Religious History
Roman Catholicism

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Victoria County History

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W.B. Stephens (Editor)

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1964

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397-402

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'Religious History: Roman Catholicism', A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7: The City of Birmingham (1964), pp. 397-402. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22977 Date accessed: 20 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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ROMAN CATHOLICISM (fn. 1)

There have always been adherents of the Roman Catholic faith in the parishes which form the modern city of Birmingham, though until recently they never formed more than a small fraction of the population. In the first centuries after the Reformation several families among the local gentry were consistently or occasionally Roman Catholic. Humphrey Middlemore, a Carthusian executed under Henry VIII, was probably a member of the Middlemore family of Edgbaston, (fn. 2) and Richard Middlemore (d. 1647) (fn. 3) and Robert his son were both popish recusants. (fn. 4) Robert's daughter and eventual heir (fn. 5) married another papist, Sir John Gage, (fn. 6) who subscribed to the building of the Franciscan chapel at Birmingham in 1687, (fn. 7) and whose presence may well have determined the removal of the mission to Edgbaston. The Edgbaston branch of the family died out before the end of the 17th century, but a younger one remained in King's Norton until the 19th. (fn. 8) Some at least of its members were Roman Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries, (fn. 9) and apparently as late as 1819. (fn. 10) The wife of Robert Stanford (Stamford) (d. 1607), of Perry Hall in Handsworth, was a recusant. (fn. 11) Edward Stanford, who sold the Handsworth property in 1659, and other members of the family appear to have been Roman Catholics. (fn. 12) Some of the Buch family of Harborne were popish recusants in the 17th century. (fn. 13) Robert Gower of Colmers, King's Norton, was a recusant in 1648 (fn. 14) and his grandson and his wife were Roman Catholic non-jurors in 1715. (fn. 15)

The religious beliefs of these families are likely to have influenced those of their servants and dependents, but the actual numbers of Roman Catholics at any time cannot be ascertained. The nature of the records, which do not always distinguish between popish and Protestant recusants, as well as their incompleteness, make close estimates impossible. In 1592-3, according to the first recusant roll, Handsworth, Northfield and Yardley contained four recusants each, and King's Norton ten: (fn. 16) none of the Warwickshire parishes is included in the roll. During the 17th century there were occasional presentments for recusancy, which was sometimes specifically popish. Five persons from Harborne were presented in 1608 and 1609, (fn. 17) and seventeen from Yardley in 1635 and 1642. (fn. 18) Popish recusants presented in Warwickshire between 1679 and 1682 included 15 from Aston, 12 from Birmingham, and 13 from Edgbaston. (fn. 19) Bishop Compton's Census of 1676 records 101 papists out of a population of 502 in Handsworth, 11 out of 2,623 in Birmingham, 13 out of 1,531 in Aston, 19 out of 1,082 in King's Norton, 6 out of 309 in Northfield, and 4 out of 168 at Yardley. No papists in Sheldon were recorded, and there are no figures at all for Harborne or Edgbaston. (fn. 20) While the Handsworth figure seems to be an over-estimate, the other parishes are likely to have had rather more Roman Catholic inhabitants than were enumerated. By the time that Compton's Census was compiled a Franciscan had been ministering in the neighbourhood for nearly twenty years, and another priest was tried in 1679 for celebrating mass in and around Oscott. The Franciscan was Leo Randolph, who came to the area in 1657 and made Birmingham the official seat of his mission in 1687. (fn. 21) In that year a cruciform chapel dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, with side chapels to St. Francis and the Virgin, was built in Masshouse Lane. The 342 subscriptions included timber from the king and from Sir John Gage worth respectively £180 and £190, and several small gifts from Protestants. Altogether £1,360 12s. 8d. were given in money, materials, and furnishings. In March 1688 a convent was also begun, only to be burnt with the church the next November. Randolph said that the destruction was accomplished by the rabble at the instigation of Lord Delamere, while the 'better sort' looked on. (fn. 22) According to tradition Randolph thereafter said mass for a short time in Smallbrook Street, but he soon retired to Edgbaston where he established another chapel. This was later said to have been in a rented building on the site of the Edgbaston workhouse, and to have been moved later to a farmhouse further from the centre of the village. (fn. 23) From 1688 a fairly continuous succession of priests served the mission, and from 1725 a school was attached to it. This was transferred to Baddesley Clinton later in the century, probably when the mission was moved back to Birmingham. (fn. 24)

The Franciscans' records of baptisms, conversions, confirmations, marriages, and deaths, indicate roughly the strength of Roman Catholicism in the area. (fn. 25) Between 1658 and 1700 the list of reconciliati includes 288 from the parishes of the modern city. Of these 107 were said to belong to Edgbaston, 96 to Birmingham, 28 to King's Norton, 25 to Harborne, 17 to Yardley, 7 to Handsworth, 6 to Northfield, 2 to Aston, and none to Sheldon. The largest number of persons from any one parish to be baptized between 1657 and 1699 was 87 from Edgbaston. Between 1708 and 1750 another 99 were baptized, while the corresponding figures for Birmingham were 30 and 75. From 1750 to 1785 356 people from Birmingham were baptized, in contrast to only 70 in Edgbaston. The striking increase in numbers in Birmingham must however be related to the growth in the total population of the town in the 18th century. (fn. 26) In 1877 it was said that few converts were made in Birmingham after the mission left the town in 1688, and that the Catholic population consisted of eight or ten families who went to mass at Edgbaston. By 1780, according to the same writer, there were about 17 principal Catholic families in Birmingham and five in Harborne and Edgbaston. (fn. 27) In 1781 Hutton said that the Edgbaston mission had a numerous congregation, chiefly living in Birmingham. (fn. 28) They were, however, apparently not numerous enough to excite any serious anti-Catholic outburst in 1780 in sympathy with the Gordon riots. (fn. 29) Apart from Edgbaston the only other parish in the area which the Franciscan records show to have had a significant number of Catholics was Harborne, which had 57, 14 and 48 baptisms in the three periods mentioned above (1657-99, 1708-50, 1750-85). (fn. 30) It must be remembered that from the middle of the 18th century the Catholics in the south-west of the modern city area were probably cared for by the new mission at Solihull, while those in the north had a priest at Oscott almost throughout the period.

The Oscott mission was founded by a priest named Andrew Bromwich, who was tried in 1679 for celebrating mass in the neighbourhood. (fn. 31) One witness alleged that he had given communion to eight or nine people on four occasions. (fn. 32) Bromwich was later released and returned to Oscott. After he died in 1701 there was a fairly continuous succession of priests. Soon after 1752 a house was built at Oscott which was intended to be the residence of the vicar apostolic of the midlands. A new chapel was added to the buildings in 1788, but the vicar apostolic never seems to have lived there, and for some years before 1785 the house was occupied by a Roman Catholic private school. In 1794 the mission priest began to take pupils studying for ordination and this really constitutes the foundation of Oscott College. (fn. 33)

In the meantime the Franciscans had once again established a mission in the town of Birmingham. In 1786 Father Nutt of Edgbaston collected a fund of £312 and built a church in Broad Street. It was dedicated to St. Peter and was designed to look like a factory so that it should not attract too much attention. (fn. 34) The mission returned from Edgbaston when the church opened and thereafter the number of Roman Catholics in the town seems to have increased steadily. Two hundred and eight people from Birmingham itself had been baptized by 1794, (fn. 35) and in 1795 the Birmingham Roman Catholic Friendly Society was founded. Nutt died in 1799 and a succession of Franciscans then came over from Baddesley to serve the church. By 1806 the congregation was demanding a second priest. As the Franciscans refused either to give up the mission or to appoint an assistant a new and independent chapel was established in Water Street under a secular priest. At first it was only supported by the eight or nine families who had led the secession from St. Peter's. By 1808 the congregation had grown and the chapel was moved to Shadwell Street. Soon after it became known as St. Chad's. (fn. 36) There is said to have been one other centre of Roman Catholicism in the Birmingham area between 1819 and 1822: according to tradition a priest travelling between Baddesley and Birmingham used to stay and say mass occasionally at a Roman Catholic private school in Acock's Green. (fn. 37)

In 1824 the Franciscans finally gave up St. Peter's. T. M. McDonnell, the secular who was thereupon appointed to the mission, immediately raised a fund to repair the chapel, and in 1826 purchased some adjoining land as a graveyard. (fn. 38) St. Chad's received a second priest in 1832 and a third in 1839. By this time Thomas Walsh, the vicar apostolic of the midland district, had chosen St. Chad's to be a cathedral. (fn. 39) McDonnell, who had been conducting St. Peter's mission with great energy, (fn. 40) attacked the project with such animosity that he was dismissed, not without embarrassment, in 1841. (fn. 41) St. Chad's chapel was demolished in 1839 and the new cathedral, to which Walsh contributed nearly £14,000, (fn. 42) was opened in 1841. It was designed by A. W. N. Pugin who presented it with what was said to have been the first image of the Virgin to be set up in England for public veneration after the Reformation. (fn. 43)

In 1840 the later Cardinal Wiseman became Walsh's auxiliary and President of Oscott College. Under Wiseman Oscott entered its most influential period. In 1838 (fn. 44) it had moved about a mile and a half eastwards to new and larger buildings, also partly designed by Pugin and named St. Mary's College. (fn. 45) At this time Oscott comprised not only a theological college but a public school which drew its pupils from the whole country. (fn. 46) It was the seat of the first provincial synod of Westminster in 1852. (fn. 47) Newman's conversion took place while Wiseman was at Oscott, and it was on Wiseman's invitation that Newman and his fellow-converts settled at the former college buildings at Old Oscott, which they renamed Maryvale. Wiseman moved to London in 1848, but the plan that Newman and his friends should establish an Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham was nevertheless carried out. The first Oratory in England was therefore opened in Alcester Street in 1849. It was moved to Edgbaston in 1852 and there, apart from a few years in the fifties, Newman spent the rest of his life. (fn. 48)

The Oratorians' church in Alcester Street was kept open after they went to Edgbaston, and new chapels were opened at Park Street and Nechells at about the same time. (fn. 49) There was also a chapel to which the laity were admitted at St. Mary's Convent in Handsworth. (fn. 50) This belonged to the Sisters of Mercy who were thus the first order to establish a house in Birmingham. The convent was built by John Hardman, choirmaster of St. Chad's, whose daughter became first superioress. In 1843 a fourth priest was appointed to St. Chad's in order to serve the convent chapel. (fn. 51) The orphanage maintained by the nuns was moved to Maryvale in 1851, and a second house was opened in the centre of the town in 1847. Further out of Birmingham Maryvale and New Oscott provided services for the laity, and a mission was started at Erdington about 1839. (fn. 52) In the south-west, priests from Solihull said mass for some years at Hall Green. (fn. 53) Most of the missions had poor schools (fn. 54) and there were convent schools at Handsworth and Camp Hill as well as a few Roman Catholic private schools. (fn. 55) By the mid-19th century Birmingham was in fact becoming 'an important centre of Roman Catholicism'. (fn. 56)

The political issues connected with legal restrictions on Catholics have been dealt with above as they were reflected in Birmingham. (fn. 57) On the whole there was very little Protestant opposition to the development of Catholic church organization in Birmingham in the 19th century. T. M. McDonnell conducted a series of public debates with the Baptist minister John Burnet, at Mount Zion Chapel. (fn. 58) He also published a Catholic magazine for some years, (fn. 59) claimed to have been instrumental in abolishing church rates in Birmingham, (fn. 60) and was a prominent supporter of parliamentary reform, attending public dinners and political meetings in support of the Liberals. (fn. 61) When he was dismissed some Protestants interceded for him, saying that the good relations between Catholics and Protestants in the town were largely his creation. (fn. 62) The Roman Catholic church in Ireland was attacked at a public meeting in the town hall in 1835, (fn. 63) and in 1848 there was a brush between the Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy of Birmingham about the burning of a child's bible by a priest from St. Chad's. (fn. 64) Apart from these two incidents all seems to have been peaceful before the hierarchy was established in 1850. Several of the Anglican clergy, led by J. C. Miller of St. Martin's, then gave a series of lectures against the pope's action (fn. 65) and a public meeting was held in the town hall. (fn. 66) It lasted for six hours and as many as twelve or fourteen thousand people were estimated to have attended. Many of the speeches on both sides were drowned in shouts and applause and the original anti-papal motion and the amendment were apparently each lost on a show of hands. (fn. 67)

When the hierarchy was established Birmingham became the seat of a bishopric comprising Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Oxfordshire. A cathedral chapter was set up at St. Chad's in 1852. It consisted of a provost and ten canons, most of whom were non-resident. (fn. 68) The first bishop of Birmingham was William Bernard Ullathorne. He had become vicar apostolic in 1848 when Walsh and Wiseman were together transferred to London. Ullathorne was at Birmingham for 28 years and during that time he virtually created the diocesan administration. (fn. 69) The first synod was held at St. Chad's in 1853 and in the next two years he undertook his first canonical visitation. As early as 1849 he had declared his intention of establishing a sound system of diocesan finance and of repaying the heavy debts which his predecessors had left. This was eventually accomplished but not before he and the President of Oscott had been imprisoned for debt in respect of their holdings as trustees in a bankrupt company. (fn. 70) Between 1850 and Ullathorne's retirement in 1888 missions were established in Birmingham and Harborne, the small Park Street mission was moved to the former New Meeting, and the mortuary chapel at Nechells became a full church with a resident priest. (fn. 71) One mission was served by a house of Passionists and another by Benedictines. The English mother house of the Sisters of Charity of St. Paul was settled in Selly Park, and there were several other houses of the order. (fn. 72) Three other women's orders had founded houses in Birmingham since 1850 and soon after Ullathorne died the Third Order of Dominican Nuns of Stone, which he had himself founded, (fn. 73) set up a house at Erdington. (fn. 74) All the missions had schools, some of which were managed by nuns, and there were several convent schools as well as the boys' public school at the Oratory. Although Ullathorne opposed the Education Act of 1870, (fn. 75) the Roman Catholics were not without influence in its administration in Birmingham: as a result of 'plumping' by Catholic voters their representative headed the poll at the first school board election. (fn. 76)

Ullathorne's episcopate did not pass without some strife. For a time the Irish immigrants in the town were restive under the bishop's forceful condemnation of Fenianism and in 1867 Birmingham suffered its last and strongest outbreak of nopopery. This was provoked by the notorious agitator William Murphy who was then touring the midlands. The mayor refused him the use of the town hall and a wooden 'tabernacle' was erected in Carrs Lane for his meeting. Irish Catholics besieged it the first day and on the next a Protestant crowd retaliated and the Riot Act had to be read. In fact little damage was done to Catholic property though a few windows were broken at St. Chad's and armed Catholics kept guard there and at St. Mary's Convent. Later in the year Ullathorne became involved in the great 'nunnery scandal' in which it was alleged that a nun had been imprisoned in a Birmingham convent. When the story was disproved there was a popular reaction in favour of the Roman Catholics and during the parliamentary elections next year three cheers were given in New Street for 'the Pope of Rome'. (fn. 77) The acceptance of the Catholics' position in Birmingham was demonstrated in 1889 when the mayor, town clerk, and several aldermen attended Ullathorne's funeral. (fn. 78)

The history of Roman Catholicism in Birmingham since Ullathorne's death is mainly one of expansion. One notable and controversial change of policy was made by Edward Ilsley almost immediately after he succeeded Ullathorne. Ilsley closed both the public school at Oscott and the diocesan seminary which his predecessor had established at Olton in 1867, and restricted Oscott to theological students from the diocese. (fn. 79) He was deeply interested in Oscott and remained rector for several years after he became bishop. (fn. 80) In 1911 Birmingham became an archbishopric, with subordinate sees at Clifton, Newport, Plymouth, and Shrewsbury. Ilsley was the first archbishop and has been succeeded by John McIntyre (1921-8), T. L. Williams (1929-46), Joseph Masterton (1946-53), and F. J. Grimshaw, who was translated from Plymouth in 1954. Most of the densely populated parts of the city had missions by the First World War, and most of the churches established since then have been in the new housing areas. Of the 34 missions in existence in 1954 only five had fewer than two resident priests and about half had three or more. Regular clergy cared for three parishes, namely Harborne (Passionists), Erdington (Redemptorists), and Alcester Street (Oblates of Mary Immaculate). Apart from the Oratorians six men's and thirteen women's orders were represented in the city, some by more than one house. During the 20th century the only issue on which there has been organized conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Birmingham has been that of education. The opening of Catholic state-aided schools has several times been opposed by ratepayers or by the education committee, but the schools have generally been provided in the end. (fn. 81) By 1954 there were 9 all-age state-aided schools, 19 primary schools, 6 secondary modern schools, and a boys' and a girls' grammar school, in addition to 5 convent schools and 3 other independent schools. (fn. 82) Eleven more schools had been opened by 1961. Since the Second World War there has been a great influx of Roman Catholics to Birmingham from Ireland and from Eastern Europe. Archbishop Masterson strongly opposed the official encouragement of Irish immigration because he considered that inadequate social and religious amenities were available. Nevertheless one of the most striking developments in the work of the Roman Catholic church in the city has been its work in caring for those immigrants who have arrived. (fn. 83)

Footnotes

1 This section was completed in 1954 with minor additions up to 1961.
2 W. P. W. Phillimore and W. F. Carter, Some Acct. of family of Middlemore (priv. print. 1901), 42-43.
3 P. B. Chatwin, 'Edgbaston', T.B.A.S. xxxix. 7; Staffs. Incumbents and Par. Recs. 1530-1680 (Coll. Hist. Staffs. 1915), 122-3.
4 Cal. Cttee. for Compounding, 2367, 2923, 3035.
5 See pp. 67-68.
6 Warws. Co. Recs. vii, pp. lxxiv-lxxv.
7 Warws. Par. Registers, ii (Franciscan Register, pt. 1), ed. W. P. W. Phillimore and others, 6.
8 V.C.H. Worcs. iii. 184.
9 Recusant Roll, 1592-3 (Cath. Rec. Soc. xviii), 356; Cal. Cttee. for Compounding, 1421; Eng. Cath. Nonjurors of 1715, ed. E. E. Estcourt and J. O. Payne, 292.
10 Warws. Par. Regs. ii. 3 et passim.
11 Recusant Roll, 1592-3, 303.
12 Cal. Cttee. for Compounding, 89, 112, 1192, 1916, 2513, 2991.
13 Staffs. Quarter Sessions Rolls, 1608-9 (Coll. Hist. Staffs. 1948-9), 164; Cal. Cttee. for Compounding, 89, 1649, 2080.
14 Cal. Cttee. for Compounding, 1857.
15 Eng. Cath. Nonjurors of 1715, 247, 248, 292.
16 Recusant Rolls 1592-3, 303, 306, 357, 361, 362, 364, 366, 368, 369.
17 Staffs. Q. Sess. R. 1608-9, 112, 164.
18 Worcs. Quarter Sessions Papers, 1591-1643 (Worcs. Hist. Soc. 1900), pp. ccviii, ccxiv.
19 Warws. Co. Recs. vii, pp. xcvi, xcvii, ci.
20 Bp. Compton's Census (Wm. Salt Libr., Stafford), pp. 131, 132, 371, 376.
21 Warws. Par. Regs. ii. 1-2.
22 Ibid. 4-16; see p. 272.
23 W. Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's (1877), 174.
24 Warws. Par. Regs. ii. 2, where 1789 is given as the date of removal. The mission, however, had moved to Birm. in 1786: see below.
25 These figures are drawn from Warws. Par. Regs. ii and iii (Franciscan Register pts. 1 and 2). They are all minimum numbers since place of residence is not always given and only those persons specifically said to come from one of the parishes concerned (i.e. Aston, Birm., Edgbaston, Handsworth, Harborne, King's Norton, Northfield, Sheldon, Yardley) have been counted. In the case of baptisms, the place of baptism has not been counted as the place of residence.
26 See pp. 7-8.
27 Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's, 17-18.
28 Hutton, Hist. Birm. (1781), 121-2.
29 See p. 279.
30 Numbers of baptisms for the other parishes in the three periods are Aston, 1, 2, 19; Handsworth, 2, 0, 27; King's Norton, 17, 7, 13; Northfield, 1, 3, 7; Sheldon, none; Yardley, 9, 2, 1.
31 J. Gillow, Bibliog. Dict. of Eng. Caths. i. 310.
32 Hackwood, Handsworth Old and New, 43.
33 Gillow, op. cit. 310-12; Cath. Calendar and Dir. of Archdiocese of Birm. (1912); R. H. Kiernan, Story of Archdiocese of Birm. (West Bromwich [c. 1950]), 22; Cath. Rec. Soc. xiii. 289.
34 Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's, 18.
35 Warws. Par. Regs. ii. 96-120.
36 Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's, 19-30.
37 Cath. Cal. Dir. Archd. Birm. (1912).
38 Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's, 22.
39 Ibid. 30 sqq.
40 Laity's Dir. (1835); Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's, 23.
41 Case of the Revd. T. M. McDonnell, stated by himself in a series of letters (1842-4), passim.
42 See p. 407.
43 Cath. Cal. Dir. Archd. Birm. (1912).
44 E. C. Butler, Life of Ullathorne, i. 60; Cath. Cal. Dir. Archd. Birm. (1912).
45 Kiernan, Story of Archdiocese of Birm. 22; D.N.B.; see p. 49.
46 Wilfred Ward, Life of Wiseman, i. 345-8; Butler, Life of Ullathorne, 180 sqq.
47 Almanack for Dioc. Birm. 1885, 48.
48 Ward, Life of Wiseman, i. 437-65; ii. 207; see pp. 403, 406, 407, 409.
49 See pp. 405, 408, 409.
50 See pp. 405, 408.
51 Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's, 24.
52 See pp. 405, 409.
53 See p. 406.
54 See pp. 501, 529, 531, 533, 534.
55 Laity's Dir. (1835-49).
56 Gill, Hist. Birm. 375. For a comparison of the size of C. of E., R.C., and noncomformist congregations in Birm. in the second half of the 19th cent. see p. 427.
57 See pp. 293-4.
58 Authentic rep. of discussion between Rev. J. Burnet and Rev. T. M. McDonnell, 1827.
59 Greaney, Guide to St. Chad's, 23.
60 Case of Rev. T. M. McDonnell stated by himself (1842-4), 29-31.
61 Gill, Hist. Birm. 234, 275.
62 Hist. of St. Chad's, compiled by the Cathedral Clergy (1904), 9.
63 Full rep. of gt. protestant meeting at the Town Hall, Birm. on Nov. 23, 1835.
64 J. C. Barrett, Protestant Bible burnt; J. C. Miller, Bible-burning.
65 Kiernan, Story of Archdioc. Birm. 40.
66 The Catholic Question: Rep. of Gt. Town's Meeting in Town Hall, Birm. 1850.
67 Hist. of St. Chad's (1904), 34-35.
68 Almanack for Dioc. Birm. 1885; Kiernan, Story of Archdioc. Birm. 43.
69 Tablet, 30 Mar. 1889, p. 502.
70 Butler, Life of Ullathorne, i. 165-87; ii. 193.
71 See pp. 407, 408, 409.
72 See pp. 403, 404, 408, 409.
73 Butler, Life of Ullathorne, ii. 178 sqq.
74 See pp. 403, 404, 405.
75 Butler, Life of Ullathorne, i. 180; ii. 144-5.
76 Hist. of St. Chad's (1904), 50-51; see p. 492.
77 Butler, Life of Ullathorne, ii. 141, 164-77.
78 Tablet, 30 Mar. 1889, p. 502.
79 Butler, Life of Ullathorne, ii. 180-9.
80 The Times, 2 Dec. 1926, p. 9.
81 See, e.g. Tablet, 2 July 1921, p. 26; Sunday Times, 6 May 1956, p. 8.
82 Cath. Dir. of Archdiocese of Birm. (1954).
83 Tablet, 5 Dec. 1953, p. 558.