Chapter Minutes

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Chapter Minutes

The Cathedral Chapter is the principal governing body of St Paul's. The official minutes of the meetings of the Chapter, dating from 1832 to 2018, are deposited in the cathedral archive and were catalogued in 2020. They are one of the most significant and heavily used records of the Cathedral's administration and capture many aspects of the life and work of St Paul's.


The Chapter Minutes in context

The collection is comprised of 11 bound volumes, varying from 200 – 400 folios in length, and 29 files of loose-leaf papers of around 200 sheets each. The older bound volumes in particular are heavily used for research, by both internal departments and external researchers. Some were rebound by the College of Arms in 1983; however, many volumes are extremely fragile, for which reason they were a priority for cataloguing to help us increase accessibility whilst reducing unnecessary handling. This cataloguing work is also a first step in a longer-term project to digitise these core records to help us increase access whilst ensuring preservation.

The Chapter Minutes form part of a larger collection of Cathedral administrative records stretching back to the medieval period. A cathedral ‘chapter’ is a body of clergy and lay advisors, led by the cathedral dean, who assist the bishop of a diocese with the running of the cathedral church. The unique name derives its origin from the literal ‘chapter’ of the monastic rule which would be read out daily during the assembly of a group of canons or other clergy attached to a cathedral or collegiate church, which later came to be used to refer to the group of clergy itself. Chapters are made up of ordained residentiary canons (clerics attached to a cathedral and bound by its rules or canons) - the precentor, the chancellor and the treasurer – as well as honorary canons and, in recent times, lay canons who as a wider body advise the dean on matters relating to their specific areas of expertise – for example, finance. The smaller group of residentiary canons and dean together form the primary executive body of the cathedral with the final say over the most significant matters.

The records of the meetings of the Cathedral Chapter that survive to this day together form a discrete series which dates back to 1411 and patchily cover the ensuing centuries up to 1821. Following a further gap between the years 1821 and 1831, for which records have been lost, minutes are preserved with much greater consistency, continuing more or less entirely unbroken throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Possibly most significantly from a research perspective, they run parallel in date to the decorative and design records of the Architectural Archive and provide an additional insight into many of the key decisions taken regarding the Cathedral fabric and decoration during the mid to late-19th century, as well as an invaluable record of the Cathedral’s response to events of the 20th century. As such, this collection deserves to be recognised as the most significant record of the administration of the Cathedral and its evolving role and significance in British life.

Exploring the core records of the Cathedral administration

The Chapter Minutes are a small collection with hidden complexities. The Minute Books do not follow on from each other in a single line chronologically as one might expect. Rather, for a period of around 90 years between 1870 and 1960, separate volumes of minutes are maintained for the Annual and Saturday/Wednesday meetings of Chapter respectively, with two volumes often running in parallel to one another. Typically, there would be a weekly meeting of Chapter (held on Saturdays, or, towards the end of the 20th century, on the 1st Wednesday of every month) which would be attended by the smaller, core executive group of ‘Lesser Chapter’ – the dean, treasurer, precentor and chancellor, sometimes with the archdeacon or Cathedral Registrar in attendance, whilst annual meetings would be attended by all of the prebendaries (an honorary canon role), which when taken together with Lesser Chapter make the full or ‘Greater’ Chapter.

This makes for a confusing picture, with a single volume covering up to 50 years, and gives an impression of duplication. However, where records overlap in date, it is important to note that the minutes will have differing emphases and levels of detail. From the late 70s (SPC/CM/11), the records of meetings assume a more linear shape, and meetings, along with their minutes, appear more consistently detailed, with volumes or files typically covering a maximum of two to three years. The volumes have been entered into the catalogue broadly chronologically, but it is noted when volumes are found to follow on from one another, as in the cases of CM/2, 4 and 6 and CM/3 and 8.

Regardless of the form or time of the meeting, all are minuted and authorised via signature by the dean or his assigned proxy at the following meeting (as we see during the period 1886 – 91 when Dean Church granted Reverend Robert Gregory (later dean) the right by proxy “to summon and preside at meetings of Chapter during the absence of the Dean” for medical reasons). In 1981, mid-monthly meetings were also instituted following the newly-established All Staff Meeting, specifically timed to address any issues raised by Cathedral staff – an interesting development, and it is also around this time that the Minute Book is abandoned in favour of the Twinlock folder, typescript having already begun to replace manuscript entries from 1936 onwards (prior to this, entries were typed and pasted into the book). This development is unsurprising perhaps, but is a noteworthy milestone in a continuous records series lasting more than a century. Agenda items are numbered and indexed with reasonable consistency and accuracy, though incompleteness and errors are present, and a philosophical attitude towards research will be helpful.

The Chapter Minutes prior to 1832 are likely to be less revealing to the inquisitive reader, being predominantly concerned with the granting and renewal of leases of chapter property, and the identities of those present at a given meeting. Whilst chapter is always concerned with matters of liturgical, business and property administration, the minutes of later years are notably more varied and cover a range of important topics, largely due to the impacts of two world conflicts and the increasing demands of the mid-to-late 20th century – thus we see regularly-occurring agenda items – for example, audits, accounts, budgets, surveyor’s reports, the choir school – interspersed with discussion and decisions around matters of internal and national crisis or significance, such as Chapter’s addresses to the monarch on the occasions of royal births, marriages and deaths; planning to mark the new millennium; the reintroduction of and subsequent increases to the entrance fee; the development and control of Cathedral branding and copyright, and earlier investigations into providing wheelchair access - providing an insight into chapter’s shifting priorities and evolving modes of governance. Entries for regular meetings range from the brief – giving merely a list of attendees, a comment on attendance (“Attendance fair”, “Attendance poor”) and confirmation of approval of the previous meeting’s minutes – to the extremely detailed and lengthy records of annual meetings, especially where a significant issue has arisen, or if supplementary items presented to chapter are copied out or interleaved in their entirety. 

The first Minute Book in the series (SPC/CM/1) tells a story of rescue and recovery that is rather apt for a Cathedral that had risen out of the flames of the city a century before. It is comprised of a combination of transcripts and original entries: the minutes dating from 19th July 1847 onwards are the original entries, whilst entries dating from June 1832 to July 1847 are a transcript of an earlier Minute Book damaged by fire in early 1847 – the volume presumably too badly damaged to be retained. A memorandum on the first page of the volume informs the reader of this, whilst an initialled note added by Chapter Clerk Christopher Hodgson states “Note where the Transcript is imperfect, the original was rendered illegible by fire.” The memorandum records that the fire that caused the damage broke out on January 2nd 1847. We can’t be sure of the cause or precise location, but we can surmise that it was probably one of several contained outbreaks in the times of pre-electric heating and lighting within the Cathedral – something the irrepressible Sydney Smith sought to address with the introduction of a water system for tackling fire in the Cathedral building – though the success of this endeavour is perhaps questionable given that during this time Smith also installed a stove in the Library.

This first volume of minutes is especially interesting. It runs from 1832 to 1860 and covers a period of significant upheaval and active reform, led by both chapter and church in the wake of the successes of parliamentary reform. Arguably the most far-reaching reform imposed on the Cathedral was that of the Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Act which, in 1840, transferred the income received from prebendal estates from the Cathedral to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (which had been given permanent status in 1836) to help boost parish and diocesan funds, whilst at the same time limiting the number of minor canons to six and capping the income of the dean. At the same time, however, the Cathedral was pursuing reforms of its own led by Sydney Smith and Dean Edward Copleston, which included expensive improvements to the provisions for choristers and the Choir School premises (championed by the redoubtable Maria Hackett) and increased scrutiny and control of the performance of the roles of the Vicars Choral, Virgers and Minor Canons.

The minutes of this long period of reform also serve to show how squarely St Paul’s was in the sights of the radicals and reformers seated a short distance upriver in Parliament, both literally and figuratively - as well as how important tourism was then, as now, to the Cathedral purse. In July 1837, Whig MP Lord John Russell proposed that the Cathedral and certain other establishments “be open to the public at certain appointed times without the payment of any fee in order that they may view the works of art contained in it,” the intention being to encourage engagement in the arts and access to the memorials to notable individuals that were thought to be “conducive to moral edification”, in the hope that this would broaden the electorate.

At the time, a charge of two pence was levied and paid to the Virgers, in return for which, during specific times outside the hours of worship, they would show visitors to the non-liturgical sections of the Cathedral, such as the Crypt, Galleries, Library, Bell, and the Ball and Cross at the top of the Dome. Chapter pushed back strongly, but did eventually agree to extend the opening hours for tourists by an hour; however, the issue remained a contentious one, with a Select Committee being set up on the issue in 1841 and a range of opinions being expressed around the problems of opening to the public and the implications for worship and liturgy, even though worship at this point was still effectively limited to the Quire. The issue was still being raised and debated in 1845, largely because dispensing with fees would have required another source of income for the Cathedral at a time when the number of paying visitors was expected to be quite high owing to the impending Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. The running costs of the Cathedral would still, at this point, be financed by the proceeds from the landed estates controlled by the chapter, but a chapter decision in 1871 changed this system of finance, and visitor income became increasingly more important over the next century and beyond.