Honour for architect of St Michael’s College, Leeds
St Michael’s College in Leeds – a Jesuit school from 1905 until the 1970s – has been given a new lease of life as a residential block of studio apartments, principally for key workers such as hospital staff, police, charity workers and the fire service. And next month, a Blue Plaque will be unveiled to commemorate the College and its architect, Benedict Williamson.
St Michael's (known by the pupils as St Mick’s) was founded in September 1905, after the Jesuits were invited to provide a Catholic education in the city by the Bishop of Leeds, William Gordon. Two young priests divided the city between them into north and south and painstakingly knocked on doors, encouraging Catholic families to send their sons to the new school, originally called Leeds Catholic College.
The College started its life as a fee-paying grammar school for boys, taking pupils from Harrogate, York, Bradford and Selby, as well as Leeds itself. It moved onto the site that was to be its home for the next 97 years in 1908: the buildings were designed by architect Benedict Williamson, who later became a parish priest himself (though not a Jesuit) in London. Catholic girls in the area were taught in nearby Notre Dame school.
Neo-gothic style architecture
Having now been developed as Clarendon Quarter, the original main entrance of what was St Michael’s College has been retained, with stone steps leading up to a grand front door. Arched windows on the front of the building flood the new studios and central areas with light. The residential accommodation also includes a gym and lounges for residents and visitors, including the Benedict's Lounge, named after the building's architect.
Benedict Williamson was responsible for the dominant neo-gothic style architecture of St Michael's College on St John's Road, situated on a hilltop in the Hyde Park area of Leeds. Born in London in 1868 and originally named William Edward, Williamson was received into the Catholic Church in 1896 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street. After his ordination to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Southwark in 1909, he continued to work as an architect, designing St Ignatius Church in Stamford Hill, North London, among many others.
Cheerful banter and illicit football
On 27 April 2017, St Michael’s College alumnus Robin Smith, who is a Board Member of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, will unveil a plaque in Benedict Williamson's memory. The last alumnus of St Mick's to enter the Society of Jesus was Dr Michael Kirwan SJ, who is now the Director of the Heythrop Institute: Religion and Society and also lectures in the Department of Pastoral and Social Studies at Heythrop College in London. "I was there 1970-1977," he recalls, "after the Society had handed the College over to lay control, though leaving SJ chaplains in place. I can't say that the architectural merits of the college buildings particularly impressed me, so I look forward to revisiting the site to see what memories surface. The College was adjacent to Leeds Grammar school, which made for much cheerful banter through the dividing railings. I appreciated the College’s location: reasonably close to the city centre, to the university quarter, and to a large park, Woodhouse Moor, where much illicit football was played during the summer term (compensating for the inconvenient out-of-town location of the college sports grounds, to which we were bussed once a week)."
Leeds Civic Trust set up its Historic Plaques Scheme in 1987 to promote public awareness of the heritage of the city of Leeds. Over 150 Blue Plaques have already been unveiled and the Trust says it is delighted that Clarendon Quarter will soon have its very own to commemorate the work of Benedict Williamson, the architect of Saint Michael's College.
Major changes to the College during its 100-year history included a 1960s extension of science labs, gym and main hall; its first lay head teacher was appointed in 1970, when the Jesuits left the school. By the early 1990s, the school had evolved as a comprehensive for boys and girls. It officially closed in 2005, although the buildings were taken over temporarily by Mount St Mary's School. For a time, St George's Crypt, a Leeds homeless charity, used the site, until it was abandoned in 2010.