St Robert of Newminster (1970)

Longsight

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Postcode: M13 0PL

 

Today, the ethnic diversity of Longsight is immediately apparent in the variety of its places of worship. These include the Anglican St Luke’s Church and Neighbourhood Centre, the Jain Simaj Temple, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Pokrov, as well as a number of mosques. In the post-war period Longsight was, along with Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Levenshulme, the destination of choice for Manchester’s increasingly aspirational, and predominantly Roman Catholic, Irish communities. Continual population churn provides a partial explanation for the construction and subsequent demise of St Robert of Newminster, a catholic church that once stood on the corner of Hamilton Road and Montgomery Road.

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The parish of St Robert was established in 1915, and a dedicated church erected in 1929. Through the years the parish continued to grow and, by 1963, average Sunday attendance stood at over 1,500 persons across the four masses served. Consequently, the existing building was deemed inadequate and, in 1961, plans for a new church, traditional in plan and form, were drawn up by the Preston-based architectural firm of Cassidy and Ashton.

However, when the long-incumbent priest at St Robert, Father O’Shaughnessy, died, his successor Father Brennan inherited the desire to build a new church, but not as per the prepared plans. Father Brennan entered into fraught discussions with the Right Reverend Thomas Holland, then-Bishop of Salford, arguing that the recreational, as well as spiritual, needs of the parishioners had to be met and that a hall should be provided in addition to the church and presbytery. Money was the main concern: the Bishop was aware that extravagant building projects had on earlier occasions placed a heavy financial burden on the Diocese and individual parishes. Despite this, a budget of £100,000 was agreed and Diocesan financial rules that required 75 per cent of funds to be in-hand before any new construction could commence were relaxed. The agreement came with a caution from the Bishop:

 

‘There are numerous ways…for showing the Lord how much we value him, but one of the basic requirements of all of them is that we keep our feet on the ground and build within our resources.’

 

The Manchester-based firm of Mather and Nutter, previously responsible for designing Manchester Universities Catholic Chaplaincy (1965), was asked to prepare new plans to occupy the half-acre site, and to include a church, a presbytery, and a separate hall  (see feature image above). However, when it became apparent that the inclusion of a separate hall meant exceeding the maximum sums stipulated by the Bishop, the plans were further revised to accomodate the hall in the basement of the proposed church. The intended 600-seats in the main worship space, arranged on three-sides of the nave to allow for unhindered views of the sanctuary, had to be tiered to allow ground level windows to be incorporated; these would provide natural lighting and ventilation into the hall below.

 

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The building façade largely consisted of blue-brown brick, punctuated by narrow panels of tinted glazing and supported by a concrete frame. Both the front and rear doors, of cast aluminium, were by Walter Kershaw of the Rochdale Sculptors Group, and depicted the creation of the Universe and the Apocalypse. These were complemented by a stained glass window, by Chris Burnett of the same arts collective and, set in timber framings, was located behind the font. Other items such as the tabernacle front, candlesticks and font cover were in stainless steel and, designed by the architects, were bespoke to the building.

According to Father Brennan, the interplay of light and dark was among the most important factors in the success or failure of a church. In the sanctuary, a Portland Stone altar was placed on a raised platform and lit from above by the monitor rooflight; the roof itself was clad in aluminium. In the nave, a ceiling of cedar planks was supported by laminated beams made from Douglas Fir, the walls were of a golden-coloured hand-made brick, and buff-coloured pre-cast paving slabs provided the floor finish. At the rear of the sanctuary, a raised podium gave access to a lectern and tabernacle, both items also made of Portland Stone in order to lend a visual coherence with the altar.

 

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With W. Snape & Sons of Eccles acting as main contractor, construction of St Robert began in July 1968 and, upon completion, was formally opened by the Bishop on 23rd April 1970. Father Brennan was confident that, in time, the church would acquire ‘the patina of a lovely thing’.

 

Postscript

Whilst explaining how the design of St Robert met the strict guidelines laid down by the Second Vatican Council, the opening brochure also observed that:

 

‘There are office blocks and homes and flats going up which plainly reflect a new vogue in architecture with its profusion of glass, concrete, plaster, steel and aluminium … [St Robert] could scarcely speak its concern for the future in the clothes of the past.’

 

Certainly, St Robert was not dressed in the clothes of the past. Neither were its parishioners backward looking; they celebrated the opening of the church by pressing a vinyl record of its children’s choir. Yet within a single generation, those same parishioners who contributed much to the church’s building fund had moved on. When, in 2004, the Diocese of Salford assessed their building stock in light of dwindling congregations and priest shortages, St Robert was one of fifteen Roman Catholic churches selected for closure. Demolished soon after, it never acquired the patina that Father Brennan spoke so eloquently of.

 

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For a short period, the vacated site was utilised to provide temporary accommodation for St Agnes Primary School. Today, Longsight Community Primary School occupies the site, albeit the nearby Makki Masjid has taken up partial residency whilst their new mosque is constructed on Beresford Road.

If anyone has further images of St Robert they would like to share (or a copy of the afforementioned vinyl record!) , we would appreciate it if you could contact us.

 

Acknowledgements

Feature image and interior photograph are taken from the Catholic Building Review and may be subject to copyright.

Other images are courtesy of the Manchester Local Image Collection and the Salford Diocesan Archives; with thanks to David Govier, Father Dave Lannon and Lawrence Gregory.

The Salford Diocesan Heritage Centre is located behind St Augustine’s Church, Grosvenor Square, and open to the public on Tuesday afternoons from 2pm.

St Chad (1965)

Limeside

Denomination: Church of England

Postcode: OL8 3LE

 

In 1946, Oldham Corporation put out tenders for the erection of 820 new houses, 78 old-peoples’ bungalows, and 18 flats. In keeping with contemporary regional planning policy, the proposal was part of a wider plan to create one of the earliest neighbourhood units in the country. It was to be known as Limeside Estate.

The plans, drawn up by Borough Surveyor and Engineer A.L. Hobson and Oldham Corporation’s architect J. Fogson, incorporated new schools, a community hall, a library and health centre, and ‘a modern public house’. Additionally, a site was to be reserved for the construction of a new parish church.

As incoming families took up residence in their new homes, establishing an early presence on the estate was crucial for the Church of England. It was anticipated that the nearby parish of St Margaret would double in size. Thus, in 1951, it was split into two and the new parish of St Chad was created.

A temporary church, designed by Herbert Rhodes of the Manchester-based firm of architects Leach Rhodes Walker, was duly erected. Occupying a large and prominent site at the heart of the estate, this church was indicative of what was, perhaps, a bias in the formative years of post-war planning: the established Church was often privileged in its choice of sites.

Yet, it was only a temporary solution. In March 1958, Dr William Greer, the Anglican Bishop of Manchester, called for contributions from local industry to help fund the erection of fourteen permanent new churches across the city – the so-called ‘Bishop’s New Churches Appeal’. With cold war tensions rising – Sputnik 1 had recently been launched by the Soviets – Bishop Greer felt that this was the most appropriate response the church could give:

 

‘A church building symbolise[s] the ultimate security which [comes] from God.’

 

Perhaps also conscious of the imminent completion of Holy Family RC Church, opened 14th June 1958, amongst those new churches proposed was a permanent home for the parish of St Chad. Nonetheless, it was the Methodists who were next to establish a church on the estate. Limeside Methodist Church was opened on 23rd April 1960.

The delay in proceeding with the new St Chad was, in part, due to a shortfall in the sums raised from the Bishop’s appeal: the targeted £750,000 was not achieved so, to compensate, economies had to be found and all new parishes were required to repay 25 per cent of building costs. Not until early-1963 was the architectural firm of Paterson & Macaulay appointed to draw up plans.

The aim was to ‘build and equip a sober, dignified and architecturally interesting building of a permanent character’. Having recently overseen the completion of St John in Weston, Macclesfield (now demolished), Paterson & Macaulay produced a bold design. Located adjacent to Rhodes’ temporary church, which was in future to be utilised as a parish hall, the proposed building was small in scale but, resembling a crown and set in an area of greenery, it would be a distinctive landmark on the estate.

On 8th February 1963, a foundation stone was laid by Father Goodman, Parish Priest of Saint Margaret, and construction of the new church was finally underway. Progress was swift with ‘enormous enthusiasm’ shown by locals who contributed both their labour and building materials to the endeavour.

 

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The main worship space, faced externally with brickwork, was hexagonal with a pitched, slated timber roof supported by a steel frame. Six steeply pitched gables, with side returns clad in copper, formed the rooflight above the nave. A tall post, surmounted by a cross, was positioned at the centre of the roof structure.

 

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Entry to the nave was through a single-storey flat-roofed lobby area; a Lady Chapel, oval in plan and made separate by a glazed screen, could also be reached from here. Internally, the steel frame was left exposed around the perimeter walls, but the roof structure was under-drawn to form a timber soffit.

 

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The sanctuary was placed to one side of the hexagon with the altar elevated onto a plinth accessed via three shallow steps. The communion rail was lacquered black and supported by a frame finished in silver. All fittings and fixtures, including the font and reading desk, were bespoke to the building.

 

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The new church, which seated 180 persons, was finally completed in January 1965 and consecrated by Bishop Greer himself later that month.

 

Postscript

In the years immediately following the opening of St Chad, the parish thrived. But as the local cotton spinning industry went into decline so too did the town’s extensive textile-related engineering businesses. The oil crisis of 1973 put paid to any meaningful regional economic planning and northern towns, such as Oldham, suffered particularly badly. Along with rising unemployment, civil disobedience was on the increase. Throughout the 1980s, St Chad suffered from almost constant vandalism. So, to ease the financial burden placed upon the church, the parish hall was rented out and put to use as an ‘estate’ club.

However, average attendances dwindled to around twenty persons and, although the small scale of St Chad helped engender a sense of ‘togetherness’ amongst congregants, it was eventually agreed that the parish should be merged with that of Saint Margaret. The building was finally closed in 2002 and, despite being in a state of good repair, was demolished soon after along with the former-parish hall . Housing now occupies the site.

More recently, the estate’s shopping parade has been cleared and a community centre built in its place. This begs the following question: could the shopping parade not have been retained and St Chad put to use for the same purpose?

 

St Chad Centre

 ABOVE: The new St Chad’s Centre, Limeside

 

Acknowledgements

Photographs of the now-demolished St Chad are courtesy of Geoff Stott of Paterson Macaulay & Owens.

The photograph of St Chad’s Centre is via Rowlinson Construction.

 

St Catherine of Siena (1957-59) Revisited

Lowton

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Postcode: WA3 1LB (Click here)

 

Further to our recent post highlighting the threat of demolition faced by St Catherine of Siena, we regrettably bring news that our application to have the church added to the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest has been rejected.

English Heritage consider St Ambrose, Speke and St Mary, Leyland to be better examples of the post-war church by the firm of Weightman & Bullen. Whilst these churches are wonderful buildings, and rightly listed, we maintain that both are indebted to the architectural innovations manifest at St Catherine.

Not all buildings can, or should, be saved. However, we believe the listing system, and its methods of assessing architectural merit, still err on the side of the subjective and vague: design intent, and contemporary concerns, are not fully considered when assessing buildings. Although concerted efforts ARE being made to change the way we approach and evaluate our architectural heritage, particularly that of the twentieth century, the loss of buildings such as St Catherine, continues. For this particular sacred space, soon only memories will remain.

 

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ABOVE: This image, taken prior to a minor re-ordering of the church in late 1980s, shows the altar in its original position with altar rails intact.

BELOW: Though not fully centralised in plan, the positioning of the light fitting suggests an awareness of new liturgical ideas by the architect, Patricia Brown of Weightman & Bullen.

 

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ABOVE: The foundation stone of the church was laid by the then-Archbishop John Carmel Heenan on 28th September, 1958. The church opened on 3rd June, 1959, with Father John Connolly installed as Parish Priest.

BELOW:  Archbishop Heenan, later a participant in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), addresses the gathered congregation.

 

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We will continue to monitor developments, and provide updates where appropriate. Meanwhile, you may read our earlier blog on St Catherine here.

 

Acknowledgements

Once again, we would like to thank Dr Robert Proctor (Bath University) for the use of his images, and support in writing the listing application. He is the author of Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975 (Ashgate, 2014).

St Catherine of Siena (1957-59)

Lowton

Denomination: Roman Catholic

Postcode: WA3 1LB (Click here)

 

Continuing in an easterly direction along the A580 and beyond the village of Astley and St Stephen, one shortly arrives at St Catherine of Siena. This Roman Catholic church, built between 1957-59, was intended to serve housing estates proposed to the north and west of Lowton.

In the 1950s, a combination of population migration, urban development, and relatively high attendances saw the Roman Catholic Church invest heavily in developing urban areas such as Lowton. However, the subsequent decline in religious observance has left many dioceses oversupplied with places of worship. Rationalising such an extensive property portfolio tends to favour older, more traditional churches, placing others, like St Catherine, at risk: despite being well-attended and well-maintained, this church closed 2011 and is facing imminent demolition.

Although certain post-war buildings are recognised for their heritage value, listing designation is predominantly skewed towards pre-twentieth century buildings: only 3.2 per cent of buildings constructed after 1900 are listed, and only 0.2 per cent of those belong to the post-1945 period. There is a further bias towards buildings located in and around London (often the best financed). Yet many buildings beyond the south-east of England are important in understanding the evolution of the British architectural scene: First Church of Christ Scientist, Manchester (1903-04) by Edgar Wood is an example of complete innovation in the form of places of worship, this partly owing to the lack of precedence from a client who had only one other church in Europe. St Catherine was equally ground-breaking due to its deployment of an unusual plan and form that, although observable in post-war church design on mainland Europe, was a first for the Roman Catholic Church in England.

St Catherine’s hexagonal nave (described below) anticipated the ‘church in the round’ configuration seen in later churches such as Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool (1967), and is critical to our understanding of the evolution of post-war ecclesiastical building types. Designed by Weightman & Bullen, a north-west firm of architects established in the nineteenth century, the practice’s pre-war churches were fairly traditional. However, by the 1950s, the firm was employing graduates schooled in Modernist principles: Patricia Brown, an alumna of the Liverpool School of Architecture, was the architect responsible for St Catherine and, as Robert Proctor, author of Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975, states:

 

‘St Catherine’s seems to be the earliest of the firm’s churches in which a fully-fledged interest in modernism is seen.’

 

The nave and sanctuary of St Catherine are housed within a hexagonal form whose reinforced concrete frame is expressed externally – each side of the hexagon divided into three structural bays. The lower portion of this double-height structure is infilled with red-brown brickwork with abutting structures, including a single-storey flat roofed narthex, in matching brick with decorative features. The upper portion is generally clear-glazed to eaves level, although a band of alternating blue and clear glazing sits immediately above the brickwork. The sidewalls of the sanctuary also include vertical panels of coloured glass.

 

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Emphasising the hexagonal form of the nave and sanctuary is the folded copper roof, its dramatic form and verdigris patina, atopped with decorative finial, make the building an easily recognisable landmark. Above the narthex is the bell-tower, a concrete structure which incorporates a distinctive cruciform motif: a strong identifying feature of the church, this motif is repeated in low relief plaster internally on the wall behind the altar. The bell itself originates from the nearby parish church of St. Lewis, Croft and is a later addition.

 

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Writing in 1969, Nikolaus Pevsner initially characterised the plan as being octagonal rather than the hexagon that it is, declaring St Catherine of Siena to be ‘fussy in all details’. Delicate may be the more accurate adjective. The building conveys an attentive level of detail extended to both the interior and exterior – details that are mostly well-conserved.

 

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St Catherine can, perhaps, be considered as a prototype for St Ambrose, Speke (1961), and St Mary, Leyland (1964), both by Weightman & Bullen and Grade II listed. It has been described as a ‘pioneering’ work where the firm ‘first broke the mould’: the hexagonal plan pre-empted the involvement of congregants in the Roman Catholic liturgy who, as sanctioned during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), would no longer stand passively whilst watching rituals performed by a priest facing the alter and speaking in Latin.

Although many other denominations, such as the Quakers and the Methodists, had long advocated the inclusion of the congregation in the rites of worship (and often adopted polygonal forms), it was the Roman Catholic Church that had the finances to commission the more experimental designs to reflect the new liturgy. Architects such as Patricia Brown, however, had already anticipated the shift, and St Catherine provides ample evidence of this.

 

Postscript

On 30th September 2014, Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council received a planning application from the Archdiocese of Liverpool seeking permission to demolish St Catherine; the requisite notice to proceed was served on 27th October 2014. According to the diocese, electrical rewiring costs are prohibitive to the continued use of the building as a church, although a shortage of priests has also been cited as a reason for closure. Alternative uses for the building do not appear to have been considered.

In December, a listing application was submitted to English Heritage in the hope that this important piece of post-war architecture – also notable for being by a female architect – can be saved. If unsuccessful, we hope that our story of its plight may, at least, serve to raise awareness of the threats faced by our modern places of worship.

 

Acknowledgements

We thank Dr Robert Proctor (Bath University) for his information on St Catherine of Siena, the use of his images, and support in writing the listing application. He is the author of Building the Modern Church: Roman Catholic Church Architecture in Britain, 1955 to 1975 (Ashgate, 2014).

We also thank Matthew Fernside for bringing this church to our attention.

St Stephen (1968)

Astley

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’.

 

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!’

 

Postscript

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.

 

Acknowledgements

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.