St Thomas's Church

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

We have made no inquiry as to the original predecessors of those attending this church. They may have been links in the chain of those men who, ages ago, planted themselves on the coast of Malabar, rejoicing in the name of “Christians of St. Thomas,” and struggling curiously with Nestorians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits; they may have constituted a remnant of the good people whom Cosmas Indicopleustes saw in the East twelve hundred years since; they may have only had a Preston connection, knowing nothing of the Apostle of India – St. Thomas – beyond what anybody knows, and caring more for his creed than his title. Whatever may have been their history and fate, it is certain their successors believe in that most apostolical of unbelievers just mentioned – so far, at least, as the name is concerned.

The church they respect is situated at the northern end of Preston, near the junction of Moor-lane and Lancaster-road. It is a small, strong, hard-looking building; seems as if it would stand any amount of rain and never get wet through, any quantity of heat and never have a sunstroke; it is stoical, cold, firm, and very stony; has a bodkin-pointed spire, ornamented with round holes and circular places into which penetration has not yet been effected; and its “tout ensemble” is in no way edifying. It is neither ornate nor colossal. Strength, plainness, and smallness, with a strong dash of general rigidity, are its outward characteristics. St. Thomas’s is one of the local churches erected through the exertions of the late Rev. R. Carus Wilson; and, like all those churches, it is built in the Norman style of architecture – a massive, severe style, which will never be popularly pleasing, but will always secure endurance for the edifices constructed on its principles. The first stone of this church was laid in August, 1837.

The building stands upon a hill, is surrounded by a powerful stone wall, can be approached two ways, and has its front entrance opposite a small street, which has not yet received any name at all. To a stranger, ingress to the building is rather perplexing. A gateway in Lancaster-road, leading to a footpath, fringed with rockery, would appear to be the front way, but it is only a rear road, and when you get fairly upon it you wonder where it will end – whether you will be able to get to the interior by it, or only to some rails on one side and a wall on the other. It, however, eventuates round a corner, at the main entrance. We recommend this back way, for the legitimate front road is much more intricate and harassing; you can only become acquainted with it, if topographically unenlightened, and bashful as to making inquiries, by hovering about an ancient windmill, moving up narrow hilly streets, flanked by angular bye-paths, and then following either the first woman you see with a prayer book in her hand, or the first man you catch a sight of with a good coat on his back. The main entrance is ornamental but diminutive in many respects. There are three doorways here, the collateral ones, which are very low, and quite calculated to prevent people from entering the building with their hats on, being patronised the most – not because there is an offertory box in the central passage, but because the side roads are the handiest.

During a second visit to the church we went in by the middle door, the medium course, as the proverb hath it, being the safest, and seeing the offertory box – a remarkably strong, iron-cornered article, fastened to the wall – we remarked to an official, in his shirt sleeves, who was with us, “This will stand a deal of money before falling.” The official replied “It will so,” and the look, he gave us superinduced the conclusion that the offertory box was not going to fall for some time. We have seen no more deceptive-looking church than that we are now at. Viewed externally, you would say that scarcely a good handful of people could be accommodated in it; it seems so narrow, so entirely made up of and filled in with stone, that one infers at first sight it will hardly hold the parson and the sacrament-loving “old woman” who invariably exists as a permanent arrangement at all our places of worship; but this is a fallacy, for the building will accommodate about 1,100 people.

The interior consists of a nave, two aisles, and a chancel. Everything in the building seems strong, clean, and good; and considering the ponderous character of its architecture a fair share of light is admitted to it. At the entrance, there is a glass screen, ornamentally got up and surmounted with a small lion and unicorn design. Just within this screen there is a curtained pew, and sitting within its enclosure must be a very snug and select thing. It is occupied by Mr. Hermon, M.P., and when he draws the curtains all round – “he sometimes does,” said the official accompanying us – no one can see a morsel of him whilst he can see never a one in the building, not even the parson, without a special effort. The nave is broad and quadrangular, is supported by immensely strong pillars, and has a fine high roof, looking clean and spacious, but considerably spoiled by several commonplace awkwardly fashioned beams. The roof of each aisle is similarly marred.

The seats are disposed in six parallel ranges, and the generality are quite good enough for anybody. Along each side there is a row of free seats – about 50 altogether – capable of accommodating upwards of 300 persons. There are also many free seats in the gallery. The present incumbent has an idea that he has made some addition to this accommodation; but people who have known the church ever since it was built say that the extra “free pews” appropriated for the poor by him were never charged for. At the end of each aisle there is a neat stained glass window; that to the right bearing this inscription – “To the memory of W. P. Jones, M.A., ob. January 29, 1864, aged 77 years,” and that on the left these words “To the memory of Mrs. Fanny Jones, ob. January 27, 1864, aged 75 years.” Mr. Jones was a former incumbent of St. Thomas’s. He was a quiet, mild-minded man, devoid of bombast, neither cynical nor meddlesome, and was well liked by all. His wife died just two days before him, and both were interred in one grave in St. Peter’s church yard.

The pulpit and reading desk at St. Thomas’s are good-looking and substantial, but both are rather bad to get into and out of – the steps are narrow and angular, with a sudden descent, which might cause a stranger to miss his footing and fall, if he had not firm hold of the side rail. Right above, perhaps 20 feet high, and surmounting the chancel arch, there is a small ornamental 156 projection, like a balcony. It would make a capital stand for the minister; or might be turned into a conspicuous place of Sunday resort for the wardens; but, then, they would have to be hoisted to it, for there is no road up, and that would not be seemly. Formerly, we believe, this balcony was used by the singers, but they were subsequently transplanted to the western gallery. The passage to the balcony front is now shut off. A considerable effort at ornamentation has been made on the walls flanking the balcony described. But we don’t care much for it. Little pillars, quaint window models, and other architectural devices, are heaped upon each other in curious profusion, and it is difficult to get at their real meaning. They relieve the walls a little, but they do the work whimsically, and you can neither get a smile nor a tear from them. The chancel arch is strong and ornamental; within it there is another arch, the intervening roof being neatly groined and coloured; and beyond there is the chancel – a small, somewhat cimmerian, yet pretty-looking place. There are five windows in it; three having sacred figures painted upon them, and the remaining two being filled in with fancy designs, which don’t look over well, owing to the decay of the colours.

The congregation is tolerably numerous, has in it the high, the fair-middling, and the humble – the good-looking, the well-dressed, the rubicund, the mildly mahogany-featured, the simply-dressed, the attenuated, and the indigent. But there is a clear halo of respectability about the place; superior habiliments are distinctly in the ascendant; and orderly behaviour reigns throughout each section of worshippers. The free seats are very fairly patronised, and sometimes very oddly. In one part of them we saw nine persons all near each other, and out of that number five wore spectacles, whilst three could only see with one eye. At the western end of the church there is a beautiful circular window, but it has not met with very good treatment. It has been broken in one part, and every morsel of it is covered up from general view by the organ occupying the gallery. Only the organ blower can see it properly, and having the whole of it to himself, it is to be expected he will derive some consolation from his special position. If he doesn’t, then he neither gets up the wind nor looks through the window properly. The organ is a good one, and it is played with average ability, but it is too big for the place it occupies, and entirely swamps what was once considered a fine gallery. The singers are rather afraid of giving vent to their feelings. They discourse the music tastefully, but they are too quiet, and don’t get into a temper, as they ought to do occasionally, over it. Prior to the advent of the present incumbent, the choir, considering its numbers, was, perhaps, as good as any in the town or neighbourhood; but one Sunday morning the gentleman referred to, having apparently been fiercely stung by a Ritualistic wasp, blew the trumpet of his indignation very strongly – got into a whirlwind of denunciation all at once and without the aid of a text, regarding Ritualism; and the organist and singers, whose musical services embraced chants, &c., fancying that the rev. gentleman was either tired of their presence or performances, many of which were voluntary, sent in their resignations. Since then the music has not been very brilliant. There are religious services every Sunday morning and evening at St. Thomas’s, and on Thursday night a small gathering of the faithful takes place in the building.

The trustees of the church are – Miss Margaret Ann Beckles, St. Leonard’s; Samuel Husband Beckles, Esq., of the Middle Temple; the Rev. Edward Auriol, St. Dunstans; the Rev. Charles F. Close, St. Ann’s, Blackfriars; the Rev. W. Cadman, Marylebone; and Sir Hugh Hill. The Rev. L. W. Jeffrey was the first incumbent of the church; then came the Rev. W. P. Jones, who died, as before stated, in 1884; afterwards the Rev. J. T. Becher was appointed to the incumbency, but he died from typhus fever in five weeks and was succeeded by the Rev. J. P. Shepperd who still holds the post and receives from it about £400 a year. Mr. Shepperd is a man of middle age, and looks after his sheep fairly, but at times eccentrically. He has a polished, tasteful, clerical contour; attends well to his hair, whiskers, and linen; wears a hat half bishoply and half archidiaconal in its brim; is a good scholar, a clear reasoner, an able-preacher, but repeats himself often, and gets long-winded on Sunday nights; is highly enamelled, touchy, and imperial; is lofty in tone, cream laid and double thick in manner; is full of metal, and there is a stately mystery about him, as if he were a blood relation of the Great Mokanna; he is nearly infallible, and would make a good Pope; he is strongly combative, and would be a vigorous bruiser in stormy ecclesiastical circles. We fancy no parson in Preston has had more officials than Mr. Shepperd. In less than half a dozen years there have been at the place many organists, singers, curates, scripture readers, and eight or nine churchwardens. Either they have been very uneasy people or he has been uniquely antagonistic.

Mr. Shepperd resides at a good parsonage some distance north of the church, and he has a pretty garden adjoining, the walls thereof having been built at the expense of Mr. Hermon, who has been a capital friend to the church. In the garden there is a quantity of handsome rockery, purchased by the late Mr. James Carr (who was at one time a warden), out of the church funds. This rockery was originally placed in the church yard, along with that still remaining there; but it was thought by somebody that the yard didn’t require so much ornamental stone, so a quantity of it was removed to the place mentioned. If Mr. Shepperd has it set in a circle he may play the Druid amongst it, reserving the biggest block for a cromlech and the smoothest for a seat; if it is concentrated in one mass he may stand upon it, defy all the ex-churchwardens, and quoting Scott, cry out, “Come one, come all, this rock shall fly” &c. Originally, St. Thomas’s cost a considerable amount of money, and in consequence of improvements subsequently made, there is still, it is said, a pretty round sum due to the late wardens and the contractors, and they, are much in the dark as to when they will get it. The parson can’t see the force of paying it himself, the officers of the church make no move in the matter, the congregation is apathetic on the subject, the beadle keeps quiet, and does his central church walk calmly, never thinking of it. But, if owing, somebody should settle the bill, and the sooner it is liquidated, the more respectable will the affairs of the church become. Bother without end has prevailed at St. Thomas’s about money, and until people get their own, and see regular annual statements of accounts – things which seem to be scarce in these times – they will continue to be uneasy and, probably, noisy.

Associated with the church are superior schools – one for infants, in the unchristened street near the church, and two others for boys and girls, in Lancaster-road. The average day attendance is – boys, 250; girls, 220; infants, 240. The average attendance on the Sunday is – boys, 250; girls, 320. The day schools are in a good state of efficiency, and are of great service to the district. They are well managed, and with respect to some of their departments Government reports speak most encouragingly. Worn old grievances with ex-churchwardens are duly squared, when a greater amount of what is called “fixity of tenure” exists in respect to the officials, and when Mr. Sheppard drops his little dogma as to personal immaculacy, and allows other people a trifle more freedom, his flock will be fatter, woollier, and quieter than ever they have been since he came.