Denomination: Church of England
Postcode: M29 7BT (Click here)
Heading west out of Manchester, along the A580 East Lancashire Road, is the village of Astley and the parish church of St Stephen, the origins of which can be traced back to a chapel of ease erected in 1631. In 1760, this modest chapel was demolished and rebuilt to accommodate an ever-growing congregation. In later years, the chapel was further enlarged; the campanile, constructed in 1842, was intended to make the building ‘look like a church’.
By 1956, the church was in need of serious repair. Dry-rot and death-watch beetle, the scourge of many a church, had seriously affected the roof timbers. Further, the nave was considered overly cluttered with ‘horse-box pews’, prompting one aged churchwarden to complain that he had not been able to see the altar for forty years. The renowned ecclesiastical architect George Pace, later responsible for both St Mark, Chadderton (1963) and William Temple Memorial Church, Wythenshawe (1965), was charged with overseeing the reordering and restoration of the church.
Works included replacing rotted roof timbers, the removal of pews to improve circulation, and the laying of a new black-and-white tiled floor. The interior of the church was to be decorated in white and gold, whilst additional oak panelling was to adorn the walls. Pace was said to be extremely fond of the restored church which was duly re-dedicated by the Bishop of Hulme on 7th October, 1956. Just five years later, however, disaster stuck.
On 18th June 1961, a fire, initially thought to have been caused by an electrical fault, swept through the building. Efforts to control the blaze were hampered by inadequate water supplies and, in just five hours, Pace’s restoration work was reduced to cinders: only the charred outer walls of the church remained. When it emerged that the church had been the victim of an arson attack, the parish council was determined that the church should be rebuilt. With Pace otherwise engaged, W. Cecil Young (later one half of the enduring Manchester firm of architects, Taylor & Young) was appointed to assess the ruins of the church.
When Young concluded that the remaining walls were structurally sound, there was great optimism that St. Stephen could indeed be restored, but these hopes proved false. Proposals by Young, which incorporated the walls of the old church, had been enthusiastically received. However, once building work had got underway, it was discovered that the existing foundations were more seriously damaged than previously thought. Reluctantly, the decision was taken to abandon the restoration. Was this the end for St. Stephen?
The 1950s were not kind to Astley. Following the fire at St. Stephen, mining subsidence had forced the closure of Arrowsmith’s Mill, a major source of local employment: new investment into the area was not forthcoming. In the 1960s, however, things began to change. The coal mines began to close, and land previously considered unsuitable for development was reclaimed. New housing estates were erected and light industry returned to the area. Astley, commutable from both Liverpool and Manchester, enjoyed something of a resurgence. The population was increasing, and so too was demand for local amenity. Thus, when plans for a new school were approved in 1965, it was decided that a new church should be erected in close proximity. The chosen site, known locally as The Ley, would accommodate both school and church.
By this time, considerable change was occurring in the design of churches. Liturgical change, brought forward by the Second Vatican Council in 1962, coincided with the widespread embrace of modernist design principles in Britain. Radical new church designs, not just Roman Catholic, began to appear, and the Building Committee in Astley were aware of such change. Visits to other modern churches were arranged, and considerable discussion took place regarding the form of the new church. A square-shaped building would, it was felt, engender a sense of ‘togetherness’, and although a central altar with surrounding pews was considered, parishioners were vocal in their criticism for such arrangements: the faces of fellow worshipers were distracting!
It was a visit to St. George, Rugby (1963) by Denys Hinton that proved most influential. Here, the architect had created a church that was not only modern in appearance but, in accordance with the wishes of the congregants, retained a traditional layout. The new St Stephen would not be a replica of this church, but it would adopt the underlying principles of its design. Raymond Nutter of Mather & Nutter was appointed to design both school and church, with Messrs W. Snape & Sons of Eccles acting as contractor. Building work began in June 1967, and on 26th October 1968, the new St Stephen was consecrated by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.
Set back from the main road, visitors enter the brick structure through a circular narthex at the west end of the building. Moving into the nave, the ceiling is low on account of an elevated Lady Chapel (and gallery) just beyond the main entrance and at the rear end of the interior space. The altar, at the east end, is simple and was designed to be visible from all viewpoints. The main worship space is rectangular on plan, with pews arranged either side of a central aisle; although appearing regimented, these are moveable in order to increase the flexibility of the building. The severity of the form is offset with curved features that favourably enhance the acoustics. The furnishings are largely plain and simple, all of them original to the building.
Of particular note are the abstract stained glass panels by Hans Unger & Eberhard Schulze which depict the life and martyrdom of St Stephen. Unger & Schulze are, perhaps, better known for their posters for London Transport, but they also provided a mosaic of the crucifixion for St Jude, Wigan (1965) by L.A.G. Pritchard & Son. The panels at St Stephen are dalle de verre, but differ from those of Pierre Fourmaintraux. Here, the colourful glass pieces (dalles) are layered using a resin, whilst the ‘cement fondue’ between the glass pieces is moulded to give added texture. Although the panels have been renovated on two occasions owing to vandalism, the original technique has proved difficult to replicate.
Contemporary reactions upon the opening of the new church were largely favourable, although a few dissenters considered St Stephen to be ‘stark and depressing’. Others, however, felt the church, though different in form to the old, struck the right balance between modern and traditional. One life-long member of the congregation declared:
‘Why, it’s just like th’owd church!’
Between 1956 and 1961, the old church of St Stephen was reordered and restored by George Pace. Prior to the fire which destroyed the church, further alterations were being prepared by Pace. Unfortunately we have not, thus far, located any images of the old church interior dating from this period. If anyone can help, we would be delighted if you could contact us.
Photograph of the destroyed St Stephen church is courtesy of Steve Bulman at The Churches of Britain and Ireland.
Reverend Jonathan Carmyllie, Team Minister of The United Benefice of Astley, Tyldesley & Mosley Common, kindly granted us access to the ‘new’ church and provided a copy of ‘Bells and Pomegranates’ by the Reverend William King – a detailed history of the parish.