St. Alban’s, founded 1841

sa_stalbansIn 1841, the year St. Alban’s Parish was founded, it was still “odd” to be a Catholic. Although open persecution was no longer a problem bigotry and discrimination against Catholics still existed.

Fifteen years before the parish was founded there had been only six Catholics recorded in the Wallasey/Seacombe area. A little later, a witness recorded a Mass attendance of never less than twelve

but always the old Mrs Orrell, stately Mrs Clarkson and little Mrs Vickery

… and all these years later we remember their names with gratitude for their commitment and steadfastness – would they ever have thought to be remembered so?

In 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed through Parliament and the Catholic population began to expand. It was also about this time that the Potato Famines in Ireland were driving immigrants to Liverpool seeking food and shelter. Many of these immigrants became servants in the “wonderful mansions of Wallasey” which often employed as many as twenty persons in one establishment. In 1841 George Brown, Vicar Apostolic of Lancashire District was given a report which put the number of Catholics in Wallasey at around 290. Of these about forty were servants and the same number were lodgers. There were 56 families and 96 children (of whom 52 were under the age of seven). Attendance at Mass was between eighty and a hundred – a most encouraging proportion of the population.

Until 1838 these dedicated souls had to endure long walks to Seacombe Ferry and paid the 6p for the crossing to attend the 8.00 a.m. Mass in St Mary’s Church, Edmund Street, Liverpool. One of these was a Mrs Mary Hall. This lady had a family of eight children which she shepherded to Mass each Sunday – a formidable task. Her husband had been a ship’s purser and had died in Calcutta in 1840 leaving Mrs Hall to look after the children alone. To support the family she obtained the necessary permission and turned her home into a Public House which she very appropriately named the “Hen and Chickens”! It must have been a relief to her when agreement was given to set up a Mission in Wallasey so that Mass could be celebrated locally each Sunday. Initially this was accommodated in a little room over a joiner’s shop in Union Street. As numbers attending Mass increased and space became limited Mrs Hall offered a larger room in the “Hen and Chickens”.

Mrs Hall later married a Mr Beamish and died in 1865 as a result of an accident at the age of 58. She is buried in the Churchyard by St Alban’s Road with other members of her family including two of her grandchildren. The mother of these children was Anne, married in 1860 by Canon Ambrose Lennon. A great, great granddaughter of Mrs Beamish was still living in Bebington in 1991 and she still had Anne’s marriage certificate which she was given by her great aunt.

Anne Hall was married in 1860 by the same Canon Lennon whose efforts had resulted in the building of the new St Alban’s Church. The land for that church had been acquired in Mill Lane between the end of the housing development by Liscard Road and near the site of the water tower, which had not then been built. A Doctor Briggs, the Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District at that time, had put down £150 as a deposit and other money came from collections, donations and bequests, (one in particular from Mrs Costello to help “avoid mortgaging”). The new church was to replace the school chapel which had been opened in 1842 and could hold between 100 and 120 people and was situated in St Alban’;s Road – though whether the road name or the church name came first is a matter of debate.

In 1852 Canon Lennon had written to Bishop Brown:

We do not need a large Church – at the most if it would contain 800 persons it would answer perhaps for over here i.e. in Liscard. But Seacombe is the place for the poor and the multitude, it being on the Wallasey shore and intimately connected with the Birkenhead Docks … Seacombe is a mile and a half hence and needs a church and schools.

There were several large factories, a foundry, copper and smelt works and a couple of potteries at Seacombe but the central position of Liscard made it a more suitable location for Wallasey’s first church. Canon Lennon continued in his letter:

We have stone in our immediate neighbourhood (at the Breck?) and everything being cheaper we could have a structure for a reasonable sum.

He admitted that to build without the whole money would be rash but he was confident that he would do well in Liverpool

 having been a missionary there for ten years (!!) and knowing the town and the people well.

The Bishop was evidently swayed by this eloquent assurance and plans for the church were set in hand.

The style decided upon was simple early Gothic, designed by an architect called Charles Thompson. This design was accepted because costs could be saved in the cheapness of the wooden roof as opposed to the elaborate stone vaulting, ribbing and the other expensive detailing of the later “perpendicular” style.

The foundation stone was laid on 8th June, 1852 and the Church opened exactly fifteen months later. It was built with a wide nave and only one aisle on the north-east side and it was given a splendid spire on the southern corner. The balancing aisle on the other side was not built in order, unwisely as it happened, to save money. The haste and the cost-cutting of the original building work brought its own problems. In 1899 the church was completely renovated and five years later the spire had to be partly taken down and rebuilt. The omission of the south-west aisle and the consequent lack of support on that side of the church caused subsidence which had to be checked by the building of the huge external buttresses on the outside of the church in 1920/21.

1858 saw the blessing and hanging of the bell, weighing 25 cwts and costing £220. The blessing in fact was the first ceremony of its kind in this diocese.

The original intention was to have:

 a good, seemly and excellent Gothic Church: if possible one that would hereafter be susceptible even of splendour.

And splendour began to be applied. It came in the form of a Puginesque “wedding-cake” of a grand altar with double gabled panoplies curtaining holy sculptures and an ornate, gothic-spired tabernacle – though all this was destroyed in the blitz in 1941 along with the vast north-west gable window with much beautiful stained glass.

There were two great pedestals each side of the main altar supporting statues of the Sacred Heart on the left and the Virgin and Child on the right.

The fourteen stations of the Cross in magnificently carved groups are still with us today although without their original ornate carved canopies. These were removed during the re-ordering of the Church during the Marion year in 1952.

In 1977 the Sanctuary of the church was re-ordered in accordance with the norms of the Second Vatican Council. In 1991, as part of the preparation for the 150th anniversary celebrations the Church was rewired and re-fitted with the most modern lighting system available.

More recently, in 2004 the Church once again underwent a re-ordering, with advice and assistance from the Historical Churches Commission. The new Altar was dedicated by the Right Reverend Bishop Brian Noble at the induction Mass of Father David Long as Parish Priest on 4th November 2004.

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