North Road, Birkenhead, Wirral, Cheshire CH42
St Joseph’s was designed by Edmund Kirby in 1899-1900 and is amongst the best examples of his large red brick urban churches. The building is of grand proportions, and displays Kirby’s skilful use of pressed and moulded bricks to achieve complexity and surface richness, both externally and internally. Internal fittings such as the reredos, organ and organ gallery are of high quality, and the unified character of the church has been well preserved in spite of later alterations.
The mission was established in 1898 when Mass was said at Holt Hill Convent, and also in the private chapel at the home of Joseph Topham, who lived at Heatherley, Woodchurch Road (where St Joseph’s Primary School now stands). The land for a church in Devonshire Park, a new suburb that was being built at the time, was provided by Mr Topham, and the foundation stone was laid in March 1899. The architect was Edmund Kirby and the contractor Peter Rothwell. The church opened in August 1900.
In 1906 the presbytery was built alongside in Willowbank Road, and connected to the church together with the sacristy. The organ gallery and narthex screen were introduced in 1910 and the organ was installed in 1911. In 1923 a temporary high altar was replaced by the carved oak altar and reredos, which was manufactured in Salzburg, and the altar rails were erected. The sanctuary was reordered in 1968; the organ was restored and the organ gallery redecorated in 1971; and the overall redecoration of the church with extensive stencil patterning was carried out in 1986. The parish centre was built in 1970, and a youth centre in 1974, though the latter was demolished in 2004 and the area is now used as a car park.
St Joseph’s is characteristic of Edmund Kirby’s extensive ecclesiastical work in its tall proportions, mechanical precision and use of red pressed and moulded brick both outside and within. The roof is of Westmorland slate. The building consists of a nave, side aisles, sanctuary and flanking chapels. On the south side confessionals are expressed by projecting gables. Multiple string courses, stepped plinths, complex sill and lintel profiles are achieved through the repeated use of shaped and moulded bricks. Kirby’s original drawings show schemes both with and without a tower and spire.
The interior is grand and spacious, with an arcade of polished granite columns separating the nave and aisles, and a roof of massive trussed rafters projecting below the timber ceiling. Apart from the large rose window at the east end, all the windows are grouped lancets, with a tall clerestory illuminating the sanctuary. Running below the clerestory is a moulded brick frieze of small trefoil arches. The west end is filled by the magnificent organ case of 1910, stretching the full width of the gallery, which is reached by a timber staircase rising from the south aisle.
A tall wooden reredos of 1923 occupies the space below the rose window. This was altered during the reordering of 1968 by Hayes & Finch, when the former high altar was replaced by the present matching support for the tabernacle, and a new forward altar introduced. Statues of SS Joseph and Peter flank the chancel arch, and to each side are the Lady Chapel and the Sacred Heart Chapel, the latter illuminated by a huge glazed roof light. The font has been moved to a position just forward of the sanctuary, and the baptistery has been converted for use as a repository.
The restoration of the organ in 1971 introduced the first campaign of stencil decoration in the Bodley manner. In 1986 this was followed through to the whole interior under the initiative of the parish priest Canon James Fraser. Before redecoration, the interior was largely painted white, whilst the oak reredos and other timberwork was lightly stained. Stencilling is uncharacteristic of Kirby’s work, but the treatment at St Josephs mitigates the hard character of the interior, and introduces a degree of warmth that makes the church welcoming. Typical of the controlled design of the interior is the way that the confessional screens have been designed to incorporate the large Stations of the Cross. There is no stained glass within the building, which preserves its light-filled atmosphere.
Update: The church was listed Grade II in 2012, following Taking Stock. List description at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1407367
Architect: Edmund Kirby
Original Date: 1900
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II