Building » Whalley – English Martyrs

Whalley – English Martyrs

The Sands, Whalley, Lancs BB7

A modest structure, built as a temporary church-hall in 1926. The intention was to build a church in the west range of Whalley Abbey which, along with a former farmhouse (now the presbytery), had been acquired by the Diocese of Salford in the 1920s. The church is not a building of special architectural interest, but occupies a site of high architectural, historical, archaeological and townscape significance. 

The church of the English Martyrs was built in 1926, in the grounds of Whalley Abbey, a fourteenth century Cistercian house. After the dissolution the abbey passed into private hands, and Ralph Assheton built an Elizabethan manor house. At the time of the sale in 1922, most of the abbey site was acquired by the Anglican Diocese of Manchester (later passing to the Diocese of Blackburn). However, the western part of the site, comprising farmland and a late Georgian farmhouse, as well as the west range of the abbey, with Lay Brothers’ dormitory over, were acquired by the Catholic Diocese of Salford, with a view to establishing a new parish on this ancient religious site. The Rev. James McDonnell was put in charge.  Bishop Henshaw wrote in a letter (quoted in The Tablet, 26 November 1921) ‘For many years I have looked forward with hope to seeing a Catholic altar and church, dedicated to the English martyrs, once more set up in historic Whalley, where the ruins of its once-glorious Abbey still tell the pathetic tale of the old days of Catholic England and the tragedy of desecration and destruction. I thank God that Father McDonnell in his zeal has taken up the heavy task of reconstructing a Catholic parish of Whalley.’  The Georgian farmhouse became the presbytery and it was intended that the west range of the medieval abbey should be converted to serve as the church (The Tablet, 19 December 1925). Considerable sums would be needed for this, and in the meantime a ‘temporary school-chapel, tastefully designed’ (The Tablet, 19 December 1925) was built at a cost of £2000, opening in 1926.

This ‘temporary’ building remains in use as the Catholic parish church, and has recently undergone extensive renovation. By contrast, after serving for some time as the parish hall, the west range is no longer in use, and is on English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register.


The building is orientated roughly north-south, but this description follows conventional liturgical orientation, as if the altar was at the east end.

A small building, resembling a school-parish hall (for which use it was intended). T-shaped on plan, with hipped roof sacristy on the north side and kitchen and WCs on the south. The latter, along with the west front and east end with canted apse are built of hard engineering red brick with terracotta dressings, while the flank walls, sacristy and gable of the west front are of black and white false timber framing. The roofs are clad with double Roman pantiles. The timber framing elements combined with the Perpendicular Gothic detailing of the windows of the entrance front and the lancet Gothic of the apse provide a mixed grill of architectural motifs. A projecting entrance porch has a Gothic doorway and a 1926 datestone in the parapet. There is also a foundation stone, laid by Bishop Henshaw on 6 February 1926.

The entrance porch contains a holy water stoup, possibly from Whalley Abbey. It is presumably not the ancient font, reported in The Tablet in 1925 as having been given to the parish; of this there is no sight.  The interior is a single space, with a timber roof of rafter and purlin tied truss construction, ceiled at collar level, and with shaped detail to the visible part of the trusses. There is a gallery at the west end with timber Gothic front, and a wide pointed arch at the entrance to the sanctuary, which contains timber Gothic style furnishings.  Other furnishings include glazed ceramic Stations of the Cross, and stained glass windows in the sanctuary and below the gallery at the west end (the latter two given by Mr and Mrs Ralph Holden of Blackburn, and including a window to their son Herbert, who died in the Great War less than a month before the Armistice). Statues include a possibly medieval (?) figure of Our Lady in a shrine to the left of the sanctuary arch.

Heritage Details

Architect: Not recorded

Original Date: 1926

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Not Listed