Birkenhead - Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Cavendish Street, Birkenhead, Wirral, Cheshire CH41

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A church conceived on an ambitious scale, intended as the Cathedral church of the Diocese of Shrewsbury. Although simplified in execution, Our Lady’s remains an important early example of the work of E. W. Pugin. The church suffered from bomb damage in the war, but was sympathetically restored and largely retains its original character. It contains high quality fittings, including the pulpit by E. W. Pugin, and high altar and reredos by Pugin & Pugin with paintings by Hardman and Powell.

The population of the north end of Birkenhead increased rapidly in the 1850s with the construction of the docks. At the time St Werburgh’s was the only Mass centre in Birkenhead, and in 1854 the chaplain to the convent in Claughton started to say Mass in a house near the Dock Cottages, a tenement block built for dock labourers. Land was acquired for a new church nearby, and when it was realised that the cathedral site in Shrewsbury was incapable of accommodating a large building, the Earl of Shrewsbury suggested that a cathedral be built on the site in Birkenhead.

E. W. Pugin was engaged and produced a design for a cathedral church with an estimated cost of £22,000. The Earl of Shrewsbury felt that £35,000 was a more realistic budget, and offered to provide £15,000 of his own money, though contrary to Pugin’s intention, he favoured a church without a spire or tower. At first a school was built to Pugin’s design, which opened in 1856, but shortly afterwards, the Earl died, and the title passed to a Protestant branch of the family. Whilst the Earl left a legacy of £2,700, the loss of the principal patron had a lasting impact on the progress of the project. Work commenced on the church in 1860, but at first only the nave and aisles were completed, the chancel being added by Pugin & Pugin in 1876-77 to a simplified design. The tower never rose above eaves level, and the sacristies wrapping around the chancel appear to be later still. A presbytery, also designed by E. W. Pugin, opened in 1861.

The church was seriously damaged in the blitz of March 1941, when the presbytery was destroyed and the Canon and his housekeeper lost their lives. For ten years the church was left open to the skies, a temporary home having been found at a building in Price Street. The celebrations at its re-opening on 11 October 1951 were said to have been unprecedented in the Diocese. All traffic was halted and dense crowds knelt in adoration for the progress of the Bishop bearing the Blessed Sacrament to the chant of the Benedictus sung by a choir of 200 priests and nuns. In the evening a torchlight procession of 30,000 men, women and children was witnessed by a crowd of over 135,000 throughout the streets of the town.

Whilst the church never became a cathedral, it was built on a cathedral scale, and even without its spire, the great height of the nave, steep roofs and sheer west end with its vast rose window make a dramatic impression above the empty streets that today surround it. The church has a simple plan consisting of a nave with wide aisles, polygonal sanctuary and side chapels, and a choir gallery and narthex at the west end. It is built of rock-faced sandstone with a slate roof. Below the clerestory windows of the chancel is the inscription Haec est domus Domini firmiter Aedificata Bene fundata est Supra firmum petram, and the date 1877.

A five-bay arcade of tall pointed arches resting on granite columns separates the aisles from the nave. Alternate capitals are carved. The roof is carried on trussed timber rafters, partly exposed below the ceiling. The sanctuary is dominated by a towering high altar and reredos of stone and marble, with rows of canopied niches containing statues of saints and painted panels by Hardman and Powell. Dating from 1895,  this  was  restored  after  war  damage,  although  the  painted  panels  had fortunately been removed for safe-keeping. The damaged stained glass in the clerestory above was largely replaced by Hardman with  some variation from the original saints, and the altar rails were reconstructed. The pulpit with carved reliefs of the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Coronation of Our Lady, installed in 1875, survived the bombing. The sanctuary was re-ordered in 1977 by Frank Jenkins, with minimal change.

Diocese: Shrewsbury

Architect: E. W. Pugin; Pugin & Pugin

Original Date: 1862

Conservation Area: No

Modifications: 1877

Listed Grade: Grade II