Blackburn - St Peter in Chains

Jessel Street, Mill Hill, Blackburn, Lancs BB2

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A large basilican church of the 1950s, the unremarkable exterior of which belies an impressive interior dominated architecturally by the interplay of rounded and parabolic arches, with good mosaic decoration, probably by the Ludwig Oppenheimer firm.   

In 1876 Fr (later Dean) Edward Woods, a priest of St Anne, Blackburn (qv), opened a school and chapel in a property in Lansdowne Street, Witton.  This was followed in 1887 by a large new dual-purpose school-chapel (figure 1), for which Cardinal Vaughan laid the foundation stone in 1887.  The architect was Edward Simpson of Bradford (who built several churches and schools in the area), and the contractor George Keeley of Blackburn. 

It was not until 1954 that that the foundation stone for a substantial purpose-built church was laid, by Bishop Beck, who opened the completed building on 24 June 1956. The architects for the new church were Reynolds & Scott of Albert Square, Manchester. The church was designed to seat 550, and the approximate cost was £28,000, excluding seating and furnishings. The mosaic embellishment may be later (it is not mentioned in the account in The Catholic Building Review, 1956); it looks like the work of the firm of Ludwig Oppenheimer and Co., Manchester, which collaborated with the architects on other projects in the diocese.

The church was consecrated on 24 June 2006, exactly fifty years after its opening.  More recently, St Peter’s primary school, which was located to the rear of the church, has been demolished and the site cleared; a new school has been built nearby in Hawkins Street.

The church is orientated roughly north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was at the east end.

A substantial basilican design, consisting of nave, aisles, eastern and western ‘transepts’ and chancel with flanking chapels.  Low flat-roofed sacristies etc give off the sides of the chancel, the range on the south side connecting to the presbytery, a red brick house with a 1926 datestone. Confessionals give off the south aisle and there is also a modern boiler house addition on the south side.   The church is faced in rustic brown bricks laid in stretcher bond, with red brick and stone used in the entrance arch. The roofs are covered with Green Westmorland slate laid in diminishing courses. The entrance front is gabled with kneelers, and is surmounted by a stone cross. A large arched recess encloses the central entrance, with double doors in a square stone surround surmounted by a stone statue of St Peter on a corbel. Above this is a three-light arched window, with circular motifs in the solid spandrels and brick nogging below. Full height transept-like projections, those on the north side with secondary entrances and that on the south side at the west end with a canted baptistery (no longer in use as such).  Paired arched windows light the aisles and a circular window over the secondary entrance in the northeast transept. The sanctuary has two pairs of clerestory windows on each side and a canted east end with narrow lights on its shorter sides (foundation stone on northern side) and a blind east wall incorporating a cross.

The west doors lead into a narthex, below a choir gallery.  It is separated from the main body of the church by a screen wall with central doors flanked by triple arches with polished marble columns with cushion capitals, all glazed with leaded antique glass. There is a mosaic floor in the narthex and stairs up to the gallery. The former baptistery on the south side retains its metal gates, lower floor with mosaic on a baptismal theme, stained glass window depicting the Baptism of Christ, and cupboard for holy oils.

In the main body of the church ‘the general effect … is of plain wall surfaces relieved by contrasting arch shapes, with a play of light and shade from the tall recessed windows in the aisles’ (Catholic Building Review, 1956).  The walls are plastered and painted white, except for a two foot high brick plinth around the perimeter walls and at the base of the arcade piers. The main body of the church consists of a wide nave of five bays, with narrow circulation and processional aisles. The fifth bay from the west takes the form of narrow transepts. The nave is spanned by a series of dramatic transverse steel frame parabolic arches rising from the floor, plain and unmoulded, to support the exposed purlin roof.  The nave is separated from the aisles by an arcade of semi-circular arched openings, while narrow transverse arches mark the bay divisions in the aisles.  A parabolic arch marks the opening to the sanctuary, which is only slightly narrower than the nave in width, and a further similar arch encloses the shallow side-lit canted east end, site of the original high altar. Arched openings give onto the Lady (south) and Sacred Heart (north) chapels, from which there are also wide arched openings towards the sanctuary, with decorative wrought iron grilles.

The sanctuary and side chapels are fitted out with mosaic decoration, which stylistically can be attributed to the Oppenheimer firm of Manchester. The marble altar is the original one, brought forward in a post-Vatican II reordering. The church retains its original marble altar rails and metal gates and oak benches in the nave. The font is now placed in front of the sanctuary. There are a number of statues, including a Baptism group near the font, in the position of the original nave pulpit (now removed), and a statue of St Peter enthroned over the entrance lobby in the northeast transept, a copy of that in St Peter’s, Rome. 

Diocese: Salford

Architect: Reynolds & Scott

Original Date: 1956

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed