decorated with beautifully carved faces. The benches in front were carved by Myers and Co of London in 1857. In 1925, the stalls were completed by Italian craftsmen. Fourteenth century in style, they harmonize with Pugin’s designs, and were linked to the old stalls by the addition of new standards on the ends, bearing coats of arms of Oscott, and of bishops associated with the college. The ornately carved altar rails are seventeenth century, continental and full of Baroque flourishes and cherubs and are clearly dated ‘anno 1680’.
The organ was made by Parsons of London, and given by Pugin’s friend and business partner, John Hardman. In 1872 it was moved to its present position and enlarged by the generosity of the Oscotian Society (founded in 1863). In 1963, Nicholson and Co of Worcester carried out a radical rebuilding, which kept the casing and style of the original 1837 organ with the advantages of a modern console and action.
The chapel of SS Patrick and George, which contains a Pugin altar with this unusual double dedication leads to the Weedall Chantry. Pugin designed a huge chantry chapel with an elaborate tomb for John Milner, which was never built, but the brass was designed and executed by Hardmans of Birmingham in 1841. Henry Weedall, in whose memory the chantry was built, was the last rector of the old college and first rector of the new, working closely with Thomas Walsh in the building of the new college. He is the only rector to have served two separate terms of office, and he turned down an episcopal appointment to remain at his beloved Oscott.
This lifesize alabaster statue of Sedes Sapientiae (Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom), which sits in the Weedall Chantry, was bought for the college in 1862 by James Spencer Northcote. The designer was John Hardman Powell, Pugin’s son in law and assistant. The Gothic niches in the pedestal base contain carvings of the Old Testament women who prefigured the Virgin Mary. Covering part of the wall behind the statue is a collection of commemorative brasses. Between 1868 and the 1920s, brasses were added to it in memory of eminent Oscotians and members of staff, and some who died in the college. A few have been added more recently, in memory of Andrew Robinson (2001) and Fr Ben Grist (2012), seminarians who died during their studies, and Canon Giles Goward (2022), the twenty-fifth Rector, who died in office. The most ancient and beautiful image of the Virgin Mary in the chapel can be seen above the door. Acquired by Pugin, it is Flemish fifteenth century workmanship in a graceful and delicate style. Under the title of Maria Lactans, this is a statue expressive of the Motherhood of Mary and the humanity of Christ.
St. George’s Cloister contains the teaching rooms named after Sts Thomas More and John Fisher on the right; the view across the quad gives a sense of the medieval monastic and collegiate inspiration in the design of the college, including Gothic style gargoyles on the drainspouts. At the end of this cloister is the Common Room built in the early 1930s to create social space for the students.
The north cloister was originally open until the building of the Northcote Hall, planned by Edward Pugin in the 1850s and completed by Peter Paul Pugin in the 1870s. This large multi-purpose space was created as a lecture hall and theatre, and is named after James Spencer Northcote (Rector 1860-77). It is now used for meetings, public lectures, plays and indoor sports, as well as giving access to two small enclosed gardens, the Vianney Garden and the Millennium Garden.
From the north cloister, the tower can be seen, which carries the inscription ‘TW Cambys VAMD’. This commemorates Thomas Walsh, titular Bishop of Cambysopolis, Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District (1826-48), the creator of the new college. The main college library, in the corner of the cloister was built in 1928, and named after Michael Glancey, Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham, who bequeathed money for its building.
The fourth wing of the cloister named after St. Thomas, leads past further teaching rooms towards the college refectory. The furniture in here has been in constant use since the 1840s, when it was designed by Pugin for use in the refectory and probably constructed in situ. The massive tables are classic examples of the simplicity and strength of his domestic furniture. The twelve depictions of early English monarchs and royalty were commissioned in the early seventeenth century by the exiled English Bridgettine convent in Lisbon. They were painted either by the Spanish artist Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644) or his studio. The cartouches are eighteen-century Portuguese and show Franciscan saints. As part of the restoration of the Refectory in 2019, a highly decorated board was subsequently inserted in the fireplace. It depicts the College coat of arms surrounded by the motto of Archbishop Ilsley, who was the rector of Oscott (1890-96), and the coats of arms of four saintly men connected to Oscott (clockwise from top left): St John Henry Newman, Bl. Dominic Barberi, Fr Andrew Bromwich, and Ven. Ignatius Spencer. The painting of The Last Supper is by an unknown artist, probably dating from the seventeenth century. The wooden carvings of the Virgin and Child and Sts Peter and Paul are late medieval and from northern Europe.
Above the main staircase hangs the painting of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by the seventeenth century artist Gaspar de Crayer, a gift of Henry Weedall in the 1850s.
The painting facing it records the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Oscott in 2010, and is styled after another painting which hung on the same spot before its completion. This original painting can now be found around the corner on the way to the College Museum, and features the first Synod of Westminster in 1852, when the newly restored hierarchy gathered at Oscott. In 2002, the Bishops of England and Wales held their meeting at Oscott again to commemorate this event. On the gallery, the stained glass panels show the arms of Thomas Walsh and Nicholas Wiseman, who before his appointment as the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, was auxiliary bishop to Walsh and rector of Oscott from 1840 to 1847.