Talk Report: 2016-04-13

Downside Abbey by Dr Tim Hopkinson Ball

Many of us know little of Downside Abbey and its history, so it was with especial interest that we heard a talk on Wednesday 13th April by Dr Tim Hopkinson Ball, who has been working at Downside over the last eight years as Archivist with the Abbey’s remarkable collection.

We were given a brief history of the Abbey and its foundation. In 1660 the Catholic faith was no longer welcome in England so the monks set up their new foundation of St Gregory the Great in Douai in the Spanish Netherlands (now northern France). Here they worked peacefully for nearly two hundred years - building, working, teaching and praying and also acquiring a large library. By 1795 the French Revolution had made all this impossible. Their faith was an anathema to the new regime. With nearly all their great library destroyed, the monks were lucky to escape back to England with just the books and manuscripts that they could carry.

After a brief stay in Shropshire, in the house of an old pupil, the monks decided to set up a purpose built monastery and church near the fashionable city of Bath. Here they could continue with the education and preaching which are at the heart of the Benedictine ministry. The community settled at Downside in 1814 and by 1823 had opened a chapel and new school buildings; designed in the Gothic style to recall the medieval monastic life.

We were shown images of the various buildings in which the monks still live and work. The cloister has four sides; two in 19th century neo Gothic style, with carved stone arches and encaustic tiles, and in dramatic contrast, two built with the stark brick and concrete of last century’s taste.

Plans for a great new Abbey Church began in 1840 and work continued on and off for the next hundred years. It is an astounding building, keeping a coherent whole although constructed under the supervision of several different architects, including Ninian Comper and Giles Gilbert Scott. Although it was lacking a complete west front the church was consecrated in 1935. The building is still unfinished but is considered to be one of England’s great neo-Gothic churches. There are several impressive monuments in the Abbey to local dignitaries as well as saints. The Abbey is open to the public and we were encouraged to visit and see for ourselves.

The talk ended with a description of the Library. This is a modern building, sometimes likened to a massive screw and nut, which has caused both admiration and criticism. It contains at least 500,000 items, including many very rare books and manuscripts. Dr Tim’s work as archivist, funded by the National Lottery, is involved with all these: books, periodicals, manuscripts and archives of both the school and the English Benedictine Congregation. There are also fascinating photographs and diaries of the monks dating back to the very early days of the foundation at Downside. New discoveries are being made all the time and it is exciting work.

We saw a photograph of the chaotic piles of papers and manuscripts which greeted him on arrival eight years ago and another of the orderly shelves of specially made boxes which now systematically store the invaluable collections. There were many questions from the audience and Tim was thanked for his clear and extremely interesting talk.