Category Archives: Victorian Architecture

Nottingham London Road Low Level

Former Great Northern Railway: Nottingham London Road Low Level Station

Former Great Northern Railway: Nottingham London Road Low Level Station

Britain’s railways are notoriously ill-organised, thanks to the Major government’s privatisation process of 1994-97, in which operating companies hired trains from rolling-stock companies and ran them on track owned by a nationalised entity.  (Sir John Major himself suggested simply reviving the “Big Four” grouping of 1922, which on reflection doesn’t seem such a bad idea compared with what we’re now stuck with.)

The early railway builders quickly dismissed the idea of having independent operators running on railway lines, like the eighteenth-century turnpikes, and Gladstone’s Railway Regulation Act of 1844 provided for the possibility of nationalising the railway system even as it was being built.

But the Victorians put their faith in competition, and Britain’s railways grew willy-nilly, leading to a confusion as profound as the 21st-century British rail system.

This is evident in Nottingham, where throughout the nineteenth century two competing railway companies, the Midland and the Great Northern, ran from separate stations a short distance away from each other, on Station Street and London Road respectively.

In 1879, under the auspices of the ponderously named Great Northern & London & North Western Joint Railway, a third company, the London & North Western Railway, began running passenger services into London Road Station and delivering goods to a purpose-built station at Sneinton.

Then in 1900, a fourth company, the Great Central, built the magnificent Victoria Station, which it shared with the Great Northern, in a cutting in the centre of town.

The Great Northern built a duplicate London Road station, which they named High Level, to distinguish it from their original station, latterly Low Level, which the L&NWR continued to use for their services to Market Harborough via Saxondale Junction, Bottesford and Melton Mowbray.

This absurdity continued until 1944, when the former L&NWR trains were diverted into Nottingham Midland and the Low Level station became a goods depot.

Much of this has since been swept away.  There is now only one station in Nottingham, the former Midland, though it serves trains run by three separate modern operating companies.  The lines into Low Level were taken up in the 1970s, and after a fire in 1996 Thomas Chambers Hine’s imposing 1857 building was restored and refurbished as a health club.

But it’s a mistake to think that the way we run British railways in the 21st century is any more bizarre than the travellers’ chaos that the Victorians created.

Traquair murals

St Peter's Parish Church, Clayworth, Nottinghamshire: Traquair Murals

St Peter’s Parish Church, Clayworth, Nottinghamshire: Traquair murals

When I visited Drakeholes to photograph the canal tunnel my curiosity was piqued by brown tourist road-signs marked ‘Traquair murals’ because I didn’t recognise the name.

That’s because I’m neither Scots nor a fine-art aficionado.

Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) was Irish by birth, an illustrator, jewellery designer and embroiderer whose mural painting was mostly done in Scotland.  Only two of her mural schemes are in England, and one of them is a couple of miles down the road from Drakeholes, at St Peter’s Church, Clayworth.

The church itself is interesting – built in the twelfth century, restored in 1874-5 by John Oldrid Scott, Grade I listed.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, who married a Scots palaeontologist, was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Scotland, and the first woman to be elected to the Royal Scottish Academy,

The Traquair Murals dated from 1904-5, and were restored by Elizabeth Hirst in 1996.  They were given by Lady D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne as a thank-offering for the safe return from the Boer War of her son, Captain Joseph Frederick Laycock DSO (1867-1952), of Wiseton Hall.  As Joe Laycock he competed for Britain in the 1908 Olympics with his friend the 2nd Duke of Westminster.

The murals cover all four walls of the chancel, illustrating in rich colours and gilding a comprehensive figurative scheme and incorporating portraits of local children:  several of the figures on the north wall, bringing gifts to the Christ Child, are members of the Laycock family, and some of the adjacent Angel Choir are actual choristers, including Tony Otter (1896-1986), who was Suffragan Bishop of Grantham from 1949 to 1965, and his cousin Jack Martin.

The murals are claimed, collectively, to be the largest artwork in eastern England.

Size doesn’t matter.  They’re beautiful, and worth seeking out in this gem of a church, set in the countryside between Bawtry and Gainsborough in north Nottinghamshire.

Clayworth stands on the B1403 road south of Gringley-on-the-Hill.  St Peter’s Church is open daily.

Holy Name of Jesus

Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Oxford Road, Manchester

The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Oxford Road, Manchester, stands as a symbol of permanence in an area that has seen huge changes since the parish was founded in middle of the nineteenth century.

In the decade after the Great Famine of 1845-49, thousands of Irish immigrants settled to the south of the River Medlock. 

The first Bishop of Salford, William Turner (1799-1872), invited the Society of Jesus to provide clergy for a new parish to be located in a temporary church in Burlington Street.  This structure, named Gesù after the Society’s mother-church in Rome, was opened on Easter Tuesday, April 4th 1868.

The foundation stone of what came to be called Holy Name Church was laid in June 1869. 

The shell of the building without interior fittings cost £14,000 and was opened on October 15th 1871.

The architect was Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803-1882), famed as the inventor of the ‘Patent Safety Cab’ that bears his name.  He designed Birmingham Town Hall (designed 1831-32, completed 1861).  His other major churches are Mount St Mary’s Church, Leeds (1851-57), St Walburge’s Church, Preston (1854), Plymouth Cathedral (1856-58) and Arundel Cathedral (1869-73). 

Built of brick, faced with Warwick Bridge stone outside and terracotta within, Hansom’s design is in fourteenth-century Gothic style. 

The façade is asymmetrical:  the baptistery with its conical roof extends to the south, and because of the street-layout the footprint is trapezoidal, so that the liturgical east end (actually north-east) is wider than the entrance.  This is disguised by the layout of chapels along the south aisle, which are balanced by confessionals, each with its own fireplace, to the north.

The nave is wide, light and spacious, reflecting the Jesuit preoccupation with preaching.  The rib-vault of hollow polygonal terracotta blocks by Gibbs & Canning Ltd of Tamworth is supported by slender columns.

J A Hansom intended a slender lantern and spire 240 feet high with twin windows and gables, but it was abandoned for fear of overburdening the foundations. 

Instead, a shorter, tapered tower was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963), younger brother of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Liverpool Cathedral.  It was completed at a cost of £17,000 in 1928.  Its carillon of bells was dedicated on October 13th 1931.

During the ministry of Fr Bernard Vaughan SJ (1847-1922, brother of Cardinal Henry Vaughan), the church had a powerful influence on the surrounding community. 

In the year 1900 the parish, with a population of 3,500, registered 25 converts, 125 baptisms, 2,850 Easter Communions and 32,815 confessions.  A bazaar in 1893 raised £7,350, supplemented by a donation of a thousand guineas by Sir Humphrey Trafford, then the owner of Trafford Park, and his friends. 

In 1895 the funeral of Sir Charles Hallé took place at Holy Name Church:  the cortège reached Weaste Cemetery four hours after the start of High Mass, which included a performance of the Mozart Requiem and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.

The removal of local families to outer-Manchester housing estates from the end of the 1920s, the upheavals of the Second World War and the post-war clearance of the surrounding streets radically changed the setting of Holy Name Church. 

The area became a collective campus for what are now the city’s three universities – the University of Manchester (formerly the Victoria University of Manchester), the Manchester Metropolitan University (previously Manchester Polytechnic) and the Royal Northern College of Music (founded by Sir Charles Hallé as the Royal Manchester School of Music).

The Jesuits moved away in 1985 and from 1992 the church was run by the brothers of an Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.  In 2003 the Oratorians moved to St Chad’s, Cheetham Hill, the mother-church of Manchester Catholics, and the Jesuits were invited back to Holy Name to run the Manchester Universities’ Catholic Chaplaincy: http://www.muscc.org.

A visit to the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Exploring Sydney: Necropolis Receiving Station

Necropolis Receiving Station, Chippendale, Sydney

Necropolis Receiving Station, Chippendale, Sydney

Just outside Sydney Central Station stands a high-quality Gothic structure which commuters pass without a second thought.

From the street, in an area called Chippendale, it’s more obvious and impressive.

It was built as the Necropolis Receiving Station, from where funerals departed by rail to the Rookwood Cemetery out at what was then Haslem’s Creek and is now called Lidcombe.

It was designed in Venetian Gothic style by the Colonial Architect, James Johnstone Barnet (1827-1904), a Scot who worked with the first generation of New South Wales architects – Edmund Thomas Blacket (1817-1883), William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899), both English, and the Canadian John Horbury Hunt (1838-1904).

The exceptionally fine carving was the work of Thomas Duckett Jnr (1839-1868) [https://www.daao.org.au/bio/thomas-duckett/biography] and Henry Apperly (1824-1887), both of them born in England.

Funeral trains began operating in April 1867.  Passengers were required to buy return tickets, but corpses travelled free.

Though rail-borne funerals practically ended in 1938 and the mortuary station became disused, a service for mourners continued from the main Central platforms through the Second World War until the cemetery railway was closed in 1948.

The station was subsequently renamed Regent Street Station and used to dispatch animals such as dogs and horses, and later as a parcel depot, until in the late 1980s it became an unlikely and ultimately unsuccessful pancake restaurant.

Subsequently it became an even less likely wedding venue.

Holy Angels

Church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, Staffordshire: chantry chapel

The Hon Mrs Emily Charlotte Meynell-Ingram (1840-1904) was one of the richest women in England, the widow of Hugo Francis Meynell-Ingram (1822-1871), whom she married in 1863.

From her husband she inherited substantial estates in Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, amounting to 25,000 acres including Temple Newsam, near Leeds, and Hoar Cross in east Staffordshire, ten miles west of Burton-on-Trent.

Her father-in-law died in 1869, shortly after he began building a new house at Hoar Cross to replace the Old Hall.  It was completed in 1871, the year that his son’s death in a hunting accident left his widow lonely and socially isolated.

Though the Mrs Meynell-Ingram preferred to spend time at Temple Newsam, she dealt with her bereavement by building Holy Angels’ Church at Hoar Cross, within a short walk of the Hall, so that her husband’s remains could be transferred from the parish church at Yoxall.

Mrs Meynall-Ingram resolved from the outset to entrust the entire design of her church to a single architect.

Her choice, George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), remained with the project from the initial commission in 1871 until the end of his life.  Indeed, the only part of the church that he didn’t design, the narthex, is his own memorial designed by his assistant and successor in the practice, Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875-1932).

Bodley had previous experience of working for a single lady patron with an open cheque-book:  he had designed St Martin-on-the-Hill, Scarborough in 1861-2 for Miss Mary Craven, the daughter of a Hull surgeon.

He and his business partner Thomas Garner (1839-1906) certainly worked together at Hoar Cross, though Bodley seems to have taken a lead.

Holy Angels’ is an essay in the Decorated style of fourteenth-century English Gothic and is regarded as one of Bodley’s best churches.

The church is oriented to the south, so that daytime sun streams through the six-light east window.

The nave has a timber roof, while the significantly taller east end is elaborately vaulted.  These features combine to make the sanctuary a dramatically lit, mysterious space, its sanctity preserved by Bodley’s ornate iron screen.

In 1888, when the Old Hall was opened as a boys’ orphanage, Mrs Meynell-Ingram decided the church was too small and commissioned Bodley to take down the west wall and extend its length from two to three bays.

She added the Lady Chapel to the south of the chancel in 1891, and the corresponding All Souls’ Chapel to the north in 1901, and refloored the nave in black and white marble the following year.

And Mrs Meynell-Ingram incessantly collected artefacts to embellish Holy Angels’ when she travelled in Europe and the Mediterranean.  She commissioned the Stations of the Cross copied from the Antwerp carvers the Antwerp carvers Jean-Baptist van Wint and Jean-Baptist de Boeck, coloured in the sgraffito manner which she had seen in the Mariankirche in Danzig (now Gdańsk).

The Chantry Chapel contains the tombs of both Hugo and Emily Meynell-Ingram, their effigies each resting on an alabaster base under ogee arches.  The effigy of Hugo Meynell-Ingram is by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892).

This sumptuous church is one of the highlights of Victorian architecture, worth seeking out for its great beauty and richness.

It epitomises what can be done when piety, grief and great wealth combine with artistic excellence.

A guided tour of Holy Angels’, Hoar Cross is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour with lunch at Hoar Cross Hall.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Bradford’s cup

Clayton Fireclay Brickworks chimney, Brow Lane, West Yorkshire

My mate Richard and I have explored the extant parts of the Great Northern Railway trail, a work-in-progress to give public access to as much as possible of the trackbed of the former Great Northern Railway’s Queensbury Lines, the so-called “Alpine Route” built in pursuit of competition and in defiance of geography between 1874 and 1884.

We walked from the spectacular Thornton Viaduct south to the former Queensbury triangle, where trains from Bradford, Keighley and Halifax met at an unusual triangular six-platform station sited four hundred feet lower than the town it was supposed to serve.

North of the line, at a place called Brow Lane, is an unusually decorative tall chimney – not, as you’d expect in the old West Riding, a woollen mill, but a brickworks.

Clayton Fireclay Brickworks was founded in 1880 by Julius Whitehead (1839-1907), at the time when the nearby railway between Queensbury and Keighley was being built. The works closed in April 1970.

According to the Grade II listing description, the chimney dates from c1890 and was erected by Julius Whitehead’s son, Claude.

The enamelled brick panels on the chimney depict an urn, and are thought to represent the FA Cup, celebrating Bradford City’s victory in the 1911 Cup Final when, following a goalless draw after extra time at Crystal Palace, the team captain Jimmy Speirs (1886-1917) headed the only goal in the replay at Old Trafford. 

The Glaswegian Jimmy Speirs went on to serve in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, was awarded a Military Medal, and was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele in August 1917, aged 31.

By a curious coincidence, the actual trophy – the same one in use today – had been manufactured by the Bradford jewellers Fattorini & Sons, a family with strong connections to Bradford City FC and its historic predecessor, Manningham Rugby Club.  The 1911 final was the cup’s first outing.

Regrettably, it has proved to be its only visit to Bradford so far.

Opera on tap

Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was a staid and respectable spa town, not over-supplied with theatres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Sarah Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, opened in the Pantiles in 1802, was used as a theatre for about fifty years and then converted into a Corn Exchange which still exists.

In the decade when the borough became Royal Tunbridge Wells, thanks to the merry monarch, King Edward VII, the Opera House was promoted by Mr J Jarvis and opened in 1902.

It was designed by John Priestly Briggs (1869-1944) who among much else built the Grand Theatre, Doncaster (1899, with J W Chapman).

The splendid Baroque exterior includes a range of shops on three sides and a balcony above the entrance leading out of the dress circle bar.  The central dome was originally surmounted by a nude statue of Mercury which was removed after the First World War.

The intimate auditorium, originally seating 1,100, is lavishly decorated with a dress circle and  balcony , and a central saucer dome above the stalls.

The proscenium is 28 feet wide and the stage is 32 feet deep, with a grid 44 feet high.  The proscenium arch has brackets in the upper corners and is surmounted by relief figures representing Music and Drama.

The eccentric local landowner John Christie (1882-1962) reopened the Opera House as a cinema in 1925.  He had taken over the organ-builder William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd in 1923, and installed an ambitious five-manual organ with pipework located on stage and the console in the enlarged orchestra pit.

He produced a wide range of shows, including musical comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan, before he set up his own celebrated opera house on his nearby estate at Glyndebourne:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/glyndebourne-the-love-story-that-started-it-all.

The organ was sold to a New Zealand buyer in 1929 but the stage remained in use for annual amateur operatic performances from 1932 to 1966.

The history of the building after John Christie’s time is conventional – refurbished in 1931, bomb-damaged but repaired and reopened in 1949, taken over by Essoldo in 1954.

In 1966 the local council refused a bingo licence and listed it Grade II.  After a couple of years of controversy, the final film-show (Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons) took place on February 3rd 1968, and the Opera House reopened as a bingo club in July the same year.

The bingo club, successively operated by Essoldo, Ladbrokes, Top Rank and Cascade, eventually closed in 1995, and after a public campaign to prevent demolition, the Opera House was taken over by the J D Wetherspoon chain in 1996 and adapted as a public house that can be used for opera one day each year.

J D Wetherspoon has an outstanding reputation for transforming redundant historic buildings into enjoyable places to eat and drink.  By combining business acumen with sensitivity to the localities in which it trades, the company enables heritage structures to earn their keep and bring enjoyment to customers.

At the Tunbridge Wells Opera House the seating remains in the dress circle and, unused, in the gallery.  The boxes are practical but cramped, and the stained glass panels in the doors to each box and the vestibule at the back of the dress circle are restored.  The stage house retains its fly floors and bridge, and the original lighting board and the counterweights for the house tabs remain in situ.

Though there’s nothing scheduled in the calendar at the time of writing, it’s easy to set up an alert for the next Tunbridge Wells opera experience:  https://www.ents24.com/tunbridge-wells-events/wetherspoon-opera-house-pub.

And in the meantime, any day of the week, breakfast to suppertime, anyone can walk in and enjoy a complete Edwardian auditorium with good pub food, beverages and a wide range of drinks at very reasonable prices.

“Perfectly plain” Pugin

St Barnabas Cathedral, Nottingham

After he had begun work on St Mary’s Church, Derby, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was invited to design a parish church for Nottingham, a bigger building with a limited budget, and therefore plainer than he liked.

Pugin himself had envisaged St Mary’s as the future cathedral for the North Midlands, but when the Catholic hierarchy was re-established, the East Midlands diocese was based at St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham.

By the time he designed St Barnabas’, Pugin had already completed the drawings for the much more elaborate St Giles’ Church, Cheadle, yet at Nottingham he contrived dramatic effects in what he claimed was the most economical manner, though he exceeded the initial budget by half.

Always melodramatic, and sometimes hysterical, this talented, obsessive, frantic, fascinating man remonstrated with the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had subscribed £7,000 of the original £10,500 estimate, about whether, and where, to have the tower:

I have no reason for placing the tower of Nottingham at the West end.  It would be a loss, a clear loss of funds.  I have not one tracery window, no pinnacles or any ornament externally.  It will be the greatest triumph of external simplicity and internal effect yet achieved.  Yet I must have outline and breaks or the building will go for nothing.

Looking at the completed church, it’s easy to see what he meant about the position of the tower;  it is equally easy to see that the finished design is not short of external ornament.

Pugin’s stated aim was to build a church “which would give general satisfaction, have a grand appearance, although perfectly plain and admit of a most solemn and rich interior.”  The plain ashlar walls, pierced by narrow lancets and a rose window of plate tracery, give an impression of solidity.  The whole church is 190 feet from end to end, and the spire rises to 150 feet but looks higher as the street slopes downhill towards the east.

But Pugin himself was dissatisfied.  He felt, quite literally, that his style was cramped:

Nottingham was spoilt by the style restricted to lancet – a period well suited to a cistercian abbey in a secluded vale, but very unsuitable for the centre of a crowded town… there was nothing left but to make the best under the circumstances, and the result has been what might be expected;  the church is too dark, and I am blamed for it…

Indeed, Pugin was easily disgruntled.  Having converted to Catholicism only in 1832, he was “a Catholic first and whatever else he was second”.

Monsignor Martin Cummins, in Nottingham Cathedral:  a history of Catholic Nottingham (1985), relates how –

When showing an Anglican friend the Rood-screen, Pugin said:  “Within is the holy of holies.  The people remain outside.  Never is the sanctuary entered save by those in sacred orders.”  Then, to his horror, a priest appeared in the sanctuary showing the screen to two ladies.  Pugin turned to the sacristan, “Turn these people out at once!  How dare they enter!”  But the sacristan replied, “Sir, it is Bishop Wiseman.”  Pugin, powerless, retired to the nearest bench and burst into tears.

Pugin’s architectural career only began in the late 1830s.  By the end of the 1840s the energy he poured into his creativity had wrecked his health, and he died, a broken man, in 1851 at the age of forty.

A guided tour of St Barnabas’ Cathedral is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Pioneer of the Gothic Revival

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Derby

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Derby, built 1838-39, was the first complete design of the foremost designer of the English Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852).

Its foundation stone was laid on June 28th 1837, the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

Previously the few Catholics in Derby had worshipped in a small building in Chapel Street.

Built to the north of Derby town centre, at precisely the time when the approaching railways were about to cause rapid growth in population, St Mary’s was an acknowledgement that many of the workers who would migrate to the new railway works would be Irish in origin.

The site was constricted and funds limited.  Pugin set out the building with the sanctuary to the north and a tall tower, 100 feet high, placed centrally at the south (liturgical west) front.

The church would have been even more prominent if Pugin’s slender spire, supported by flying buttresses, had been built:  its tip would have reached two hundred feet above street level.

In the absence of a spire, a white Portland stone statue of St Mary was mounted on top of the tower and unveiled on Trinity Sunday 1928.

Now that many of the surrounding buildings have been cleared the plainness of the side walls is noticeable.

Though the exterior of St Mary’s is elegant and understated, the interior was richly decorated.

Pugin designed a whole range of fittings and metal furniture in collaboration with the Birmingham manufacturer, John Hardman.  The panoply of lamps, crosses, candlesticks, vessels and altar furniture first seen at the consecration ceremony were the earliest products of a partnership which lasted to the end of the architect’s life.

The Derby Mercury reported that “the appearance of the clergy, upwards of fifty in number, surrounding the Altar, was extremely gorgeous”.

The Catholic newcomers were not welcomed to Derby by the established Anglicans.

In 1846 the great bulk of the Anglican parish church of St Alkmund, designed by the local architect Henry Isaac Stevens (1806-1873), was built, blocking the view of St Mary’s from the town centre.  It was traditionally said to have been the “Anglicans’ revenge” for the construction of Pugin’s church.

Ironically, when St Alkmund’s was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Inner Ring Road, some of its stone was offered for the construction of a new East Porch for St Mary’s.

The footbridge across the underpass leads directly to St Mary’s main entrance, and there is now an unimpeded view between Pugin’s elegant Gothic Revival church and the superb medieval Perpendicular tower of the Anglican cathedral of All Saints’.

St Mary’s Church is listed Grade II*.

A guided tour of St Mary’s Parish Church is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Climbing heaven

Former St Benedict’s Church, Ardwick, Manchester – now Manchester Climbing Centre

The parish church of St Benedict, Ardwick, Manchester, was the result of the wealth and religious inclinations of one man, John Marsland Bennett (1817-1889).  An Alderman and two-term Lord Mayor of Manchester, he prospered as a timber and stone merchant owning an extensive site at the junction of two main-line railways to Crewe and Sheffield.

When the Secretary of the Manchester Diocesan Church Building Society asked Mr Bennett for a plot of land to build a church in 1876 he offered to build the church on land he would provide. 

St Benedict’s Church was consecrated on March 20th 1880.

The architect was Joseph Stretch Crowther (1820-1893) and St Benedict’s is unlike any of his other church designs. 

It is entirely in brick, in header bond on the exterior and English bond within, with stone and terracotta dressings, rectangular without porches.  The body of the church is narrow and high, with a magnificent double hammer-beam roof. 

This magnificence came without a congregation.  Much of the surrounding land had yet to be developed and some of the speculative houses already built had yet to be occupied.  There were only 26 communicants on Easter Day 1880.

This did not seem to trouble the Bennett family, staunch Anglo-Catholics who used it to worship as they pleased in a predominantly Evangelical diocese.

They omitted to provide an endowment.  Their financial support dwindled after the death of J M Bennett’s eldest son, Armitage Bennett, aged 48, in 1897 and ended completely by the time the family business closed in the 1930s.  After the Second World War Keble College, Oxford took over patronage of the living.

When almost all the housing in the parish was cleared in the late 1960s the parish developed as a “shrine church” for Anglican Papalism, the branch of Anglo-Catholicism that looks towards reconciliation between the Church of England and Rome, and rejects any development that might prove an obstacle to that goal.

St Benedict’s came to serve a congregation that did not live locally, and although its centenary was celebrated by the sandblasting and chemical cleaning of the entire building in 1980, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the congregation and the structure.

The final celebration of Mass at St Benedict’s took place on February 11th 2002.

Closure inevitably threatened the future of this Grade II* building until the climber John Dunne took it on as a base for the Manchester Climbing Centre, which was opened on March 15th 2005, and continues to thrive as a popular venue for indoor climbing and bouldering.

The climbing paraphernalia crowds Crowther’s spacious interior – https://manchesterclimbingcentre.com/the-centre/4 – which is a small price to pay to preserve the building for years to come. 

Without the Manchester Climbing Centre, St Benedict’s might well have been flattened before now.

The climbing equipment is demountable, so that the listed interior is preserved.  The ornate iron screens around the sanctuary remain intact, and the mutilated original reredos apparently still exists, though hidden, at the east end.  All of the stained glass remains, but the 1907 pulpit and the organ have been removed.

Around the east end of the church are brass panels commemorating deceased members of the parish. 

One of them is in memory of Professor John Mills, who died in a climbing accident in Snowdonia on December 3rd 1977, aged 63.  A lifelong climber, he would have been astonished to know that his parish church became a climbing centre.

Read about another very different historic building that has been brought back into use as a climbing centre here.

A visit to the Manchester Climbing Centre forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.