Church of the English Martyrs

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

To this church a name which is general property has been given. Each of our religious sects can number its martyrs. In the good old times cruelty was a reciprocal thing amongst professing Christians; it was a pre-eminently mutual affair amongst the two great religious parties in the land – the Protestants and the Catholics, – for when one side got into power they slaughtered their opponents, and when the other became paramount the compliment was returned. The church we have here to describe is dedicated to those English Catholics who, in the stormy days of persecution, were martyred. It is situated on the northern side of the town, in a new and rapidly increasing part of Preston, at the extreme south-western corner of what used to be called Preston Moor, and on the very spot where men used to be hanged often, and get their heads cut off occasionally. “Gallows Hill” is the exact site of the Church of the English Martyrs. And this “hill” is associated with a movement constituting one of the rugged points in our history.

The rebellion of 1715 virtually collapsed at Preston; many fights and skirmishes were indulged in, one or two breezy passages of arms even took place within a good stone-throw of the ground occupied by the Church of the English Martyrs; but the King’s troops finally prevailed. According to an old book before us there were “taken at Preston” – amongst the rebels – “seven lords, besides 1,490 other, including the several gentlemen, officers, and private men, and two clergymen.” And the book further says, in a humorously sarcastic mood, “There was a Popish priest called Littleton among them; but having a great deal of the Jesuit he contrived a most excellent disguise, for he put on a blue apron, went behind an apothecary’s counter, and passed for an assistant or journeyman to the apothecary, and so took an opportunity of getting off.” But all the captured rebels did not escape so adroitly as our Jesuitical friend Littleton; for several of them were either hanged or beheaded, and the fate of many was sealed on the site of the Church of the English Martyrs.

On the 5th of January, 1715, we are told that sixteen rebels “were hanged upon Gallows Hill, for high treason and conspiracy.” In the following year “42 condemned prisoners of all religions were hanged and decapitated at Preston;” and amongst them were five belonging Preston and the neighbourhood. They were “Richard Shuttleworth, of Preston, Esq.; Roger Moncaster, of Garstang, attorney; Thomas Cowpe, of Walton-le-Dale; William Butler, of Myerscough, Esq.; William Arkwright, of Preston, gentleman;” and all of them were put to death on Gallows Hill the cost being for “materialls, hurdle, fire, cart, &c.,” and for “setting up” Shuttleworth’s head, &c., £12 0s 4d. There can be no doubt that Gallows Hill derives its name directly from the transactions of 1715-16. Prior to that time it was a simple mound; after that period it became associated with hangings and beheadings, and received the name of “Gallows Hill,” which was peculiarly appropriate. In May, 1817, “Gallows Hill” was cut through, so that “the great north road to Lancaster” might be improved. Whilst this was being done two coffins were found, and in them there were discovered two headless bodies. Local historians think they were the remains of “two rebel chieftains;” they may have been; but there is no proof of this, although the fair supposition is that they were the decapitated remnants of two somebodies, who had assumed a rebellious attitude in 1715.

It is probable that the heads of these parties were “exposed on poles in front of our Town-hall,” for that was an olden practice, and was considered very legitimate 154 years ago. We have spoken of the “discoveries” of 1817, and in continuing our remarks it may be said that “near the spot” some timber, supposed to have been the gallows, was once found, and that a brass hand-axe was dug up not far from it, at the same time. The Moor, which amongst other things embraced the “hill” we have mentioned, was a rough wildish place – a rude looking common; but it seems to have been well liked by the people, for upon it they used to hold trade meetings, political demonstrations, &c.; and for 65 years – from 1726 to 1791 – horse races were annually run upon it. The Corporation and the freemen of the borough once had a great dispute as to their respective claims to the Moor, and the latter by way of asserting their rights, put upon it an old white horse; but the Corporation were not to be cajoled out of their ownership by an argument so very “horsey” as this; they ordered the animal off; and Mr. J. Dearden, who still obeys their injunctions with courteous precision, put it into a pinfold hard by.

The Church of the English Martyrs was erected not long ago upon that part of the Moor we have described. Originally the promoters of the church treated for a plot of land about 20 yards above the present site; but the negotiations were broken off, and afterwards they bought Wren Cottage and a stable adjoining, situated about a quarter of a mile northwards. The house was made available for the priest; the stable was converted into a church; and mass was said in it for the first time on Christmas morning, 1864. On the 21st of January, 1865, it was formally “opened;” the Revs. Canon Walker, T. Walton, and F. Soden taking part in the services of the day. During 1865 preparations were made for erecting a new church upon the same site; but some of the gentlemen living in the immediate neighbourhood took offence at the movement, and insisted upon certain stipulations contained in the covenants, which barred out the construction of such a building as a church or a chapel, being carried out. There was a considerable amount of Corporation discussion in respect to the question, and eventually the idea of erecting a church upon the land was abandoned. Directly afterwards, “Gallows Hill,” in which both the Corporation and Mr. Samuel Pole Shaw had rights, was purchased as a site for it. Operations, involving the removal of an immense quantity of earth – for the place was nothing more than a high, rough, sandy hillock, – were commenced on the 26th of March, 1866. On the 26th of May, in the same year, the foundation-stone was laid, with great ceremony, by Dr. Goss, and on the 12th of December,

1867, the church was opened. Mr. E. W. Pugin designed the building, which externally does not look very wonderful at present; but, when completed, it will be a handsome place. The original design includes a beautiful steeple, surmounted with pinnacles; but want of funds precludes its erection. The church is a high double-roofed edifice – looks like two buildings, one placed above the other; and, owing to the absence of a steeple, it seems very tall and bald. It has a pretty western gable, which can only be fully appreciated by close inspection. The centre of this gable is occupied by a fine eight-light window, and the general work is surmounted by pinnacles and ornamental masonry. Two angels, cut in stone, originally formed part of the ornamentation; but during a strong gale, early in 1868, they were blown down. These “fallen angels” have never regained their first estate; and as they might only tumble down if re-fixed, and perhaps kill somebody, which would not be a very angelic proceeding, we suppose they will not be interfered with.

The church has an imposing, a noble interior. It is wide, lofty, has a fine calm majestic look, and is excellently arranged. The nave, which is 69 feet high, is supported by 14 stone pillars. From nearly any point every part of the building may be seen; the nave pillars, do not, as is the case in some churches, obstruct the vision; and everything seems easy, clear, and open. In the daytime a rich shadowy light is thrown into the church by the excellent disposition of its windows; at eventide the sheen of the setting sun, caught by the western window, falls like a bright flood down the nave, and makes the scene beautiful. The high altar is a fine piece of workmanship; is of Gothic design, is richly carved, is ornamented with marbles, has a canopy of most elaborate construction, and is in good harmony with the general architecture.

Two small altars are near it. One of them, dedicated to St. Joseph, and given by Mr. J. Pyke, of this town, is particularly handsome; the other, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, is of a less costly, though very pretty, character. Near one of the pillars on the north-eastern side there stands a square wooden frame, which is called the pulpit. It is a deliciously primitive and remarkably common-place concern; but it is strong enough, and will have to stop where it is until money for something better is raised. There are sittings in the church for 850 persons. On Sundays there are masses at eight, and half-past nine; a regular service at eleven, and another at half-past six in the evening. The aggregate attendance during the day is about 1,350. The assemblage at the first mass is thin; at the second it is good – better than at any other time; at eleven it is pretty numerous; and in the evening it is fair. Adults and children from the union workhouse, of the Catholic persuasion, attend the eleven o’clock service; and they come in tolerable force – sometimes they number 100.

The general congregation consists nearly altogether of working class people, and it includes some of the best sleepers we have seen. The members of the choir sit in a gallery at the western end. Their performances are of a curious description. Sometimes they sing very well – are quite exact in their renderings and decidedly harmonious; at other times they torture the music somewhat. But then they are young at the business, haven’t had so much experience, and have nothing to rely upon in the shape of instrumental music except the hard tones of an ordinary harmonium. Organ accompaniments help up good choirs and materially drown the defects of bad ones. With better instrumental assistance, the singers at the Church of the English Martyrs would acquit themselves more satisfactorily, and with additional practice they would still further improve matters.

There are two priests stationed at the church – the Rev. James Taylor and the Rev. Joseph Pyke. Father Taylor, the principal, is a blooming, healthy, full-spirited gentleman. He is a “Fylde man;” has in him much strong straight-forwardness; looks as if he had never ailed anything in his life; doesn’t appear to have mortified the flesh very acutely; seems to have taken things comfortably and well since the day of his birth; has not allowed his creed to spoil his face – a trick which some professors of religion are guilty of; and is, on the whole, a genuine specimen of the true John Bull type. Father Taylor’s first mission was at Lancaster, under the late Dean Brown; afterwards he came to St. Augustine’s, Preston, where he remained four and a half years; then he was appointed Catholic chaplain at the House of Correction; and subsequently he took charge of his present mission. He is an active man, and works very hard in his district. As a preacher he is energetic, impetuous, and practical – speaks plainly and straight out, minces nothing, and tries to drive what he considers to be the truth right home. He has very little rhetorical action, hardly moves at all in the pulpit, stirs neither head nor hand except upon special occasions; but he has a powerful voice, he pours out his words in a strong, full volume, and the force he has in this respect compensates for the general immobility he displays during his discourses.

His colleague – the Rev. J. Pyke – is a small, mild gentleman, unassuming in manner, cautious, careful, quiet, precise, and, whilst attending to his duties regularly, he makes no bluster about them. He was ordained at the Church of the English Martyrs, in September, 1868. In the pulpit he is earnest, clear, and regular in his remarks. He makes no repetitions, flings himself into no attitudes, assumes no airs, but proceeds on to the end steadily and calmly. Both the priests named live close to the church, in a building which forms part of the property of the mission. It is intended some time to have a proper presbytery, near the church: one is included in the original plan; but shortness of funds bars its erection. The work thus far executed – the church, vestries, &c. – has cost about £8,000, and there still remains upon the buildings a debt of about £4,000. There are no schools in connection with the church; but it is expected that there will be by and bye. The land formerly used as the cattle market, and situated near the church, has been bought for this purpose, and collectors are now engaged in raising money towards the erection of the schools. The church has two or three “guilds,” the female members thereof numbering about 200, and the males 100. In the “district” there are about 3,000 Catholics, including 700 children under 10 years of age; so that the priests in charge of it have quite enough on hand for the present. A mission in debt to the tune of £4,000; a church to internally complete – for much yet remains to be finished in the one described; a church tower which will cost £2,000 to raise; a presbytery to begin of; schools, which are primarily essential, to erect; and 7,000 human beings to look after, constitute what may fairly be termed “no joke.”