…or, some views of some unexpected buildings and places.
We all take the world that’s immediately around us for granted. The roads we travel on our way to work or school or college; the everyday shops and banks, the houses, even the less familiar, like the chapels and churches. Yet, they can teach us a lot more than we expect, and remind us of how much and how fast our worlds change, and did, even before the internet and its revolution could even be imagined.
Take Mossley Hill church, for example Ss. Matthew and James is a tremendous building, crowning its hill top like a cathedral, a rival almost to that great building towering over Liverpool and only a few miles away. It was a major work by one of the most famous architectural practices of the nineteenth century, Sharpe, Paley and Austin, and they were so proud of it that they took their models and drawings to the English section of the great 1878 Exhibition in Paris, and all the authoritative books describe it as “one of their best”. The Liverpool merchant who paid for it all, Mr. Matthew James Glenton … yes, ‘Trump Towers’ have precedents! … must have been very pleased; we can be, too, because this great church was very seriously damaged in the Second World War, and we can be grateful for all the restorations carried out in the 1950s under the direction of Alfred Shennan, a distinguished Liverpool architect and the designer, not so far away, of the Greenbank Rd. Synagogue of 1936-1937, a very different building: “echoes of Stockholm City Hall”, says one writer, and also well worth a closer look should you pass by on a run or a walk in Sefton Park.
On the way, you might see the church of St Barnabas, where Elm Hall Drive joins Penny Lane. There once was an Elm Hall: you can see it clearly on the 1905 Allerton map, with its gardens, and the market garden nearby. No shops then; no Penny Lane as we know it, but the houses were beginning to reach out and touch the world of the small farms, the grand merchants’ houses, even the great estates; and the great church on the hill was no longer enough for the ‘new people’, so the decision was made to create a ‘chapel of ease’. Some land was bought from the executors of Mr. Bramley-Moore’s will in 1900; only £3,030, rather different figures from those Everton might spend if their plans to build a new stadium on Mr. Bramley-Moore’s dock are allowed to proceed; there was a building, nicknamed the ‘Tin Cathedral’ but able to seat 600 people. More to the point, there were powerful friends: Bishop Chevasse of Liverpool was very enthusiastic; Bishop Diggle of Carlisle, who had been the first vicar of Ss. Matthew and James’, was just as keen (in fact, he gave the new parish its copper collection plates, no doubt expecting silver, at least, to be put on them…); a wealthy family, the Singlehursts, whose resources were based on ship-owning and the flourishing Brazil trade, were very happy to meet the costs (or most of the: they gave £15,000 of the £24,224 total, so that the parish had only to find £1660 land charges); and so, St. Barnabas’ was born.
The architect was also a distinguished local man, J. Francis Doyle. He was responsible for a number of the great commercial buildings of central Liverpool, the ‘business palaces’ which give the city its unique individual flavour and make it, in a way, the ‘Pisa’, even the ‘Venice’, of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That very identity that nowhere else in the world, let alone Britain, can claim. Just a couple of examples: the great Royal Insurance Building, on the corner of North John St. and Dale St., “Sumptuous neo-Baroque on the grandest scale” says the Pevsner ‘Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West’, whilst partly at that the whole mammoth building has one of the earliest self-supporting steel frames in Britain; from 1895-1898 he supervised the construction of Albion House, the headquarters of the White Star Line, the ‘other’ great transatlantic liner company, which, said the ‘Architectural Review’, “made everything around it look little and mean” and it certainly brought a new scale to Liverpool’s commercial architecture. In a different way, these great buildings, just like Mossley Hill church, make you ‘look up’, even today, and they are vital to the sense of ‘place’ of the city.
Unfortunately, however, Mr Doyle died in 1912, and the work was entrusted to his brother, Sidney, also a good architect and the designer of the first Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. It’s a building that deserves a careful outside look: the very odd exterior pattern of brick shaped to look like stone; the clever and attractive but almost ‘hidden’ carvings; outside, the contrast with the 1927 Methodist chapel directly across the road, with its mixture of red brick that looks like brick and Portland stone; they make a striking and attractive pair. Inside, there is a rare first world war cross, some striking glass, a screen by another distinguished local artist, E. Carter-Preston; all well worth seeing, but perhaps the greatest draw in from the relatively recent past: once upon a time, not so very long ago, a young boy called Paul McCartney sang in the church choir; a bit older he was best man at his brother Mike’s (of ‘The Scaffold’ memories of Mr Doyle senior?!) wedding (Linda was there, too), and so St Barnabas is very much part of Beatle world, a significant part of the economy of modern Liverpool. How the world changes, and how quickly.
The visitors from all over the world take their ‘selfies’ and their photographs at Penny Lane. Local people, like us, pass by without a second glance, yet there is so much in the story there of just one building, of not so long ago, and still active, and having new work done, today. However, there is enough great change. Churches and chapels, of whatever denomination, just don’t have the same central place they had when Ss. Matthew and James and St Barnabas were built; many are empty now, or used in strange and disturbing ways, like G.F. Bodley’s great church of St Luke in Warrington (a grade 2 listed building), now a storage yard for a builder. It is an expensive business, maintaining a large church and its expensive fittings, and the Church of England has been officially aware of this since its pastoral measure of 1968, which offers 3 possibilities for a redundant church: preservation in the Redundant Churches Fund; sail to another denomination – rare; demolition – there have been many. These are very real issues. Imagine, if you can, a ‘townscape’ in suburban Liverpool without Ss. Matthew and James, or a visit to a Penny Lane which didn’t have St Barnabas…maybe not a bank either, given how much our world has changed. The photos and the lyrics would be very different.
After all, to live is to change. We’ve been considering a time, not so long ago, when there was no Queen’s Drive – it was begun in 1904; Mather and Menlove Avenues were yet to be imagined, let alone built; Mossley Hill Church looked out over open country: imagine! How might the world look in another 50 years, let alone another century? The Catholic Church in Liverpool is trying to do that now, and this might mean, given falling numbers in what was once ‘the’ Catholic ‘heart’ of England, the closure and redundancy of other distinguished churches, 19th and 20th centuries, because of the dramatic fall of the numbers of people and priests of recent decades. Some of the churches are remarkable, and one of them, hopefully not on any such possible list, is just a few minutes away. It’s the great church of St Clare, on York Avenue, off Ullet Road, and, like the others we’ve looked at it speaks of a different time and different ways.
The Catholic Reynolds family were very wealthy and very distinguished. Their name lives on in Woolton, in Reynolds Park, and there are family graves on that hill, in St Mary’s Church yard, but their real monument is St Clare’s, named because the wives of Francis and James Reynolds were both named Clare. Mr Glenton (and Mr Trump) are far from unique! They were cotton brokers; James was also the Conservative MP for Liverpool Exchange, itself remarkable given the political and religious tensions in the 1880s and after, when their church was built; Francis had a godson called Leonard Stokes, even as a young man a distinguished architect, and the church he designed for them is not only the single grade 1 Catholic Church in Liverpool but one of only 26 in the whole city area. Local builders, too, Morrisons of Wavertree, and comparatively inexpensive: a final bill of £7834 in 1890, so a comparison with St Barnabas, a quarter of a century or so later, is in itself an interesting example of the inflation caused by war. Once again there are many distinguished features, including beautiful transept altars by Mayer of Munich, some fine stained glass and a splendid triptych behind and above the High Altar, the work of George Frampton, sculpture of the ‘Peter Pan’ statues in Sefton Park, and Kibert Anniry Bell, who shared his studio at the time, and taught painting and drawing at the new University College, Liverpool. It is a marvellous combination of painting and low-relief sculpture which features images of St Clare, of course, and Ss. Augustine, Francis, James and William…the family names of the Reynolds brothers!
St Clare’s isn’t easy to see from Ullet Road, but the whole ensemble of church and house is well worth the time to turn off, or to extend a walk from Sefton Park. No famous modern names; however, Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958 but was, to the end, sharp and aware of change in the world, declared her to be the Patron Saint of Television, which was then becoming the popular medium of entertainment and information, because she had been present in a vision from her sickbed at midnight Mass in Assisi. She was looking up; in her case, up to the road to Heaven, but the lesson for us, in our age of screens, looking down, instant communication, is perhaps to stop, look more carefully, and reflect on what we see around us, how much changes in terms of ideas and even values, and consider what kind of world we want to make and how future generations might look at, and evaluate, what we have left for them.
The Glentons and the Singlehursts, and the Reynolds have left us a remarkable legacy; the Austins and the Doyles and the Stokes and their collaborators gave us wonderful things to see; let’s hope our generations don’t let them down.
If your interest in any of these buildings and the many others like them in Liverpool and elsewhere has been sparked, then why not consider joining the Victorian Society, the national body devoted to the perseveration and rehabilitation of interesting Victorian and Edwardian buildings of all types and kinds, from the grandest to the most humble. The Liverpool group is the oldest in the country and always welcomes new members, especially nowadays anybody who is young and keen and computer-literate (!); there’ll be a lot to do even in the near future, so do get in touch with the secretary, Mrs Annette Butler, on firstname.lastname@example.org, she’ll be very pleased to hear from you.