Augustus Pugin designed St Peter’s Church as a whole, and oversaw the building of the nave and aisles, the east window, and the Lady Chapel. He also designed the original part of the presbytery and the sacristy, and the passage connecting the two.
He was born in 1812 to a French emigré father and a dominant, loving mother for whom Augustus was her only child. Tutored at home by his father, who was a skilled illustrator of buildings with a special interest in Gothic ecclesiastical structures, he was exposed at an early age to the styles, construction and siting of some of the most prominent church buildings in Britain and Europe.
Although he did receive some formal schooling, his parents and especially his father recognised and developed his prodigious talent. His mother’s brother and sister were also key supports, especially his Aunt Selina who maintained absolute love and support for Pugin. Because he was always around adults he developed social skills that were to serve him well throughout his life.
His father operated a drawing school in which other boys joined Pugin as they explored religious buildings in ways that were tactile and forensic. Some of these fellow pupils of his father stayed friends with Pugin for the rest of his life.
His early employments were in furniture design and then theatre design before he became an architect. Once he was exposed to emotionally stimulating buildings such as Lincoln and Ely Cathedral, he was driven to establish the dominance of this style of height and grandeur. He called it Gothic but adapted this description later, using terms like Decorative Gothic and Picturesque. Towards the end of his life he strove to establish an English Gothic as opposed to the German which had been his first guide, since first observing German churches that had not suffered the same Reformation abuses as most English churches.
As his fame grew so did his workload and his output was colossal. For example, in a two year period between 1838 and 1840, he built 18 churches, 3 Cathedrals, 2 monasteries, several schools and around a half a dozen houses. This frenetic pace was kept up his entire life and as a consequence he was not always able to accurately cost his work, and nor was it always successful. Fortunately he was supported by a builder from Hull named George Myers, whom he had met as a boy when Myers was a stonemason. From that reunion they were to maintain a working partnership for the rest of Pugin’s life. It was Myers phlegmatic manner and his organisational skills as well as his craftsmanship that turned Pugin’s drawings into plans and a living reality. Southwark Cathedral and Woolwich were two of the churches they were jointly involved in.
Pugin’s reliance on loyalty and friendship in the workplace also extended to his glass and metal manufacturer, John Hardman from Birmingham, and to Thomas Minton, the tile-manufacturer from Stoke. Examples of their work can be seen in some areas of St Peter’s today.
A major theme in Pugin’s life was his Catholicism, to which he converted in 1835. His attraction to the faith was largely through his emotional and sensory channels, not an intellectual or theological journey. The Earl of Shrewsbury, a fellow-Catholic, was a major patron.
Pugin’s letters survive and a few mention St Peter’s, but with little detail. However, his published correspondence includes extracts from letters of Father Cole, which indicate Pugin’s close interest in the furnishings. So on 17 October 1843, nine days before the church opened, Cole and Pugin unpacked the reredos and the tabernacle. On 7 June 1844, Cole wrote to the supplier: ‘I am very sorry that Mr Pugin was very much displeased with one of the elevation candlesticks you sent for St Peter’s New Church. He advised me to send it back to you to have it altered. It is quite crooked.’
Pugin was a driven personality, strong on friendship, loyalty and his Faith. Yet he was also difficult, outspoken and dogmatic.
He died in 1852 aged 40. He had experienced tragedies in his life. He was a widow before he was twenty one. Additionally within a year of widowhood he lost both parents. He was also widowed a second time. His three marriages produced eight children.