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Victorian Preston and the church building boom

Posted on - 13th March, 2022 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, History, Moor Park, Preston City Centre, Preston News, University campus
Church of St Walburge Pic: Francis Franklin
Church of St Walburge Pic: Francis Franklin

Many of the best buildings in Preston are churches. There was a great religious revival in the 19th century. As a result, many Churches of all denominations were built in Preston. Over 50 churches and chapels were in use by 1870. Church buildings often find a new use.

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Aerial view of St Walburges. The rail line to Blackpool heads left Pic: Google
Aerial view of St Walburges. The rail line to Blackpool heads left Pic: Google

Perhaps most important function of the churches was social. Before the welfare state the Church was an important force for social support, and often the only help for the poor. Churches frequently had schools, welfare societies, and self-help groups associated with them.

Preston still has 20 churches in the central area alone Pic: Google
Preston still has 20 churches in the central area alone Pic: Google

The Church of England

In the early 19th century, the Vicar of Preston, Roger Carus Wilson, went on a church building spree. 20 out of the 50 churches built were by him. These include St Peter’s (1825), St Paul’s (1825), and Christ Church (1836).

St Peter’s Church is now part of UCLan and has been converted into an arts centre.

St Peter's is now used by UCLan as an arts centre Pic: UCLan
St Peter’s is now used by UCLan as an arts centre Pic: UCLan

St Peter’s now sits like an island, surrounded by new-build university buildings. In the above image, far right, you can still see the end of a now demolished row of houses. There was some nervousness about the demolition, as the Miley Tunnel passes beneath the ground there.

St Peter's today, surrounded by newer buildings Pic: Google
St Peter’s today, surrounded by newer buildings Pic: Google

Methodism and John Wesley visits Preston

John Wesley visited Preston frequently, often speaking to the weaving communities. He also went to Walton-le-Dale and Bamber Bridge.

He last spoke in 1790. A large crowd had gathered in market square, where he spoke from the Obelisk.

The main Methodist church was at Moor Park. It was built in 1862 and closed in 1984.

Former Moor Park Methodist Church Pic: Anthony Parkes
Former Moor Park Methodist Church Pic: Anthony Parkes

Methodist chapel

Another survivor is Saul Street Primitive Methodist Church school building, now part of the Masonic Hall. This intriguing building sits next to the Law Courts, backing on to Ringway.

Saul Street frontage of the Masonic Hall Pic: Preston Masonic Hall
Saul Street frontage of the Masonic Hall Pic: Preston Masonic Hall

In the image below, the building with the pitched roof was the school. The chapel itself was demolished. The Masonic Hall faces on to Saul Street and is used as a social venue. The Chapel was built in 1837 with the school added later. In 1944 the present Masononic hall was built, surrounding the school building.

Preston Masonic Hall from above Pic: Google
Preston Masonic Hall from above Pic: Google

Catholic churches

The best know Catholic church in Preston is St Walburge’s. This fine Grade I listed building, can seat 1,000 worshippers.

Unfortunately, in recent years St Walburge’s has been under threat, with a leaking roof and failing heating system. A £3.5 million fundraising drive for restorations was started and in 2021 a Historic England Grant was awarded for over £250,000.

“We are very happy to announce that St. Walburge’s Shrine Church has been awarded a £252,210 grant by Historic England for urgent roof repairs to ensure that the magnificent historic building lives on for centuries to come,” said a church statement. 

Roof repairs should be completed by the Spring.

Anthony Hewitson on the poverty and squalor around the churches

Anthony Hewitson was a social commentator and closely followed religious events in the town. He also reported on the atrocious living conditions in the areas served by the churches.

He described Preston as: “Myriads of children, ragged, sore-headed, bare-legged, dirty and amazingly alive amid all of it; wretched looking matrons, hugging saucy, screaming infants to their chests… bevies of brazen faced hussies looking out of grim doorways… Dissolute brawny armed females.”

St Saviours Church in Avenham in 1971 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
St Saviours Church in Avenham in 1971 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

St Saviours was the most deprived district: “Few districts are more vitiated, more distinctly poverty stricken, more entirely at enmity with soap and water than that in which the church stands.”

The Church and charity had traditionally been the only source of support for the poor. However, the state gradually took over, beginning in the early 20th century with the old age pension.



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