Building » Blackburn – St Mary and St John (Pleasington Priory)

Blackburn – St Mary and St John (Pleasington Priory)

Sandy Lane, Pleasington, Blackburn BB2

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

The most architecturally ambitious pre-Catholic Emancipation church in the diocese, and a soaring early Gothic Revival design, notable for its elaborate carved stonework. The church was built from designs by John Palmer, architect of Blackburn Cathedral, at the expense of John Francis Butler of Pleasington Hall, and is set within a large burial ground. The vaulted interior is fairly little altered, apart from the loss of historic furnishings in the sanctuary.

Pleasington Priory (not a priory) was built in 1816-19 by John Francis Butler of Pleasington Hall, as a thank-offering for his recovery from illness. The church is described in The Buildings of England as ‘astonishing … especially considering the position of Catholicism in England at the time’. Butler’s architect was John Palmer of Manchester. A notebook in Manchester archives (M16/3/1) includes what appears to be a copy of Palmer’s journal of the building of the church. On 1 February 1816, Palmer was called to the house of a Mr Kenyon in Mulberry Street, Manchester where Butler discussed the idea for the building with him. [Was this the Rev. Edward Kenyon, stated by Bolton to be a friend of the founder, who had charge of the mission from 1816 to 1828?] ‘After giving me dimensions and extent of the plan we finally determined to build it on the model of which all our ancient churches were built before the pretended reformation … On Monday following February 5 I presented to Mr Butler sketches of the plans and elevations, and sections, which he entirely approved of, except the grand west Portal, which Mr Butler would have an exact copy of one at Whalley Abbey… I now proceeded to make larger drawings of the intended edifice, and on Thursday March 14th Mr Butler came again to Manchester and brought in the carriage a piece of stone which I got Thomas Owen the carver to carve a head which was copied from one on the north side of the collegiate church of Manchester, for a specimen of the carvers’ abilities, which Mr Butler was exceedingly well pleased with … [on March 19] I staked the ground for the foundations. … At ½ past 8 o clock on the morning of thursday March 31st I left Pleasington to go to Whalley Abbey, where I arrived at 20 minutes before eleven, the morning was very gloomy, I drank a glass of rum and water, and afterwards visited the ruins of the Abbey…. The day was very wet and disagreeable, I sketched off the doorway, examined the old ruins, looked through the old parish church … At 5 o clock in the evening I returned again to Pleasington. Next morning I went down to the peice of land on which the Priory is to be built. I dug down in the foundations to examine the ground…

‘Thomas Owens ‘the chief carver or sculptor’ was taken by Palmer to Whalley  ‘where he took squeeses in clay, and afterwards cast them in plaster, of all the heads, leaves and flowers of the door, and marked each distinctly … to have them exactly carved a facsimile of the original.’

The foundation stone was laid on 26 April 1816 and the church opened on 24 August 1819. The cost of £20,000 or more (sources vary) was met by Butler. According to Bolton, the body of the martyr St Publianus, acquired by Butler in Rome, was placed under the high altar.

Butler died in 1824, his modest neoclassical memorial contrasting with the style and architectural ambition of his church.

Later fitting out is itemised in an undated extract from a Post Office Directory in the Diocesan Archive; these include three stained glass windows in the sanctuary, given by the Very Revd Canon Burke in memory of his parents (1913), two altars, one of white marble and one of oak, to the memory of the Revd Fr James Lawless and the parish dead from World War I (1921) and two stained glass windows in memory of Elizabeth Livesey and Agnes Arkwright and family (1934). A baptistery chapel was added in 1923, at a cost of £160.

Early twentieth century photographs show a high altar raised on steps with brass candlesticks (said by Bolton to bear the arms of the Clifton family of Lytham), carved wall panels around the sanctuary, a segmentally curved front to the sanctuary with wooden communion rails following the curve, and a nave pulpit. At the west end the choir gallery had two arches beneath, divided by a central column incorporating a pedestalled stoup. A pipe organ dating from 1820 was placed in the gallery.

The present sanctuary arrangements date from the time of the consecration of the church by Bishop Kelly in 1992, and were carried out by the London architect Gerald Murphy (following a donation from Mr William Ryan). This involved the enlargement and levelling of the sanctuary (the high altar and altar rails had possibly already gone under a previous post-Vatican II reordering). A new stone suite of altar, ambo and presidential chair were made by S. & J. Whitehead Ltd, a Jerusalem Cross cut into the altar frontal allowing the relics of St Publianus to be visible. Other sanctuary furnishings are in African hardwood, made by Ormsby of Scarisbrick Ltd. The sanctuary platform was extended into the end bays of the aisles, where a new baptistery area was formed on the south side, incorporating the old font. The side altars were removed, and a shrine to Our Lady created in the north aisle. New reredos screens were provided in the apse, covering the old carved panels, which had been damaged, most probably during a previous reordering, and the central monstrance throne was removed.

At the west end, the central column under the balcony was also removed at this time, mainly in order to facilitate processions; the area under the balcony was enclosed with glass to form a draught lobby and narthex/meeting room. In the aisles, the defective plaster was removed from the walls and stonework left exposed and re-pointed.

In 1995 the rare early nineteenth century organ was controversially removed and replaced with an instrument by Harrison & Harrison, dating from 1897 and brought from the Seaman’s Mission at South Shields. This larger instrument obscures more of the western rose window than did its predecessor.

The list description (below) appears to date from 1966, and does not take account of the major post-Vatican II changes, particularly those of 1992.

List description


Church, 1816-19, by John Palmer, with carving and sculpture by Thomas Owen. Ashlar, with low-pitched slate roof. Tall and prominent building in mixed Gothic style. Nave with aisles, polygonal apse. West front has C12-style portal of 3 orders with tablet flower and crocketed hoodmould, above which are 3 statues on corbels (the under side of the middle corbel is a bust of George, Prince Regent, lettered on each side “G” “R” and dated in the corner “MDCCCXIIII”), all these within a giant arch with dogtooth and small carved figures. Above this arch a small parapet pierced with quatrefoils separates it from the wall above, which is set back slightly, contains an elaborate wheel window, and is flanked by octagonal turrets terminating in 3-stage pinnacles linked by a parapet of zig-zag openwork meeting a crocketed cross on the apex. Left and right of the front are side-offices (containing staircase and vestry) which have elaborately carved niches lettered respectively THOMAS OWEN SCULPTOR and JOHANNES PALMER ARCHITECTUS, the latter having a hoodmould with figured stops portraying the architect’s wife and his son. The gable above the wheel window has 3 lines of incised uncial lettering. Five-bay nave and aisles: nave has small buttresses, stepped triple lancet clerestory windows, and openwork lattice parapet; aisles have gableted buttresses and embattled parapets, 5-light windows with alternating Geometrical and Perpendicular tracery in shafted and deeply-moulded arches, hoodmoulds with figured stops; 4th bay on south side has simple priest door below ½-depth window. Short polygonal apse has buttresses at the angles, tall 5-light Perpendicular windows with transoms.

Interior: high and luminous, with rib-vaulted roofs to nave and aisles (carved bosses in the centre), 4-bay arcade of shafted piers and moulded arches with dogtooth ornament; west end is occupied by a generous internal narthex presenting a 2-bay arcade to the nave (the supporting column rising from the centre of a pedestalled stoup) and carrying a raked choir gallery with an organ at the top; east end has traceried wooden communion rail on segmental steps to sanctuary, which is framed by a very high arch, and has on each side of the altar a large carved relief, depicting the Beheading of St. John, and the Magdalen; at south side priest’s door is set in centre of elaborate carved stone screen.

History: built as thank offering by John Francis Butler, then owner of Pleasington township, said to have cost £23,000. Exceptional form of Catholic chapel for the period before Emancipation; and very elaborate use of Gothic with sculpture of great originality. (References: Pevsner; Whitaker Whalley vol. II pp. 352-7).

Listing NGR: SD6428426650

Heritage Details

Architect: John Palmer

Original Date: 1819

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade I