Birkenhead - St Wedburgh

St Werburgh’s Square, Birkenhead, Wirral CH41

St Werburgh’s is the oldest church built for Catholic worship in Wirral. It is an important building within the town, but its setting has suffered from harmful highway and retail development in the post-war period. The church and presbytery are both in the Greek Revival style, possibly by M. E. Hadfield. The church lost its original interior due to a major re- ordering in 1970-72 following an outbreak of dry rot.

A mission was founded in Birkenhead in 1834, when Mass was first offered in part of the remains of the former Benedictine Priory. A year later the foundation was laid for the new church, dedicated to St Werburgh because of the links with Chester, whose Abbey was named after the saint. At the time, the development of Birkenhead as a potential rival to Liverpool had hardly commenced, and there were only a handful of Catholic residents. For that reason the church was described in the press as the

‘Catholic Folly’. The site was on the edge of the town, beside a broad stream which was  later  culverted  and  covered  by  Borough  Road.  The  church  opened  in  1837, though a shortage of funds delayed the completion of the presbytery for a number of years, during which time the priest occupied a house in nearby Clifton Park. Built not long after the Emancipation Act, the church met with opposition, and had to be guarded at night. Within the grounds stood girls’ and infants’ schools, but these were destroyed in the blitz of 1941, and only the gateway from Clifton Crescent remains.

A number of extensions have been made since the church was completed. The confessionals built on the south side probably date from the late nineteenth century, as does the pitched roof extension to the sacristy. The west porch is early twentieth century. The three storey addition to the presbytery was built in the 1950s. The parish centre was erected in the late 1970s.

In  1970  severe  dry  rot  was  found  in  the  roof  of  the  church  which  led  to  the replacement of the roof, stripping of all the internal plasterwork and complete refurbishment, carried out by Edmund Kirby & Partners. In 2006 the parish was amalgamated with that of St Laurence, Beckwith Street.

The list entry (below) is brief and barely mentions the interior.

The church is built of fine red sandstone ashlar in a severe Grecian Doric style.  It has been attributed to Matthew Ellison Hadfield (1812-85), who set up in practice in 1838 in Sheffield with John Grey Weightman. Weightman & Hadfield worked principally in the Gothic style, of which the church of St Marie, Sheffield (1846) and Salford Cathedral (1844-48) are notable examples. Two early buildings, Brunswick Chapel, The Moor, Sheffield (1833, now demolished), and All Saints RC Church, Glossop (1836), however, are Grecian.

The church is rectangular and aisleless, with shallow pedimented projections and giant pilasters at the east and west ends. Five side windows with entablatures and brackets stand above a plinth of scored ashlar. In the early 20th century, two confessionals were added on the south side, centred on the first and third windows, and a transverse porch was attached to the west end, all in matching Grecian style. These are constructed of red concrete blocks, but the quality of workmanship and the careful replication of detail is so convincing, that they scarcely detract from the purity of the overall design.

The presbytery too is in the same style, and is directly attached to the church on the north side. It has a symmetrical three bay front with central doorway. The windows have been replaced in UPVC, though the door and fanlight survive. The three storey extension built in the 1950s conceals half of the gable end, and is prominent in views from Clifton Crescent. Beneath the presbytery and church is an extensive basement which retains a cooking range, wash boiler and remnants of fireplaces.

Since the closure and demolition of the church of St Laurence, Beckwith Street, and the amalgamation of the two parishes, a number of furnishings salvaged from the demolished church were brought to St Werburgh. These include a carved wooden reredos  representing  the  English  Martyrs,  now  in  the  Lady  Chapel,  and  several stained glass windows.

Photographs of the church prior to the re-ordering carried out by Edmund Kirby & Partners in 1972 (photo middle left) show that the interior was richly decorated with moulded plasterwork and statuary. The sanctuary was framed by giant pilasters matching those on the exterior, whilst life-size figures of saints stood on console brackets along the side walls of the nave. The ceiling was coffered, and the choir gallery at the west end extended forward into the nave in a gentle curve. All this was removed  following  the  discovery  of  dry  rot.  The  roof  was  replaced  in  steel,  a suspended ceiling was introduced several feet lower than the original ceiling, and the choir gallery was cut back to the minimum size capable of accommodating the organ. New windows were installed incorporating only the stained glass pictorial centres from the old windows. Hardwood strip panelling was applied to the side walls of the sanctuary and angled in towards the reredos (Bridgeman & Sons of Lichfield, 1957), which  was  panelled  in  textured  fibreglass.  Only  the  figure  of  the  Lamb  of  God, applied to the new altar, survives from the original sanctuary furnishings. The baptistery was incorporated into the narthex, and a glazed screen was installed below the line of the gallery. Within the flat roofed sacristy there remains a finely decorated Neo-classical plasterwork ceiling (photo bottom left), contemporary with or a little later than the original church interior.

Diocese: Shrewsbury

Architect: attributed to M. E. Hadfield

Original Date: 1937

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II