Building » Formby – Our Lady of Compassion

Formby – Our Lady of Compassion

School Lane, Formby, Liverpool 37

A church built in transitional Lombard Romanesque/Gothic style by the distinguished Catholic architect Henry Clutton, on land given by Thomas Weld-Blundell of Blundell Hall. Although externally plain, the interior volume impresses, and contains a number of features and furnishings  of great quality and interest. Chief among these is the fitting out in the 1920s of the baptistery and Motherhood Chapel, by artists associated with C. R. Ashbee’s Gloucestershire School of Handicraft. The church was altered and adapted after the Second World War by the notable Liverpool architect F. X. Velarde. Catholic worship has taken place here since 1686, when the first chapel (now the presbytery) was built. Together with the churchyard and its structures, the Rectory with its outbuildings and the presbytery, the church forms part of a group of considerable architectural, townscape and historical interest.

During penal times Catholics in the Formby area were served by priests sheltered at nearby Catholic houses, notably Ince Blundell, Alt Grange and (until the Formby family became Anglican) Formby Hall. In 1686, with the short-lived easing of restrictions on Catholic observance, a chapel was built by the Blundell family in the present School Lane. With the accession of William and Mary it became a barn and then a cottage, before being reclaimed as a chapel in the 1780s. Later a convent, it still survives and is listed Grade II (list entry no. 1075863).

The present church was built by Mgr James Carr, who took over the Formby mission in 1862. Before that he had been sent to the Isle of Man, where in 1857-9 he built the church of St Mary at Douglas, from designs by the London architect Henry Clutton. The land for the new church at Formby was given by Thomas Weld-Blundell of Ince Blundell, who also gave £1,500 towards the cost of the building and £100 towards altar furniture. Mgr Carr again employed Clutton, a well-connected Catholic convert who was brother-in-law to Cardinal Manning. The foundation stone was laid in 1863 and the building opened on 14 August 1864 (the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption) by the Bishop of Liverpool. It was built by Parker & Parker of Liverpool, with seating for 450, and the total cost was over £3,500.

The church was relatively cheaply built, and designed to be augmented and enriched as funds allowed. The capitals of the nave columns were originally left plain, only receiving their enrichment in 1902 (when an organ was also installed in the western gallery). It is possible that the south porch and the lean-to addition running along the outside of the south aisle, housing confessionals, were also built about this time. In 1907 a new high altar was consecrated by Bishop Whiteside and in 1916 side altars and a tabernacle installed in memory of Mgr Carr (who died in 1913 and is buried outside the church). In 1923 the baptistery was built, again in memory of Mgr Carr, at a cost of just over £1,779. The decoration of the baptistery was carried out by Paul Woodroffe, one of the craftsmen associated with C. R. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft at Chipping Campden (which dissolved in 1908). Three years later, the apsidal Chapel of the Motherhood of Our Lady was added, giving off the south aisle at the west end. Here the sculpture of Our Lady with the infant Jesus is by Alec Miller, also associated with the Guild of Handicraft.

A programme of works undertaken from 1947 under the direction of F. X. Velarde included the rebuilding of the organ gallery and the introduction of glazed vestibule doors at the main entrance. The interior was redecorated in light colours, overlaying the original polychromy (some of which has been revealed in the course of present redecoration). New statues of Our Lady and St Joseph were installed over their respective side altars and new altar rails and furniture introduced.

In 1991 the church was reordered by Richard O’Mahony, with the removal of the high altar and the altar rails. St Joseph’s Chapel became the Lady Chapel and the original Lady Chapel the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The font was moved from the baptistery to its present position under the west gallery. A new meeting room was also built at this time.

In 2007 the baptistry was damaged by fire but has now been repaired. In 2008 the church underwent a major internal refurbishment.


Large church in transitional Lombard Romanesque/Gothic style, built of red brick laid in English Bond with some yellow brick bands, stone dressings, steep tile roof, also with occasional yellow tile bands. The church consists of nave and aisles, with short transepts projecting to the north and south and apsidal chapels at the east end. There is no tower. Later additions include the western baptistery and stair turret (1923), an apsidal chapel at the west end of the south aisle (1926), the north porch and lean-to confessionals on the south side (c.1906).  Sacristies and hall etc are joined on to the church at the west end, extended with a new meeting room (1981).

The original external design is plain and economical, with high-level plain lancet windows with stone dressings and hoodmoulds to the four unbuttressed walls of the nave. A stone band runs below the windows at sill level and below this, yellow brick bands. Dentillated brick corbels around the whole church. The transepts are gabled, with buttress/piers at the corners, and beyond these the three apsidal chapels (the central one larger).

The church is entered via the north porch, a later (c.1906) gabled Gothic structure built of hard red brick laid in English garden wall bond. The two entrance doors are separated by a statue of Our Lady of Compassion, 1906. Within the porch, the original entrance has been remodelled (by Velarde) with glazed vestibule doors. The church has a wide and lofty nave of five bays with paired columns with ring-shafts, a favourite Clutton motif. As stated earlier, the rich naturalistic carving of the capitals dates from 1902.  There is no clerestory, and the nave roof consists of closely-spaced rafters, following Italian Romanesque precedents. The aisles have steep plaster ceilings, while the sanctuary is rib vaulted. Velarde’s gallery at the west end of the nave is a 1947 replacement of the original gallery. It sits on reinforced concrete supports and has a curved front with lozenge panels.

The church retains a number of notable furnishings. Eight statues on the apsidal wall of the sanctuary are thought to be the patron saints of eight children of the donors of the previous high altar, built in 1907. The statues are placed on elaborately carved corbels and beneath niches and are, from north to south: St Margaret of Scotland, St George, St Anthony, St Peter, St Paul, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Patrick, and St William, Archbishop of York. Below the statue of St Margaret is a small aumbry. Over the altar is a hanging rood. The flanking chapels were originally dedicated to Our Lady (north) and St Joseph (south), but with the 1981 reordering, the north chapel became the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The tabernacle over the altar was part of the previous high altar and is decorated on the doors with enamels depicting the four evangelists. The statue to the left of the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows had previously been to the immediate left of the high altar. The Lady Chapel, to the south of the main altar, was previously dedicated to St Joseph and has woodworking tools on the walls and a panel at the front of the altar representing his death. The wooden triptych shows Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (maker unknown). Towards the west end of the south aisle is a stained glass window of St Stephen. Despite its modern character, this dates from the 1920s and although very different from the character of the glass in the baptistery presumably belongs to the enrichment of the church undertaken at that time by Chipping Campden artists. Further west is the apsidal Motherhood Chapel, housing a sculpture of the Virgin and Child by Alec Miller, dated 1925. The shape of this chapel, particularly the roof, informed the design of the new meeting room, built in 1981. At the west end of the church, underneath the gallery, is the font, square with short stubby marble columns at the corners with enriched capitals, brought here from the baptistery in 1981. On the back wall, a stone panel of the Last Supper, originally part of the high altar.

Near the main entrance at the west end of the north gallery is the baptistery. Its fitting out, and the ornament on the bridge link to the (later, rebuilt) gallery was (according to parish sources) carried out under the direction of Paul Woodroffe, and include stained glass windows, mosaic walls, marble floor and finely crafted iron gates in the baptistery, opus sectile work with inlaid mother of pearl in the spandrels to the arched entrance and carved angels and corbels to the bridge.  A Latin plaque to the left of the baptistery gates records the service of Mgr Carr. The stained glass windows in the baptistery represent (from left to right) Naaman the leper who was healed in the Jordan, John baptising Jesus, the martyrdom of St Alban, Pope St Gregory meeting slave boys from England (‘Angels, not Angles’), St Paulinus baptising in York, and the open gates of heaven.

Entry amended by AHP 9.1.2021

Heritage Details

Architect: Henry Clutton

Original Date: 1863

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed