Alongside the three Horsfall churches I mentioned in Liverpool 8 Churches (1), the Toxteth area is studded with fine Victorian places of worship. Almost next door to St Margaret’s, Princes Road (1868) is the Old Hebrew Congregation Synagogue (1871), and across the road the Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas (1870). Round the corner, as Princes Road widens into a leafy dual carriageway where the trams once ran on a reservation, stands the Adult Deaf and Dumb Institute (1886-7) which had an octagonal chapel so that the whole congregation could see the minister’s signing, and further down on the opposite side is the desperately sad wreck of the Welsh Presbyterian Church (1868), apparently the richest and finest of them all, now a largely roofless shell.
Of all the Christian places of worship in Liverpool 8, perhaps the most surprising is the Ullet Road Unitarian Church, designed by Thomas Worthington and his son Percy in two stages, 1896-9 and 1900-1. Unitarianism is a very individualistic creed, centred on the belief in the single personality of God, which regards Jesus Christ as a prophet rather than a divine person of the Holy Trinity. It comes as a surprise to the non-Unitarian visitor, then, that the Worthingtons’ church has virtually all the features of an Anglican parish church, pews, pulpit, lectern, choir-stalls and reredos, all in the finest Gothic Revival style using the very best materials.
The place is an opulent essay in Gothic and Art Nouveau, with reliefs and wall paintings by George Moira and Morris & Co stained glass mostly designed by Edward Burne-Jones. The electroliers that light the nave are original, and tucked away behind the chancel arch are original 1890s electric lamps.
This was a congregation that wielded heavy political clout in nineteenth-century Liverpool: the previous church in Renshaw Street included among its members the poet and anti-slavery campaigner William Roscoe, William Rathbone V, who was Mayor of Liverpool in 1837-8, his son William Rathbone VI, who was MP for Liverpool from 1868 to 1880 and helped found University College Liverpool and the University College of North Wales, and Robert Durning Holt, the last Mayor and first Lord Mayor of Liverpool in 1892-3.
The generation that moved their church out of the city-centre to Sefton Park could command serious money. Robert Durning Holt’s mother, Mrs George Holt, didn’t like the idea of an interior in bright red Ruabon brick, and paid for it to be faced in dignified Runcorn sandstone. The cloister and meeting hall were funded by Sir John Brunner, whose chemical company later formed the basis for ICI, and Sir Henry Tate, whose name lives on in the sugar company and the gallery that he gave to the nation. Sir John Brunner appears in one of Moira’s wall-paintings as the philosopher Aristotle.
To see all these places of worship around Sefton Park would take two days minimum. Even to see a couple is a forcible reminder that this was a city of huge mercantile wealth a century ago, a place where adherents of every faith sought to assert their presence with the finest architecture of their day.
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.