the churches of shrewsbury

This series of articles looks at the various churches in and around Shrewsbury. These articles are written by Russell Game or Martina Chamberlain. Simply scroll down the page until you reach the church you are interested in.

St Eata’s Church, Atcham

All Saint’s & St Michael, Castlefields

St Giles Church, Wenlock Road

The Cathedral, Town Walls

Holy Trinity, Belle Vue & St Julian’s

Holy Trinity, Meole Brace

Unitarian Church, High Street

United Reformed Church

St Eata’s Church, Atcham

(Article first appeared Winter 2020)

Countrylife magazine recently recommended 11 ‘wonderful’ things to do in the countryside that cost nothing. Among them was to visit a church. These ancient buildings lie at the centre of villages and hamlets across the land and, with the twist of an often stiff handle, you can enter and enjoy their special secrets.

St Eata’s church, Atcham, sits on the River Severn, framed by mature trees. The beguiling setting includes a view over the lovely Georgian bridge that used to carry the old A5 over the river but is now a footbridge. The river is broad and shallow here and was the site of a Roman ford.

Stones from Roman Wroxeter, like for a number of local churches, were in fact used as building materials in its construction. In the oldest part of the church, the 12th century nave, some with a scale-leaf pattern built into the wall, have been traced to the roof of a Roman mausoleum at the confluence of the rivers Tern and Severn about a mile away.

Atcham or Attingham means the ham or homestead of Eata’s people. And the dedication of the church to this saint is unique. Saint Eata was at Lindisfarne and a high official in the early Christian church in the north-east.

The old village was largely destroyed by the owners of the Hall when the grounds were extended and landscaped in the 18th century. In his proposals Humphrey Repton suggested the addition of a spire to the church as an eyecatcher, but this never happened.

Shropshire specialist Michael Raven remarked the church was harshly treated by Victorian restorers but has good Flemish and German woodwork. However, there are a number of beautiful features which struck me on entering. Wooden tie beams and arched braces span the roof space and emphasise its height, likewise the tall and graceful stained-glass windows which give glimpses of the trees outside through uncoloured panels.

Some of these are very old – 15th century – and were rescued by the vicar’s wife in 1811 from Bacton church in Herefordshire. An inscription records they were much “broken and neglected”. The North window depicts Blanche Parry and Elizabeth I and says the former died in 1589 aged 82, her body buried in Westminster Abbey and her “bowels” in Bacton. The East window shows the family of Miles ap Harry (Parry), Blanche’s forbears and also Mary Burton’s, hence her desire to rescue the windows. (For the story of Blanche’s incredible life, please see the Extraordinary Women series.)

A fine array of lozenge-shaped hatchments hangs on the south chancel wall, commemorating the Burton family, who were from nearby Longner Hall. These are large coat of arms, usually painted on a wood and canvas frame, erected over the door of a deceased person’s house after their death.

The belfry gallery, built in 2014, with its spiral staircase adds something magical with bell ringers in the tower on view to the congregation. I loved it. And I loved the church.

All Saint’s & St Michael, Castlefields

(Article first appeared Spring 2021)

In the mid-19th century a movement began in Oxford, actually known as the Oxford Movement, which deeply affected the Church of England. This movement intended to instil new vigour into the Church by placing an emphasis on its apostolic and historical roots, highlighting the dignity of worship and drawing attention to its responsibility to reach out to the ordinary man and woman. In this it was especially keen to empathise and communicate with those people in the poorer areas of a town – areas that had sprung up as a result of the Industrial Revolution. This was the background that led to the founding of All Saints Church in North Street, Castlefields – a church built amongst rows of terraced houses populated by the workers at the flax mills and other industries.

The Church was designed in the Victorian Gothic style by Edward Haycock, who was also responsible for the Holy Trinity churches in Belle Vue and Meole Brace, which explains the similarities that can be found in the three churches.

All Saints was ready for worship in 1876 and was consecrated in 1879. It had been paid for by a combination of windfall inheritance and public subscription. Unusually, the congregation sat on chairs in the church – the common practice of the time was to rent a seat on a pew.

Its links with the Oxford Movement explain some of the features that more closely resemble a Roman Catholic than a Protestant church. The Oxford Movement emphasised worship at the altar, and there is also a hanging rood at the church.

Most of the windows have stained glass – one window in the north aisle depicts Hope, Charity and Faith. The second window from the west in the south aisle is from the workshop of William Morris in 1918 (though the man himself had died some 20 years previously).

Over the years the church gained more and more gifts, such as brass lecterns, ornate crosses and statuary. A Lady Chapel was added in 1922 and the Baptistry was remodelled in 1956. At the time of its construction there was no need for a separate graveyard because Shrewsbury had its own cemetery on Longden Road since 1856. The free space next to All Saints church was thus utilised as a playground for All Saints School.

The parish of St Michael is located in Ditherington, to the north of the Whitchurch Road. It has long been merged with All Saints Church, and its original church, St Michael’s, is now the Freemasons’ Hall. St Michael’s Church was built in 1829/1830 by John Carline.

St Giles Church, Wenlock Road

(Article first appeared Summer 2021)

The current church owes much to the Victorians and their efforts at church restoration. However, the church was, according to its own website, originally part of St Giles Hospital for Lepers and the Infirm. It was certainly in existence as such by the time of King Stephen and the Anarchy, and one of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books is entitled “The Leper of St Giles”. Leper hospitals were also situated well outside towns because of the fear of contagion. At St Giles the inmates were cared for by the monks of Shrewsbury Abbey.

Evidence for this early period is limited, though there is a stone towards the eastern part of the current nave that bears an incised decorative cross, which could be the head of the sepulchral cross that once marked the grave of a founder of the leper hospital.

The hospital was leased out before the Reformation, though it was dissolved as such in 1546, having fallen into private hands. By that time it may have become more of an almshouse than a lazar house.

The church became a parish church by the mid-15th century and thus it managed to survive the Reformation. However, by 1836 it was only used for two services per year. It benefited from significant reconstruction between 1852 and 1863, and much of the fabric of the medieval chapel was incorporated into the Victorian church. In 1857 St Giles and Sutton became a parish in its own right; in the modern day it works together with the parish of St Eata, Atcham.

Immediately opposite the south door is the Churchyard Cross. The present shaft and crosshead were erected in 1957, though the base supporting it is older, being part of the original cross put up in the 15th century and which was dismantled in 1585 after becoming unsafe.

The square socket by which the shaft is fixed into the base is said to have been used in post-Reformation times as a pest-basin. Such basins were filled with water (or water with vinegar) in times of plague so that coins, used by the townsfolk to pay for goods brought in from the country, could be washed. This was done in an attempt to prevent the spread of plague.

The Cathedral, Town Walls

(Article first appeared Autumn 2021)

The Roman Catholic Cathedral – the Cathedral Church of Our Lady Help of Christians and of St Peter of Alcantara, to give its full name – was constructed after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 removed the discriminatory laws against Roman Catholics in Britain. The Diocese of Shrewsbury originally comprised the old counties of Shropshire and Cheshire, and the six northern counties of Wales, though the Welsh counties broke away in 1895 to form the Diocese of Wrexham. The diocese falls within the Province of Birmingham, which is where the archbishop lives.

The cathedral was designed by E W Pugin, who had designed several other Catholic churches. He was also the son of A E N Pugin, the man who had provided the drawings for Sir Charles Barry’s Houses of Parliament – which is the current Parliament building following the destruction of the previous one through fire.

At first a much larger cathedral had been planned, which included a tall spire. However, two years into construction, it was discovered that a stratum of sand was very near to the building’s foundations. This would weaken the foundations, so the cathedral was scaled down and the idea of a spire abandoned.

The cathedral stands on the old Town Walls. Its main feature, as seen from the outside, is a steep gable with a high bellcote. The roof has a steep pitch, which means that the nave and the aisle are both high.

The decoration follows the Decorated period of Gothic Revival, which was highly fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. There is a large hanging rood next to the chancel arch, and the high altar has a carved stone reredos.

There is a lot of stained glass. The east window (1862) is thought to be by Hardman; the west window (below) and the south chancel windows are by Margaret Rope.

Holy Trinity, Belle Vue & St Julian’s

(Article first appeared Winter 2021)

St Julian’s was founded in Saxon times, though there is no trace of the original church. The oldest part of the current building is the lower part of the tower, which is said to date from c.1200. There were later additions that built on this to create the tower that can now be seen.

The rest of the church was designed in the classical style of the day by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard between 1749 and 1750. However, the Victorians decided to rebuild the south wall, which is the one that can be seen from High Street, so that it was ‘less plain’. The east window of the church is a copy of Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’.

The old parish of St Julian is now largely within that of Holy Trinity, Belle Vue. Belle Vue developed in the 19th century, notably after the railway came to Shrewsbury in 1848. The first church on this site was built in the 1830s as a Chapel of Ease to St Julian’s. The present chancel was designed by S Pountney-Smith, but the nave (built 1885) follows the ideas of the architect A E Lloyd Oswell. This means that the present church was constructed at a different time, and this can be seen in the different characteristics of building. The chancel is of a soft brickwork, with carved sandstone and limestone facings, whereas the nave comprises a more assertive red brick.

The inside of the church is open, giving an impression of spaciousness. Most of the glass is 19th century and the church possesses an elaborate font, a pulpit of stone with pierced arches and a brass lectern dated to 1874. Holy Trinity in Belle Vue is, in many ways, an archetypal Victorian suburban church, reflecting the fashions and styles of the day.

Holy Trinity, Meole Brace

(Article first appeared Spring 2022)

There have been three churches on or about the present site. There was the church that was demolished in 1799, the church that immediately came after it, and the present church, which was built in 1867-8 in the garden of the vicarage. The first church was probably demolished because it was considered too simple, and it was replaced by a Georgian model. However, by the Victorian period, Georgian churches were definitely out of fashion, so, when it was discovered that significant repair work was needed, it was decided to build a completely new church on an adjacent site.

At the time of construction, the vicar was the Rev H F Bather, who was also Lord of the Manor and Archdeacon. The fact that the new church was so large and so well furnished in what was a comparatively small village, gives a pointer to his significance in the area. He was certainly able to attract considerable funding from the county as a whole, and not just from his parishioners. In fact, the square tower alone (built 1870) was a gift from John Loxdale of Kingsland, and three bells were hung within this tower.

However, whilst this was being completed, there were two churches next to each other – worshippers were summoned to the new church by the bells of the old one. Little is now left of the earlier churches. The communion table in the Lady Chapel is said to have come from the pre-1799 church, whilst the table in the vestry is the communion table of the 1799 church. Apparently, the builder of the 1867 church bought the older church and then demolished it once the new church was ready. He is also said to have taken the 13th century font from the second church, though this was later returned to Meole Brace and is now to be found under the tower.

The church at Meole Brace is distinguished by its stained glass, nearly all of which came from Morris & Co. Worthy of particular note are the windows behind the altar.

Meole Brace church has an unusual ecclesiastical history. It was placed within the Diocese of Hereford until the 20th century, though at least two of the vicars in the 19th century were also Archdeacons of Salop in the Diocese of Lichfield. Kingsland was once within the parish of Meole Brace, though it has since been transferred to St Chad’s (in the 1970s). The parish of Meole Brace is now firmly within the Diocese of Lichfield.

At one point the main road ran through the churchyard, which explains why there are two gates at the north side of the churchyard – one was the entry to the church, whilst the other was for the road. This road ran on to Maesbrook Mill, which was where the Shropshire authoress, Mary Webb, once lived. Mary Webb was married at Meole Brace, and in the centre aisle at the church is a tablet on a pew, marking where she and her family once sat.

The Unitarian Church, High Street

(Article first appeared Summer 2022)

The Unitarian Church is Italianate in style and dates from 1839. The present building is fairly modern, but the site itself is hugely historic. During the reign of Charles II, the Act of Uniformity (1662) was passed. This ejected some 2,000 clerics from the Church of England on the grounds of their presbyterian beliefs and their refusal to be ordained by bishops. In Shrewsbury, this affected the vicars of the two most significant churches, St Mary’s and St Chad’s.

Both men, Francis Tallents and John Bryan, were well-known and well-liked, but they were expelled from their parishes regardless. In fact, both were to suffer periods of imprisonment, and they were not allowed to preach or teach, or even to come within five miles of Shrewsbury. Despite the persecution, Presbyterians continued to exist within the town, meeting covertly in private houses and receiving distant advice from Tallents and Bryan, both of whom were said to visit Shrewsbury secretly.

The persecution ended when William III came to the throne, and plans were made for a ‘decent place of worship’. Land was purchased in what is now High Street (at the time that section of High Street was known as Bakers’ Row) and a meeting house was opened at the site of the current Unitarian Church in 1691 – with John Bryan as Minister.

It seemed that the Presbyterians finally had a place to call their own, but disaster was to come in 1715. This was the year of the ‘Old Pretender’ and the first Jacobite attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne of England (the King of England at the time was the Hanoverian George I). In several parts of England, Stuart sympathisers took to the streets, and one of their favourite targets was religious dissenters. On the night of 6th July 1715 a mob swept down the High Street, and the Meeting House was almost all demolished.

Eventually some compensation was received, and a new chapel was built. Its loyalty to the Hanoverians was visually displayed by a large-scale painting of the Royal Arms of George I, which can still be seen on the wall.

The chapel flourished in the 18th century, becoming the centre for Unitarianism in Shrewsbury. In 1798, when a new Minister was needed, one of the candidates was the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had preached at the chapel on three Sundays. However, he withdrew after being offered an annuity by Joseph Wedgwood, the Staffordshire potter, which enabled him to focus on his writing.

A tablet in the chapel proclaims that Charles Darwin attended services in the early 19th century. He was brought by his mother, who was one of the Wedgwood family and was an uncompromising Unitarian.

Unitarianism is a branch of Christianity that rejects the trinitarian belief – Unitarians believe that God is one single person, rather than the trinitarian concept of three persons: the father, the son and the holy spirit. The High Street Church has had its moments of controversy, but, in the words of Francis Tallents (1691) the place was ‘not built for faction or for party, but to promote repentance and faith in communion with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity’.

The United Reformed Church, Abbey Foregate

(Article first appeared Autumn 2022)

Just over the English Bridge is the United Reform Church with its tower and spire. The building was started in 1863, and it was first known as the Congregational Church. This was its name until 1972, when the Congregational Church in England and Wales united with the Presbyterian Church of England, at which point it became the United Reformed Church.

The concept behind Congregationalism entails each local church enjoying independence whilst being run on the principle of democracy. These concepts date back to the 16th century, and by the 17th century members of the Church, known as Independents, had become common within Oliver Cromwell’s victorious parliamentarian army. However, later persecution drove them either underground or into exile – many of them ended up in the Netherlands or the American colonies.

The 18th century proved to be more tolerant, so they began to grow in both number and influence. They remained separate from the established Church of England, but they did set up a Union of Congregational Churches, though each individual church remained in charge of its own particular affairs.

Congregationalism had had a presence in Shrewsbury since the 17th century. The earliest Congregational Church was the chapel on Swan Hill, which was originally constructed in 1767, though it has since been rebuilt. The change of location came about following a decision in 1862 to build a new church. This was to mark the 200th anniversary of the separation of the Dissenters from the Church of England after the Act of Uniformity in 1662.

The architect for the new church was G Bidlake of Wolverhampton, and the style of the building was Gothic, which was fashionable at the time. The nave, spacious with a sloping roof, is dominated by the organ. The galleries were added shortly after the church was built, allegedly in order to ‘improve the acoustics’, with a brick hall and other rooms adjoining the main building. Stained glass was added at various times in the church’s history.

The Presbyterians had a similar attitude to the Congregationalists in terms of their preference for democratic government. The Presbyterian Church also started with the Act of Uniformity in 1662. In Shrewsbury the Presbyterians had initially worshipped at the chapel in High Street, until that building became the centre for the Unitarians.

In 1870 the Presbyterians built the Church of St Nicholas in Castle Street – they took the name from the Norman chapel of St Nicholas, which had been located in the Outer Bailey of the Castle. After 1972 the Presbyterians joined with the Congregationalists in the church by the abbey. St Nicholas is no longer used for worship, being instead a bar/grill.