Highfield Road, Rock Ferry, Birkenhead, Wirral, Cheshire
A fine late church designed by E. W. Pugin, completed by the Pugin practice, and built for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1875-7. The church lacks its intended tower and the external appearance is somewhat marred by later strengthening measures, but the quality of the external and internal design, and especially its complex spatial character give it special value. The sculpture and the internal furnishings are also of high quality. The church is complemented by the slightly later presbytery, which is probably also by the Pugin practice, and retains most of its original features.
The development of Tranmere and Rock Ferry was boosted in the mid-nineteenth century when William Laird moved his shipbuilding yards from the Wallasey Pool to the Birkenhead Pool on the edge of the Mersey. A Catholic mission was established at Rock Ferry in 1862. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were invited from their centre at Holy Cross, Liverpool, with the first resident priest being the Rev. James Egan. Mass was said for two years in the back of a bakery in St Paul’s Road. A large house was built by E. W. Pugin for missioners, a novitiate for Oblate postulants, and a rest house for priests working in slum parishes. A room on the ground floor became a chapel in place of the premises in St Paul’s Road which in turn became a school.
In 1869 the Holy Family Sisters arrived and the Fathers gave up their residence to them and moved elsewhere. They moved again to the present presbytery in 1884. The Sisters duly took charge of the children of the parish, an infants’ school being opened in 1872. In 1873, it was estimated that the Catholic population of the parish was over 1000, and the ‘large room’ at the convent had become too small for Sunday Mass. Permission was granted by the bishop to build a permanent church, which was commenced in the spring of 1875.
E. W. Pugin designed the church, and the drawings are said to have been made by him, but on 4 June, 1875, he died. The work was therefore completed by his brothers Peter Paul and Cuthbert Pugin at a cost of £7,000. In 1878 the rose window at the east end was unveiled which, together with the high altar, the gate and the tiled floor of the baptistery were all given by a local benefactor James Glover. Other gifts included the baptismal font, the Lady altar, the pulpit, the organ and the Stations of the Cross. In 1932 the altar rails were added, and in 1934 the church was enlarged by the addition of the two side aisles.
In 1935, outward movement of the gable end walls of both transepts, which had been taking place for some while, was found to be accelerating. The fault was a lack of lateral restraint of the roof, which was exerting pressure on the outer walls and on the marble piers that support the transept arcades. The remedial action duly undertaken consisted of installing steel tie beams internally, spanning between the arcades and the gable wall, encased in plaster with Gothic mouldings; and reinforced concrete buttresses externally which bisect the rose windows.
The Lourdes Memorial Hall was built in 1910, and has subsequently been extended three times. In 1970s it became the St Anne’s Parish Social Centre. In the 1970s too, the nineteenth century convent buildings, including E. W. Pugin’s original house, were taken down and replaced by the present Convent of the Holy Family
The Oblates left in 2009, since when the parish has been served by secular clergy of Shrewsbury Diocese.
The church is cruciform on plan, with double width transepts and a chancel that rises higher than the nave. At the northwest corner is an uncompleted tower and porch (the tower was to have included an octagonal belfry stage from which a spire would have risen to a height of 125 feet). Rose windows with elaborate tracery fill the gables of the chancel, transepts and side chapels. The style is Early Decorated and the church is built of local Storeton stone with a blue slate roof. Above the west doorway is a full-life carved crucifix and to each side are niches containing statues of Our Lady and St John. Over the tower doorway is a statue of St Anne with the Infant Child within an elaborate canopied niche.
The interior is fine and spacious, with a barrel vaulted roof carried on five diaphragm arches resting on stone colonnettes with vigorously carved capitals and angel corbels. At the west is a narthex with choir gallery above. The walls of the sanctuary and chapels are faced entirely in Storeton stone, with deep window reveals providing effective and dramatic side lighting to the altars. Towering carved stone altarpieces in the E. W. Pugin manner fill the east end of the sanctuary and chapels, whilst further canopied statues of saints flank the chancel arch and the high altar. The short length of the nave, the generous scale of the transepts and the elaborate spatial and decorative quality of the sanctuary create a memorable interior.
The addition of the aisles in 1934 involved the removal of sections of the lower nave walls and the reduction in height of the windows. The resulting contrast between the spaciousness of the original church, and the claustrophobic nature of the flat roofed aisles is uncomfortable, but the aisles are given focus by the inclusion of marble clad shrines to St Anne and St Teresa of the Child Jesus, which date from 1953.
The high altar was installed in 1879, and is constructed of Caen stone with supporting columns of red and black marble. The tabernacle is of alabaster. The reredos has in the central niche an ivory crucifix, and on both sides are sculpted plaques portraying the adoration of angels with thurifers, trumpets, cymbals and stringed instruments. The Lady altar has a statue of the Virgin and Child, with scenes of the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt to each side. The St Joseph altar with a life-size statue of the saint is slightly less elaborate. The font, which has been moved from the original baptistery into the south transept, is a muscular octagonal block of marble with a timber cover fitted with iron scrollwork.
The organ was installed in 1900 and was built by Abbott & Smith of Leeds. It is enclosed in a case designed by Peter Paul Pugin. The Stations of the Cross are to a Pugin design and were supplied by De Boule of Bruges. Originally they were set in ornate frames, but the aisle alterations necessitated their replacement with the present smaller frames. The stained glass is varied in date and style: that in the east rose window include a representation of St Anne with the Infant Child surrounded by the Mysteries.
The floor of the Lady Chapel is paved in blue, red and buff encaustic tiles. Photographs show that the whole of the sanctuary, the St Joseph chapel and the transept floors were also originally tiled, though all are now carpeted. In the post-Vatican II reordering, the pulpit and altar rails were removed and the sanctuary was brought forward. The structural works carried out in 1935 to prevent the collapse of the transepts have had a seriously detrimental impact on the external appearance of the church, and a rather less harmful effect on the interior.
Update: The church and presbytery were listed Grade II in 2012, following Taking Stock. List description at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1405152
Architect: E. W. Pugin
Original Date: 1877
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II