When I first knew Liverpool in the late 1960s, St Luke’s Church was a blackened, bombed-out ruin with trees growing inside the roofless nave and the clock dials stopped at 3.36am, showing the time on the morning of May 7th 1941 when the flames up the tower brought down the floors, the roof and most of the bells.
I didn’t realise at the time that this poignant memento of the Liverpool blitz was under threat, because Graeme Shankland’s Liverpool City Plan of 1965 proposed an inner ring-road aligned directly on the nave, and would have left the tower as a forlorn waymark.
Shankland’s scheme didn’t happen: the existing bleak dual carriageways behind the Three Graces and eastwards towards the M62 give an idea of how the city would have been carved up if it had gone ahead.
In the time that St Luke’s stood abandoned people became attached to it as a reminder of what the city suffered in the Second World War.
However, if you leave a ruin as a ruin, sooner or later it falls down.
In fact, St Luke’s is a significant building. Built by Liverpool Corporation as a parish church that would also serve for civic services, it was designed by the Senior Surveyors, John Foster Snr and his son and successor, John Foster Jnr, perhaps with the help of a shadowy assistant, “Mr Edwards”, in an elaborate version of what modern architectural historians call the “Commissioners’ Gothic” style.
Built on a sloping site which accentuates the height of the 133-foot tower, it has rich architectural detail, with octagonal buttresses rising to elaborate turrets and ogee mouldings over the belfry windows. It opened for services in 1832, and the scale of the nave and aisles made it a useful space for concerts until the completion of the Philharmonic Hall (1849) and St George’s Hall (1854).
St Luke’s became known as the “Doctors’ Church” because of the large number of medical practitioners and their families from Rodney Street who worshipped there.
The stonework has been cleaned to show the fine carving, but nothing of the interior survives. In the roofless tower, the cast-iron bell-frame – believed to be the earliest to be built (1828) – remains in situ, and a clock similar to the lost original was found and installed.
The churchyard, which has never been used for burials, was developed as a garden, and now contains Aemonn O’Docherty’s Irish Famine Memorial (1998).
The ruins and the grounds of St Luke’s were opened up by the Liverpool arts and events organisation Urban Strawberry Lunch, and are now cared for by the group Bombed Out Church, which runs events, exhibitions and open-air film shows and concerts to keep alive the city’s blitz memorial.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.