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13 November 2014

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You are in: Lancashire > History > Local landmarks > Local landmarks: St Walburge's

Local landmarks: St Walburge's

Ann Morgan explores the history of Preston's famous Roman Catholic Church...

Few people visiting Preston will be able to ignore St Walburge's Roman Catholic Church. Towering 309 ft above the city, its spire is the tallest of any parish church in England with only the spires of Salisbury and Norwich Anglican Cathedrals reaching higher. Standing in the Maudland district of the city, close to the site of the 12th century Mary Magdalen leper hospital which gave the area its name, it is truly a building at Preston’s historic heart. 

St Walburge's was made to be noticed. The Jesuits commissioned it in 1847, at a time of supreme religious confidence, not long after the Catholic Emancipation of the early 19th century had seen many of the legal restrictions on Catholic observances lifted. As Lancashire's population burgeoned with the arrival of many Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine, the Catholic community went from strength to strength. More than 8000 people committed to pay £1 a year to fund the construction of the church and they wanted a building to be proud of.

St Walburge's Roman Catholic Church

Their architect, Joseph Aloysius Hansom, did not let them down. A man of considerable ingenuity, who, by the time of the commission, had already designed the 'Patent Safety Cab' or 'Hansom Cab' as it was later known and founded the famous 19th century journal The Builder. Hansom really pulled out all the stops with St Walburge's, giving Preston a building that is still hailed as one of England’s most extraordinary churches today.

The spire is just the start. Wander inside and you'll be struck by the space that awaits you. Stretching a jaw-dropping 165 ft from end to end with its intricately-carved hammer beam roof 83 ft above, the building demands a strong response. For some, like architectural historian Bryan Little, for whom St Walburge's is 'a building which ranks among Joseph Hansom's best, and whose roof is perhaps the most masterly ever put on any Victorian Church', that response is admiration. For others, like Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the place evokes more unsettling feelings; he described the experience of walking into it as a 'shock' and saw the roof as 'a bad dream'.

Whether you find it awe-inspiring or disturbing, however, one thing is clear: St Walburge's is far from being a typical Victorian church. This fact is demonstrated by the decision to list the building Grade I in 1950, 16 years before plans were put forward to knock down Sir George Gilbert Scott's (now Grade I-listed) St Pancras Station and Hotel. At a time when Victorian buildings were generally regarded as ugly, old-fashioned and bound up with a shabby historical era, St Walburge's stood out as being worth saving and it still does today.

In many ways, the bold, pioneering nature of the building reflects the saint for which it is named. Daughter of the King of Wessex, born in Crediton near Exeter in 710 AD, Walpurga travelled to Württemberg in what was then the Frankish Empire to help her uncle, Saint Boniface, evangelize and heal the pagans there. Having learnt to read and write, she penned an account of her brother's travels in Palestine, a text which has led her to be hailed as the first female author in both England and Germany. Walpurga died in 779 and, following her canonization, her relics were moved to Eichstätt on 1st May 870 or Walpurgisnacht, the day on which witches were said to revel and pagans celebrated the start of spring. Following its trend of linking Christian festivals with established pagan rituals, the Church declared 1st May St Walpurga’s day and since then it has been traditional to remember the saint with the same bonfires and dances that used to mark the end of winter.

Those looking inside St Walburge’s Church can find an image of its patron saint on the war memorial set into the south wall. The central feature of this elaborate altar and reredos is a medieval Calvary which was rescued from a 14th century French Abbey ruined in the First World War. Set above eight brass plaques bearing the names of those killed in battle, this scarred fragment makes up one of the most fascinating and powerful features in the building which has stood as a monument to Lancashire Catholicism for over 150 years.

With the transfer of city status to Preston at the turn of the millennium, there was speculation that the region's grandest church might be declared a cathedral. Sadly, the reality for St Walburge's is not nearly so promising. With falling congregation numbers and growing financial constraints across the county, the Roman Catholic Church is considering plans to rationalize its churches. These include closing St Walburge's, leaving this jewel in Preston's crown empty and without any plans for its future use. Local people are fundraising vigorously to pay for much-needed maintenance and keep the church open. Not long after the Victorian Society named St Walburge's as one of its Top Ten Endangered Buildings for 2007, English Heritage put forward a substantial grant. All this will come to nothing, however, if the Diocese presses ahead with its plans. Within a few years, this stunning building could very well be locked up and left to take its chances against vandalism and decay.

So if you are passing Weston Street, why not pop into St Walburge's? You won't be disappointed and it may be your last chance to see inside one of the most astonishing churches in Britain today.

Article sent in by website user Ann Morgan

The views expressed on this page are those of the contributor and the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the BBC.

last updated: 15/08/2008 at 09:59
created: 15/08/2008

Have Your Say

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Thomas M. Leigh, Architect
I have been doing my family genealogy research since 2007 and have found that several of my grandfather and grandmother's brothers and sisters were married at St. Walburge's, that my grandmother's brother Joseph Smith was one of the altar boys there in the 1920s to 40s, and that her father, Joseph Smith, Sr. was a sacristan or caretaker there. I have 2 family postcards that were sent to relatives in the US showing the exteriors and interiors around the 1930s. It would be a shame to see this historic landmark fail.My Leighs and Smiths came from the Maudland and Moor Lane areas of Preston. Related families include the McKearney, Bonney, O'Melia, Rawsthorn, Flanagan, Dixon, and Clitheroe.

Anne Kingston
I attended a Christmas concert at St Walburge's on 19th Dec. What a magnificent space it should be saved and should be of cathedral status.

Leslie G Wilson
It would be a tragic loss if St.Walburge's were to close.However being located in close proximity to the university,I can only see it's congregation falling.It needs some kind of preservation order from the government.

John Dempster
The tower of St Walburge's is built on limestone blocks formerly used by Preston & Lancaster railay. Information Anthoney Hewitson's History of Preston first published 1883 last known republication 1969 by S.R. Publishers Ltd., Wakefield.

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