Building » Preston – St Walburge

Preston – St Walburge

Weston Street, Preston PR2 2QE

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

Arguably the supreme monument of Lancashire Catholicism, built by J. A. Hansom at a time of resurgent confidence. The 309 ft needle spire is a major city landmark, its white limestone contrasting vividly with the brown sandstone of the church. The wide volume of the nave, with its hammerbeam roof, is a remarkable accomplishment of Victorian carpentry and design. Part of an important complex of historic buildings to the west of the city centre.

St Walburge was an eighth century English nun who joined St Boniface’s mission in Germany. She has passed into German folklore, and the night of May 1 (the date of the transfer of her bodily remains from Heidenheim, where she had died, to Eichstatt) is known as Walpurgisnacht.

The church is in the Maudland district of the city, at the former heart of cotton manufacturing.   In 1847 the Jesuits commissioned Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803-82) to design the church. A building housing a school and temporary church (later Talbot Library and parish hall) was built first, to Hansom’s designs, in 1847-49.  The church was built from the pennies of the faithful, and some 8,000 people undertook to pay £1 a year. The foundation stone was laid in May 1850 and the building opened on 3 August 1854.

The tower was built in c1857 and the spire added in 1867, both to Hansom’s designs.

As originally completed the church had a flat east end; the present apse was added in 1872 by S.J. Nicholl of London.

There is a red brick former convent building to the east of the Hansom building of 1847-9.

In 1894 a new school was built facing onto Weston Street (now CAFOD offices for the NW region).

In 1903 a new presbytery was also built on Weston Street, its front elevation facing towards the church, and connected to it by a corridor. This was built to house four priests and two Jesuit brothers.

The Jesuits handed over the building to the diocese in 1955. Since 2014 it has been a Shrine Church run by the Institute of Christ the King.


The church has always elicited strong responses. Howell and Sutton describe it as ‘one of the most extraordinary churches in Britain’. Pevsner was less sure, perhaps disconcerted by its Wagnerian character: ‘Nothing prepares you for the shock of the interior’, he wrote; the roof for him was ‘a bad dream’. Bryan Little was more enthusiastic: ‘a building which ranks among Joseph Hansom’s best, and whose roof is perhaps the most masterly ever put on any Victorian Church’.

Although archaeologically correct in its Gothic detailing, the interior of the church conforms to the Jesuit (and Oratorian) requirement for open, uninterrupted views of the altar and pulpit. Howell describes it as a counter-Reformation church in Gothic form. Less flatteringly, it was described by The Ecclesiologist, the magazine of the Cambridge  Camden  Society  and  promoter  of  Tractarian  medievalism,  as  ‘this flaunting offspring of the unhappy nuptials of Oratorianism and true Christian ecclesiology’ (Quoted in Howell and Sutton).

Perhaps the most significant accolade awarded the church is its being grade I listed in 1950, an astonishingly early recognition of the importance of the building. For a description of the building, please refer to the list entry, below. Additional points:

The architect for the apse was S. J. Nicholl, not Nichols as stated in the list entry.

Some statistics: St Walburge’s has the tallest parish church spire in England (at 309 feet outstripping that at Louth, which claims to be the tallest, by a full 14 feet). Only the spires of Salisbury (404 feet) and Norwich Anglican (315 feet) cathedrals are higher. Other volumes are equally impressive: the interior is 165 feet long, 55 feet wide and up to 83 ft high. The roof is supported by 14 hammer beams with full-size timber carvings of saints on the beam ends. The west elevation is dominated by the rose window, 22 feet in diameter. The 7-light east window reaches a height of 33 feet.

The organ is by William Hill of London and was commissioned and built in 1855. The stained glass windows of the apse are by Hardman.

The chapel of St Joseph was completed in 1877.

The war memorial in the nave is an altar devoted to the memory of the men of the Royal Lancashire Regiment – ‘the Pals’ – who lost their lives in France. The central feature of this is a medieval Calvary salvaged from a French abbey ruined in the Great War.

Entry amended by AHP 20.12.2020

List description


Roman Catholic church. Begun 1850, opened 1854, tower completed c.1857 and spire added 1867, all by J.A.Hansom; with apse 1872, by Nichols of London. Coursed brown sandstone rubble with lighter-coloured sandstone dressings, slate roof; steeple of white limestone. Nave with short 3-sided apse and very tall south steeple. The nave and apse are in C13 French Gothic style, the steeple of C15 East Midlands type. The nave, a very large single-cell vessel with steeply pitched roof, has the entrance front at the west end: this has corner turrets with pinnacles and 2 large buttresses framing a wide centre and narrow outer bays, the centre containing coupled trefoil-headed doorways with shafts under a 2-centred arch moulded in 2 orders, the outer bays with cusped 2-centred arched doorways; over the whole, an arcade of nine 2-centred arched 2-light windows with shafts, quatrefoil heads and linked hoodmoulds; a very large wheel window in the centre, and spherical triangles with trefoil tracery in the outer bays; and over the wheel window an arcade of 5 stepped lancet lights. The 13-bay side walls have emphatic buttresses, and tall attenuated 2-centred arched 3-light windows with slender shafts and bar tracery quatrefoils in the heads; the 3-sided full-height apse, in matching and accentuated style, has full-height buttresses terminating in pinnacles, with blind-arcading to the top stages, and very tall attenuated windows with slender shafts and multifoils, with 3 lights in the east end and 2 lights at the sides, all under relieving arches. The tower (to the right of the 7th bay) is square in plan and of 3 tall stages, elevated on an open base of large 2-centred arches, with angle-buttresses terminating in pinnacles and a shaft in the centre of each side adding vertical emphasis, 2 tall slender 2-light belfry windows in each side, with shafts, cruciform tracery, and gablets with pinnacles; and a very tall octagonal spire (reaching 314 feet), the base clasped by pinnacles and small arched flying buttresses, with 2-light lucarnes in the cardinal sides.

INTERIOR: like a medieval hall, with a spectacular hammer-beam roof which has painted statues on the hammer beams, arch bracing and cusped tracery; corbelled canted wall-pulpit on north side, with sounding board, and approached by wall-staircase with 3 arched windows which have cusped tracery; former organ loft in tower with large arched opening and projected gallery; elaborate wooden west gallery (with organ relocated from tower 1877); panelled dado, and windows with geometrical-patterned stained glass (by Maycock); various tained glass memorial windows at east end, by Hardman of Birmingham and Mayer of Munich, including one to Henry Lord Holland.

Heritage Details

Architect: J. A. Hansom

Original Date: 1854

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Grade I