Building » Burnley – St Mary of the Assumption

Burnley – St Mary of the Assumption

Yorkshire Street, Burnley, Lancs BB10

A large urban Puginian Gothic Revival church of 1846-49, with strong connections with the Catholic Towneley family. The church was the successor to a chapel built in c.1817, which in turn had replaced the chapel at Towneley Hall. The current church was built on a site owned by the Towneley family with stone from the family’s quarries, a Towneley chapel was furnished in 1879, and the family’s agent and shorthorn keeper paid for a high altar and reredos (by E.W. Pugin; largely destroyed). Despite the unfinished tower and spire, the church and adjacent convent building have a strong townscape presence.

After the Reformation, the Towneley family’s chapel at Towneley Hall became an important local Catholic centre. The Hall had several priest holes, as well as hiding spaces for altar vessels, and Catholic books. In 1774, thirty nine people are recorded as attending Mass there; in 1784, twenty five. In 1798, a small Sunday school was built by the Towneleys at the corner of what are now Todmorden Road and Smalley Street. Over time, this single-storey building was enlarged and became a day school.

By 1814, the chapel in Towneley Hall had become too small, due to the expansion of Burnley, the growth of the industries, and an influx of Irish workers. A meeting of Catholics was held to discuss the possibility of a new chapel. Nothing seems to have come of this until 1817, when Peregrine Towneley gave the site for a chapel in Burnley Wood (near today’s Tarleton Avenue), and also donated £1,000. A total sum of £2,000 was raised towards a chapel and a house. Both were completed before a petition was sent in 1817 to the Bishop asking for a resident priest. The first mission priest was Fr Charles Lupton, who lived at Towneley Hall. In 1820, 269 People attended Mass regularly. In 1829, the chapel was enlarged.

In the 1840s, Burnley expanded further after the arrival of the railway, and it was decided to build a new church closer to the centre of town. The chosen site in Eastgate, which was large enough for a church and schools, was offered by Mr Eastwood who held a lease from Peregrine Towneley. The architects J. G. Weightman and M. E. Hadfield of Sheffield were appointed, with Duckett Brothers of Burnley as the builders. The fine yellow grit stone for the church came from a quarry on the Towneley estates in Todmorden and Walsden. The overall style of the church was to be Decorated Gothic, strongly influenced by the medieval church of St Andrew at Heckington, Lincolnshire, and similar to Weightman & Hadfield’s contemporary Catholic Cathedral at Sheffield (1846-50). The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Brown on the feast of the Assumption in 1846. The original estimate was for £15,000; later economies brought the final cost down to £10,000. The projected spire remained unbuilt, either due to economies or to structural problems. (In fact, the tower itself appears to be truncated, as the bases of truncated window openings are visible at parapet level.) The church was opened on 2 August 1849 by Bishop Brown, with a still largely unfurnished sanctuary. The building was described in The Annual Catholic Register(1850) as a ‘large cross church of the first class’. New boys’ and girls’ schools were built south of the church and the old chapel was re-erected nearby to be used as further classrooms (later as parish assembly rooms). The girls’ school was briefly run by the Sisters of Charity who stayed in two cottages near the church, and then moved to a building on the site of the present convent. They had left by 1861. After an interval, the Sisters of Mercy arrived in 1872 to help with the provision of education. Their convent was built between 1881 and 1885 to the east of the church, and partly on the site of the semi-detached house next to the presbytery.

In 1850, a single bell cast by C. & G. Mears of London was dedicated and blessed. In the 1850s, new boundary walls were built and the east window was installed by the Marsland family as memorial to James Marsland (died 1851). In 1855, the organ by Gray & Davison of London was installed. In the 1860s, Richard Eastwood, steward and agent of the Towneley estates, together with Mr Culshaw, the Towneleys’ Shorthorn Keeper, gave £4,000 for a new reredos and high altar, designed by E. W.  Pugin. The money came largely from the prize money won by Eastwood’s racing horse ‘Butterfly’ at the Epsom Oaks in 1860. The east window was raised for the installation of the reredos, a pulpit and side screens were installed and the sanctuary decorated.

In 1870, the chancel roof was painted with depictions of female figures from the Old Testament. On 5 October 1879, the Towneley Chapel at the northeast was opened, as a memorial to Colonel John Towneley (died 1878) and his son, Richard Henry (died 1877). It was dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, apparently a reference to Colonel John’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who had become a Sister of Notre Dame with the name ‘Sister Marie des Saints Anges’. In 1879, parish reading rooms were built by voluntary labour. In 1892, a new boundary wall was built, followed by a new infants’ school in 1895.

For the Golden Jubilee of the church in 1899, the church was redecorated (by Messrs Aspinall of Burnley) with cartoons of the Evangelists by local artist Frank Lynch. Electric lights were installed, as well as skylights in the two transepts. During a week’s celebration in August 1899, Cardinal Vaughan visited the church. In 1901, ten stained glass windows by Mayer of Munich were installed, as gifts for the silver jubilee of Canon Morrissey. He had also installed the statues of Our Lady and St Joseph on either side of the chancel arch, brought back from holiday in Italy (and originally placed under Gothic canopies). In 1910-11, the southeast chapel was fitted with a new altar and reredos (designed by Mgr Cooke), and dedicated to the Sacred Heart, as a memorial to Canon Morrissey (died 1903). It was opened by Bishop John Vaughan on 8 January 1911. On 12 September 1929, the church was consecrated by Bishop Henshawe.

In 1974, a major campaign of repair and reordering was completed. New central heating was introduced, the church rewired, a new floor installed, the roof made watertight, and the exterior cleaned, repaired and repointed. The interior was redecorated and the sanctuary reordered. As part of the latter, the altar and reredos by E. W. Pugin were removed and only one statue and one relief panel retained (now in the tower porch and narthex). The pulpit, font and altar rails were presumably also then removed. A new plain marble forward altar, tabernacle stand, lectern and font were installed, and the sanctuary area extended further west.


The church is fully described in the list entry (see below). The chancel is incorrectly described as having a ‘north vestry’ in the list description. The area north of the chancel is in fact the Towneley Chapel, whose street entrance (with three coats of arms above the moulding) is currently blocked from the inside. The sacristy is in fact to the south, off the south transept.

The following are additional points:

  • The 1855 organ by Gray & Davison of London is still in situ and now on the BIOS National Pipe Organ Register.
  • The pipe organ in the north transept dates from the 1960s and comes from the closed church of St Joseph, Nelson.
  • The southeast chapel, dedicated to the Sacred Heart and the memory of Canon Morrissey, has marble rails with brass gates, a marble altar and reredos (1910-11).
  • There are three inserted confessionals at the west ends of the aisles and in the south transept.
  • The Stations of the Cross are plaster casts painted white with a gilded background.
  • The altarpiece in the Towneley Chapel was carved by Mr Aspinall of Burnley and the saints on gold ground were painted by F. Frampton of London.
  • The current sanctuary furnishings dated from the 1974 reordering and are of no particular historic or aesthetic value. The font (constructed of breeze blocks), lectern and altar are faced in white marble, while the tabernacle stand and gradine at the east are of white and green marble. The hanging crucifix with a figure of the Risen Christ in the sanctuary dates from the post-war period.
  • Two parts survive from the former reredos by E. W. Pugin: a statue of St John in the tower porch and a panel of the Last Supper in the narthex. Both were in the right half of the reredos. These were originally complemented by a relief of the Sermon on the Mount and a statue of St Hubert (both lost).

List description:


Roman Catholic church. 1846-49. By Weightman and Hadfield. Coursed squared sandstone, slate roofs. Decorated style.

PLAN: nave with west tower (uncompleted), north and south aisles, north and south transepts, chancel with north vestry and south chapel.

EXTERIOR: the 2-stage tower, with a moulded plinth, angle-buttresses and a canted stair-turret near the north-east corner, has a 2-centred arched west doorway with a deep surround moulded in 2 orders and a hood-mould with figured stops; a very large 2-centred arched 5-light west window with Decorated tracery and a hood-mould with figured stops and carved cresting which extends upwards to meet the carved corbel of a canopied niche containing a statue; and a parapet incorporating the bases of 2 intended windows in each side. The 5-bay nave has segmental-pointed 2-light clerestory windows with tracery, coupled in each bay except the westernmost which has a single window. The aisles are buttressed and have large 2-centred arched 3-light windows with varied Decorated tracery and hood-moulds with figured stops, except in the 2nd bay where each aisle has a gabled porch with a 2-centred arched doorway, double-chamfered with semi-columns which have carved caps. The transepts have angle buttresses and differing windows: that on the north side has a 3-light window like those of the aisles, but that on the south side has a circular window with elaborate and unusual tracery including mouchettes. The north chapel has a moulded arched doorway and a 2-light window. The chancel has a large 2-centred arched 5-light window with elaborate Decorated tracery, and above this a tripartite niche with a statue of the Virgin and a carved crocketed surround.

INTERIOR: spacious and well-proportioned: 5-bay aisle arcades of alternately cylindrical and octagonal columns with triple-moulded caps carrying double-chamfered 2-centred arches; single hammerbeam roof with arch bracing and 3 tiers of arched wind-bracing; tall double-chamfered transept arches springing from semi-octagonal responds; large chancel arch with clustered shafts and 3 orders of deep moulding; chancel altered by relocation of altar and removal of reredos, but retains fine stained glass east window of c1851-5; 2-bay arcades to side chapels, each on a polished granite column with vigorously carved natural foliation to the cap; Towneley Chapel (north), commemorating Col. John Towneley (d.1878) and his son Richard (d.1877) has good screens of mahogany, marble and brass, elaborate carved wooden reredos, panelling.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: the attached railings, enclosing the north and south sides of the plot, are of cast-iron, in simple bar form with needle-eye tops above the rail, divided into sections by twisted standards with fleur-de-lys heads; and those on the north side have a gateway in line with the tower, with a pair of square stone gate piers in Gothic style and elaborate cast-iron gates.

Listing NGR: SD84605325

Heritage Details

Architect: Weightman & Hadfield

Original Date: 1849

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade II