St Mary's Church

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

“And now, finally, brethren.” To the “beginning of the end” have we got. The journey has been long and tortuous. When we have proceeded forty inches further we shall stop. Not with the “last rose of summer,” nor with the “last of all the Romans,” nor with the “last syllable of recorded time,” nor with the “last words of Marmion” – the Mohicans are barred out – have we to deal, but with the last place of worship, fairly coming within the category of “Our Churches and Chapels.” St. Mary’s Church is situated in a huge, rudely-spun district, known by the name of “New Preston.” That district used to be one of the wildest in this locality; “schimelendamowitchwagon” was not known in it; not much of that excellent article is yet known in it; and tons of good seed, saying nothing of manure, will have to be planted in its hard ground before it either blossoms like the rose or pays its debts.

This district was originally brought into active existence by John Horrocks, Esq., the founder of the Preston cotton trade. Prior to his time there were a few people in it who believed that 10s. a week was a good wage, and that Nixon’s Book of Prophecies was an infallible guide; but not before he planted in the locality a body of hand-loom weavers did it show signs of commercial vivacity, and begin to develope itself. Handloom weaving is now about as hopeless a job as trying to extract sunlight out of cucumbers; but at that time it was a paying air. Weavers could then afford to play two or three days a week, earn excellent wages, afterwards wear top boots, and then thrash their wives in comfort without the interference of policemen. They and their immediate descendants belonged to a crooked and perverse generation. Cock-fighting, badger-baiting, poaching, drinking, and dog-worrying formed their sovereign delights; and they were so amazingly rude and dangerous, that even tax collectors durst not, at times, go amongst them for money. Men of this stamp would be much appreciated at present. The population has thickened, and civilisation has penetrated into the region since then; and yet the “animal” preponderates rather largely in it now. Rats, pigeons, dogs, and Saturday night eye openers – toned down with canary breeding, ale-supping, herb-gathering, and Sunday afternoon baking – still retain a mild hold upon the affections of the people, and many of the youthful race are beginning to imitate their elders admirably in all these little particulars. A pack of hounds was once kept for general enjoyment in “New Preston;” but that pack has “gone to the dogs” – hasn’t been heard of for years.

During the past quarter of a century what missionary breakfast men call a “great work” has been done by way of evangelising the people in this quarter of the town; and very much of it has been achieved through St. Mary’s Church and schools. For a very long period the schools in connection with St. Mary’s have formed an excellent auxiliary of the church. Prior to the erection of the church, scholastic work was carried on in some cottages on the north side of what is now termed New Hall-lane. The scholars were then in the care of the Parish Church. When St. Paul’s was erected they were handed over to it. Afterwards, when St. Mary’s was raised, a building was provided for them in a street just opposite, which has undergone many alterations and enlargements since, owing to the great increase in the number of scholars. The principal room of the schools is the largest in Preston, with one exception – the assembly room of the Corn Exchange. A little cottage-house looking place, up New Hall-lane, constitutes a “branch” of the schools. The average week-day attendance is about 900; whilst on a Sunday the gathering of scholars is about 1,200. At the schools, on Sundays, there are male and female adult classes; and on week-days a number of earnest mothers meet therein for the purposes of instruction, consolation, and pious news-vending. At the schools – we shall get to the church and Mr. Alker by and by, so be patient, if possible – there is a “Church of England Institute,” under whose auspices innocent games are indulged in, and periodicals, &c. read. A Conservative association, established to guard the constitutional interests of Fishwick Ward, also holds its gatherings in one of the rooms.

The Rev. Robert Lamb, a very energetic man, and formerly incumbent of St. Mary’s, gave the first great impetus to the schools, which are the largest of their kind in Preston. Mr. Lamb is now at St. Paul’s, Bennett-street, Manchester, and, singular to say, he has worked up the schools of that church until they have become the greatest in the city. The late T. Miller, Esq., was a warm friend of St. Mary’s schools, and, whenever any extensions were made at them, he always, on having the plans and estimates submitted to him, defrayed one-third of the expenses.

St. Mary’s Church stands just at the rear of the Preston House of Correction. That is better than standing inside such a grim establishment – any site before the insite (oh) of a prison; and has for its south western support the store-house of the Third Royal Lancashire Militia. It forms one of the churches erected mainly through the exertions of the late Rev. R. Carus Wilson; and like its brethren is built in the Norman style of architecture, the designer being Mr. John Latham. The first stone of the edifice was laid in May, 1836; in 1838 the church was opened; and in 1853 it was enlarged by the erection of a transept at the northern end. The late John Smith, Esq., gave the site for it. The building is surrounded by a graveyard, which might be kept in better order than it is. The Rev. R. Lamb considerably impoverished himself in enclosing the ground; and the Rev. H. R. Smith, one of the incumbents, afterwards spent a sum of money in ornamenting it with shrubs, &c.; but nobody cares much for it now, and Nature is permitted to follow her own unfettered way in it.

Formerly there was a road to the church from the west, through some land adjoining the House of Correction; and it was a great convenience to those living on that side of the town; but for some reason it was closed; and one of the most roundabout ways imaginable has been substituted for it. St. Mary’s is one of those churches which can be felt rather than seen. Until you get quite to it you hardly know you are at it. Approaching it from the west the first glimmering of it you have is over one end of the House of Correction. At this point you catch what seems to be a cluster of crosses – the surmountings of the tower; visions of a ponderous cruet-stand, of five nine pins, and other cognate articles, then strike you; afterwards the body of the church broadens slowly into view, and having described three-fourths of a wide circle with your feet, and passed through a strong gateway, it is found you are at the building. St. Mary’s has a strong, heavy, compact appearance. Its front is arched below and storied above; it has ivy creeping up its walls – trying probably to get to some of the five nondescript ornaments above the tower – and has a half baronial, half old hall look at first sight. Some years ago there was much ivy about the general building; but the “rare old plant” engendered dampness and had to be pulled down. At each side of the front there is a small pinnacle, and flanking the gables of the transept there are four somewhat similar elevations. They are mainly used by sparrows.

The church can be approached by a doorway at the eastern end of the transept; but the bulk of the worshippers pass through those at the southern or front end – three in number, and rather heavy and dim in appearance. The centre one leads into the body of the building, and we may as well take advantage of it. We are just within; above there is a serious looking groined roof, with a lamp suspended from the middle of it; before us there is a screen, filled in with clear glass, through which you can see the worshippers who seem thin and scattered. Formerly the back of a sharply drawn up, dangerous gallery, for scholars, over which careless children might have fallen with the greatest ease, occupied the place of this screen, and a series of hot water pipes – apparently intended for warming the doorway and the churchyard in front, for they could have been of no use to people inside the building – were fixed there. In 1866, when the church was renovated, they were carried about fifteen yards into the edifice, where they may be seen to this day. We sat close to eight of them, with a top coat on, one Sunday evening, as a compensation for being nearly starved to death in one of the back side wings in the morning, and felt charmingly cooked at the end of the service. On the left side of the central entrance, and near the glass door and the screen, there is an elaborately carved box of Gothic design, intended for missionary contributions; but it is fixed in such a dim corner that nobody can see it. We have recommended the beadle to place this box in a more prominent position, for it is worth looking at as an ornament, even if nothing is put into it. The aperture in the lid might be closed, and the box could then be hung up beside the doorway lamp, so that its proportions might be fairly realised.

The interior of the church is broad and lofty, but through its Norman configuration it is stiff and coldly ponderous in effect. Massive bare walls, high narrow windows, and a semi-sexagonal ceiling dependent upon rather ungainly beams and rafters, like a series of hanging frames, chill you a little; but on looking northward, to the end of the building, the chancel and transept arches, which are strong and elegantly moulded, relieve you, and as you advance the place seems to gradually assume a finer and more imposing aspect. The chancel has a calm, goodly look; is, in fact, the best part of the building, architecturally speaking. At the base, there is an archway of tablets, upon which nobody ever bestows very close attention; above, there are three staple-shaped windows; and surmounting all, there is a round recessed light, which can only be seen through by people who sit in the gallery. On the left side of the chancel, there are two windows. There is no stained glass in the chancel. If the windows were adorned with it, and the walls more cheerfully painted, a very beautiful effect would be produced.

Five different kinds of carpetting, all very well worn, deck the floor of the chancel. Within the communion rails, there is a rich carpet, in needlework, made by some of the members of the congregation, At each side there is as antique chair, being part of the furniture in the vestry which adjoins, and which was given by the Rev. H. R. Smith. It consists altogether of ten pieces – including chairs, bookcase, looking-glass, dressing-table, chest, &c., and is about 200 years old. The only stained windows in the building are in the west transept. They are four in number; two being of the merely ornamental type, whilst the remainder are of the memorial order. At the bottom of one of them there are these words – “In memory of Mary Smith, born 1779, died 1845. Erected by Henry Robert Smith.” At the base of the other window there is this inscription:- “In memory of John Smith, born 1773, died 1849. Erected by the church, 1855.” The deceased persons referred to were the parents of the Rev. H. R. Smith, who, as already said, was a former incumbent of the church. The ends of the transept are very dim, and sometimes you can hardy tell who is sitting in them.

St. Mary’s will accommodate 1,450 persons. The pews on the ground floor, excepting a few free ones at the entrance and at the top of the church, are all of the “closed” kind – have doors to them. When the Church was renovated the pews were cut down about eight inches, were remodelled, and thoroughly cleaned. Previously they were painted, and had a gummy, sticky influence rearwards upon peoples clothes. One or two bits of shawl fringe, &c., drawn off by the old gluey paint still remain at the back of some of the seats (notwithstanding the chemical cleansing they got), reminding one of the saying of friend Billings, that “A thing well stuck iz stuck for ever.” The gas burners hang far down in pendant clusters from the ceiling, and with their glass reflectors, which would cast off a better light if cleaner, have a lamp-like effect, putting one in mind, when lighted, of some Eastern mosque. The font is a prettily shaped article, is made of fossil marble, and was given by the Rev. Canon Parr and the wardens of the Parish Church, in which building it once stood. It rests upon a platform of ornamental tiles bordered with stone, and looks well. Above it is a carved wooden canopy surmounted by a dove. The canopy is raised by a descending ball of equal weight. When the ball falls the pigeon rises. In ordinary life the ball rises when the pigeon falls; but this is not the case at St. Mary’s, although it amounts to the same thing in the end, for after the pigeon has ascended three feet the ball descends upon its back and settles the question.

At the southern end there is a large gallery, overshadowing the noisiest galaxy of Sunday infants we ever encountered. There are more infants at St. Mary’s schools than at any other place in Preston, and trouble, combined with vexation of spirit, must consequently exist there in the same ratio. The bulk are kept from the church; but a few manage to creep in, and when we saw them they were having a very happy time of it. Some whistled a little – but they seemed to be only learners and couldn’t get on very well with tunes; others tossed halfpennies about, a few operated upon the floor with marbles, and all of them were exceedingly lively. The gallery above is large, deep, and long; ingress to it is tortuous; and strangers would have to inquire much before properly reaching it. There is an old funeral bier in one part of it, and we have failed to ascertain the precise object of the article. It is not used when fainting fits are in season; it is never taken advantage of in the case of people who fall asleep, and require carrying home to bed; it seems to be neither useful nor ornamental; and it ought to be either taken off to the cemetery and quietly inurned, or sold to one of the sextons there.

In the gallery there is a large organ. It is a very respectable-looking instrument, has a healthy musical interior, and is played moderately. The members of the choir, to whom several people in the bottom of the church look up periodically, as if trying to find out either what they were doing or how they were dressed, are only in embryo. They are new singers; but some of them have fair voices, and in spite of occasional irregularity in tune and time, they get along agreeably. The elements of a good choir are within them, and they have only to persevere, in order to secure excellence, saying nothing of medals, and other tokens of appreciation. The whole of the seats in the gallery, generally used by scholars, are free.

St. Mary’s is situated a district containing about 8,000 persons, and as they are nearly entirely of the working class sort, the congregation is naturally made up of similar materials. Including 14 militia staff men, the congregation will number, on an average, without the scholars, about 500. More people appear to come late to this church than to any other in Preston; they keep dropping in at all times – particularly in a morning – up to within twenty minutes of the finish; but they are connected with the schools, visit the church after they have done duty there, and this accounts for their lateness. The beadle of this church has the strongest, if not the longest, official wand in the town, and he is very modest, blushing occasionally, while carrying it.

The first incumbent of St. Mary’s was the Rev. James Parker, a relative of Councillor Parker, of Preston, who had to retire through ill health. He exchanged livings with the Rev. W. Watson, of Ellerburne, in Yorkshire, who required a more active sphere, and found it at St. Mary’s. Mr. Watson afterwards found higher preferment, and went to the South of England. Then came the Rev. Robert Lamb, who worked most vigorously in the district. He is now rector of St. Paul’s, Manchester. His successor was the Rev. Henry Robert Smith, who, after staying a while, retired to St. Paul’s, at Grange, where he still labours. The next incumbent was the Rev. George Alker, who came to St. Mary’s in December, 1857. He is still at the church; but we dare say he would be willing to leave it for a rectory, if one were offered, with £500 a year.

Mr. Alker is an Irishman, and is about 42 years of age. He is rather tall; is genteelly fashioned, has good features, wears an elegantly-trimmed pair of whiskers, has pompous, odorous, Pall Mall appearance, is grandiose and special, looks like a nineteenth century Numa Pompilius, would have made a spicey Pontifex Maximus, ought to have lived in Persia, where he might have worn velvet slippers and been fanned with peacock feathers, would have been a rare general director of either fire-eaters or fire worshippers; is inclined to run when he walks alone, and to be stately, slow, regal, and precise when, like Fadladeen, he is in charge of Lalla Rookh. Is a man of determination, and never sleeps with his clothes on. Is a sharp debater, a briskly-pompous, eloquent talker, has had a good deal of trouble at time and time in putting on his kid gloves, which used to fit so mortally tight that he couldn’t stir his thumbs in them; stands with a fine commanding air in the pulpit, as if about to shoulder arms; preaches extempore; says “my brethren” more frequently in his sermons than any minister we ever heard; has a clear, keen intellect; is dexterous, courageous, impassioned, imperious; has a lofty, threepence-halfpenny majesty about him; has been a hard worker, a stiff fighter, and a stinging public lecturer. After leaving Ireland, he took a curacy in Liverpool. In 1857 he accepted a similar post at St. Peter’s, Preston. Here he organised a class of young men, 800 strong, and whilst here he set the town on fire with anti-Popery denunciation; and of him it might, at that time, have been said –

He comes from Erin’s peaceful shore
Like fervid kettle bubbling o’er
With hot effusions – hot and weak;
Sound Humbug all your hollowest drums,
He comes of Erin’s martyrdoms
To Britain’s well-fed Church to speak.

Yes, he was a regular Mr. Blazeaway, and what he said was equal to the strongest of the theatre thunder and the most dazzling of forked lightning. Other Irish curates have tried the same game on since then in the town, but they have not been so successful; none of them have yet got into decent incumbencies, and we are afraid they will have to rave on for a yet longer period ere the requisite balm of Gilead is found. After piling up the agony for a few months at St. Peter’s, Mr. Alker left for Dublin, stayed there a short time, then retraced his steps to Preston, and in due time got the incumbency of St. Mary’s – an event which seems to have toned down all his fury about the “abomination of Rome,” and made him nearly quite forget the existence of Pope Pius. Paraphrasing one of his own country’s poets, we may say, –

As bees on flowers alighting cease their hum,
So settling at St. Mary’s Alker’s dumb.

Still be has occasional spells of anti-Popery hysteria; he can’t altogether get the old complaint out of his bones; Rome is yet his red rag when in a rage; and he has latterly shown an inclination to wind up the clocks of the Jews and the Mahommedans. He may have a fling at the Calmuck Tartars and a quiet pitch into the Sioux Indians after a bit. When Mr. Alker first went to St. Mary’s his salary was small; but it has now reached the general panacea of incumbents – £300 a year. He has also a neat, well-situated parsonage, on the south eastern side of the town, a good garden, which has been the scene of many lovely sights, and a neat patch of ground beyond. In his district Mr. Alker has been an energetic worker, and in connection with the schools particularly he has been most useful. For his services in this respect he deserves much praise, and we tender him our share. His influence is hardly so great as it used to be, still he is the great Brahmin and the grand Lama of the locality.

There have been five curates at St. Mary’s – the Rev. W. Nesbit M’Guinness, clever and ambitious; the Rev. John Wilson (not of St. James’s), an industrious gentleman, who had a row with the congregation in respect to his marriage, and afterwards went away; the Rev. R. Close, a pretentious young man, who appeared to use much hair oil and think well of pious gammon; the Rev. E. M. David, a Welshman, who couldn’t speak plainly enough for the congregation, and had to retire; and, lastly, the Rev. Bernard Robinson, who has been at St. Mary’s about twelve months, and is evidently working satisfactorily in the district. We have finished: all is over; the lime lights are burning, the coloured fires are radiating their hues, the curtain is falling, and bidding “Adieu” to all our kind readers, we vanish.