No expense spared 1: Liverpool 8 churches

St Agnes' Church, Ullet Road, Liverpool

St Agnes’ Church, Ullet Road, Liverpool

A couple of years ago I spent a fascinating four days researching and photographing places of worship in suburban Liverpool, south of the city, to add to my ‘Liverpool’s Heritage’ lecture and study-day for NADFAS [the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies].

I found a whole collection of fabulous Victorian buildings, and met some particularly interesting people in the process.

One group of Anglican churches is the series founded by the Horsfall family over two generations.  Robert Horsfall commissioned the great Gothic Revival architect, George Edmund Street, to build St Margaret’s, Princes Road, in 1868, at least partly because the diocese was vehemently low church, and he wished to promote elaborate, Anglo-Catholic worship.  This magnificent building, sumptuously embellished with wall paintings and stained glass, much of it designed by Maddox & Pearce and Clayton & Bell, is much loved by the local community, but desperately short of funds.

Robert Horsfall may well have been provoked by the statement of his low-church younger brother George’s project to build Christ Church, Linnet Lane (1867-71), not far away.  This church, by William Culshaw and Henry Sumners, has an elaborately sculpted exterior and a much plainer, though costly interior.  Its peculiar gabled aisles are particularly difficult to keep watertight, and the parish apparently struggles financially.

Robert Horsfall’s son, Howard Douglas Horsfall (1856-1936), was responsible for St Agnes’, Ullet Road, opposite Sefton Park.  Designed by the architect of Truro Cathedral, John Loughborough Pearson, this large but outwardly modest brick church has a dramatic interior, like a miniature cathedral, rich in carvings, stained glass and alabaster.  Pearson’s aim, in his own words, was to design “what will bring people soonest to their knees”.

The controversies of the Victorian Church of England are difficult to grasp in an age when Anglicans fall out about female and gay priests and bishops.  The second vicar of St Margaret’s went to jail for contempt of court over a liturgical dispute with the first Bishop of Liverpool, J C Ryle.  There were serious fears that the consecration of St Agnes’ would be interrupted by “some disturbance” following “heated newspaper agitation”.  Within weeks of the opening, the first vicar of St Agnes was in disagreement with Bishop Ryle over “the illegal use of Eucharistic Lights, Wafer-Bread, the Mixed Chalice, the Agnus Dei and the hymn sung during Holy Communion” and waited twelve years before the bishop backed down.

All three of these superb buildings still house congregations, though the days of packed pews and arguments over ritual are long gone.  Rev Robert Gallagher, the former vicar of St Margaret’s, wryly observed, “the capital used for St Margaret’s beginnings came largely from Liverpool merchants’ involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade and down through grandparents’ bank accounts…an irony not lost on a parish that is now the heart of Liverpool’s black community.”

The Ship of Fools’ mystery worshipper describes the “pious gaiety” of St Agnes’ at

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

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

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