Building » Wigan – St John

Wigan – St John

Standishgate, Wigan WN1

One of a pair of outstanding early 19th century Catholic churches in Wigan. A Jesuit church built in 1819 in a Classical style that offers a bold and presumably deliberate contrast to the Gothic of the nearby secular church of St Mary. The church interior is a single volume, with a gallery at the west end and a magnificent sanctuary ensemble, dominated by J.J. Scoles’s temple-like baldacchino over the high altar.

In  1573  the  Bishop  of  Chester  described  the  Catholics  of  Wigan  as  ‘stubborn recusants’, and the old faith was to endure in the town throughout penal times. A Jesuit school or college was  established  outside the town,  where in 1687 Bishop Leyburn confirmed no fewer than 1331 people in two September days.  Work started about this time on the building of a church, but the Protestant Revolution of 1688 meant that it was never finished.

In 1740 Fr Charles Brockholes SJ took up residence in Standishgate where he built a house with chapel at his own expense. From here he administered to a congregation of 300 ‘customers’, as discretion demanded they be described. This was replaced by a purpose built chapel in 1785, which was located approximately on the current site of the Walmesley Cross.

By 1819 the congregation had increased from 300 to 3000, and a new church was needed. The foundation stone was laid on January 27 1818, and the church was opened on 24 June 1819.   It was built to hold over 1000 people, and cost just over £6000.  It  was  built  at  the  back  of  the  site,  behind  the  1785  chapel,  which  was demolished once the new church was complete and replaced with two houses framing the access from Standishgate (only one of which survives, photograph top left). The architect of the church is not known for certain, but Bryan Little suggests Robert Haulbrook, a local mason, whose bill accounted for almost half of the cost.   J.J. Scoles carried out the earliest decoration of the church, in 1834. Scoles also made sketches for the high altar, and the beautiful wooden circular tempietto over the present marble altar is presumably his design, as part of the Rev Henry Gradwell’s augmentation of the chapel.  The  interior  was  further  augmented  in 1849  by the addition of pilasters around the internal side walls and the provision of four stained glass in the sanctuary, the latter presented by Fr Henry Walmesley.   The central window of the sanctuary was blocked at this time to show the internal decorations to better effect. In 1874 the window was unblocked and a stained glass window by William Gardner of St Helens installed.

In 1885 the interior was paved with tiles and new benches and gaslight installed. In 1895  marble  and  alabaster  altar  rails  were  installed  in  memory  of  Rev  Joseph Gradwell SJ, made by J and H Patterson of Manchester, and new flooring put in the sanctuary, by a Mr Preston of Wigan.

The Jesuits handed the church over to the archdiocese in 1933.

In 1959 the wooden high altar was replaced by the present marble one, and a marble Lady altar introduced. The permanent altars enabled the church to be consecrated, and this took place on June 17 1959.

In 1962 one of the two houses of 1819 framing the approach from Standishgate was demolished in order to widen that access. At the same time, a new modern block housing a baptistery and sacristies was built, from designs by T.B. Marsden of Southport.


In about 1994 the interior was reordered by Anthony Grimshaw Associates. A dais and nave altar were installed, with ambo, credence table, and presidential chair. The benches for the congregation were arranged around this dais on three sides. A carpet was fitted in the nave, repeating the pattern of the tiles below, and a polychrome scheme of redecoration carried out.

The 1959 Lady altar is now relocated to the 1962 baptistery.


Roman Catholic church. Dated 1819 on frieze of colonnaded porch; restoration in progress at time of inspection (July 1992).

MATERIALS: sandstone ashlar, hipped slate roof.

STYLE: Classical. PLAN: rectangular, set back from, and at right-angles to street.

EXTERIOR: 2-storey 5-bay symmetrical west front with full-width Ionic colonnaded porch, the frieze inscribed “ERECTED ANNO DOMINI MDCCCXIX”, 1st-floor impost band, cornice with blocking course and small central upstand. Large round- headed doorways in the 3 centre bays, all with stepped voussoirs, panelled double doors and fanlights with radiating glazing bars; and at 1st floor large round-headed windows in the 1st, 3rd and 5th bays, that in the centre now filled with C20 mosaic and the others with renewed arched joinery. 4-bay side walls, pilastered, with large round-headed windows in the 1st 3 bays; small vestry with hipped roof attached to 4th bay of north side; louvred cupola with domed roof over 4th bay of south side. Rear: large round-headed window in centre, flanked by pairs of 12-pane sashes on 2 levels.

INTERIOR: not accessible at time of inspection, but noted to have Corinthian pilasters with entablature and prominent mutuled cornice, internal apse with giant Corinthian semi-columns and elaborate baldacchino, and west gallery on Corinthian columns. Forms group with Walmesley monument in front (qv) and with No.93 (St John’s Club (qv)) beside entrance passage.

(Little B: Catholic Churches since 1623: London: 1966-; Watkin D: The Buildings of Britain: Regency: London: 1982-).

Heritage Details

Architect: Possibly Richard Haulbrook, mason

Original Date: 1819

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: II*