THE ARCHITECTURE OF ST. JOSEPH'S CHURCH
by Peter Howell
The architect chosen to design the church was Edmund Kirby. Born in Liverpool in 1838, he was for five years a pupil of Edward Welby Pugin, son and successor of the great A.W.N. Pugin. Afterwards he was an assistant to the distinguished Chester architect John Douglas. The date when he set up his own practice in Liverpool seems to have been 1867. In 1888 he became Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 1897 he moved his residence from Claughton Road, Birkenhead, to Overdale, Beresford Road, Oxton. Two years later in 1900 he built the Church of Holy Name in his own orchard. He took two of his sons into partnership in 1905, and died in 1920.
He built many churches, both Catholic and Anglican, all in the Gothic style. Those in stone include St. Werburgh’s, Chester (1873-5 and 1913-4); Our Lady’s, Parbold (1878-84), with an elegant spire; and St. Laurence’s, Birkenhead (1889-90). This was regarded by Sir Charles Reilly as the best church in the town, but was demolished in 1996. Particularly remarkable are Kirby’s works in the red pressed brick, manufactured at Ruabon,(known as Raw Meat Brick in the trade) which was so much favoured by local architects (not least John Douglas) in the later 19th century. He sometimes combined it with half-timber, as at the grand St. Hildeburgh’s, Hoylake (1897-9), and the delightful little St. John’s, High Leigh (1893). He built some large houses also in red brick, such as Mere Hall, Oxton (1880). Non-ecclesiastical works include the Gothic Queen Victoria Monument in Hamilton Square (1905) and the classical Edward VII Memorial Clock Tower (1912).
(Ruabon Brick was in current use by the Victorian railway industry to build railway bridges as it required little maintenance, as it is not eroded by weather and pollution like the normal house brick in use today. Many of the contemporary houses built around the church at the same time used this same hard wearing material. Unfortunately because it is so hard wearing, it does not absorb rain water, so this has a tendency to collect and soak into the mortar joins, probably causing much of the rot that the structure of the building has been burdened with in latter years.)
St. Joseph’s Church is characteristic of Kirby’s work in its proportions: its striking height compensating for the lack of tower or spire. The materials are red pressed brick with moulded terracotta details, both outside and in, and the roof is of Westmoreland Green slates. Its colour and grandeur contribute to its imposing presence on the side of the hill.
The building consists of nave, with lean-to aisles, and a short chancel flanked by side-chapels. The interior has real nobility. Although the windows are narrow lancets, their size and height fill the church with light. Below the paired clerestory windows runs a moulded brick cornice of small trefoil arches. The chancel arch frames the big rose window at the east end. The fact that the clerestory windows in the chancel are larger than those in the nave ( the panelled chancel roof rising higher than the nave one) makes the chancel even lighter. The bold and richly patterned decorative scheme (in red, green, blue, yellow, black and white) which covers the trussed wooden roofs ensures that the interior is even more colourful than the exterior.
At the west end of the nave, a gallery, bracketed out into the nave, houses the organ in its painted wooden case. Below the gallery is a narthex: at its south end is the former baptistery, (now used as the Repository), on the south side of which a new window was formed in the 1960’s. A glazed tile dado runs all round the church. Near to the south-west corner are a marble plaque commemorating Joseph Topham, a generous benefactor of the church, and the carved War Memorial in polished mahogany.
The arcade columns of the nave are of polished granite, with sandstone capitals (all different) and bases. The four middle bays of the south aisle have cross gables and are closed off with wooden screens to form confessionals. There is no stained glass in the church: all the windows being glazed with textured ‘cathedral’ glass of pink, blue and green. The font has been moved to the east end of the nave. It is made of stone with black marble colonnettes (taken from the pulpit that was situated in the immediate area), but parts are now missing.
In the chancel, a tall carved wooden reredos fills the space below the rose window. Its raised border is carved with gilded vines. In the centre is the exposition throne, flanked by pairs of gilded angels. The sanctuary was re-ordered in 1968(by the firm of Hayes and Finch). The old high altar has been removed and replaced by a screen carved to match the existing furnishings, which supports the new Tabernacle and the ‘big six’ candlesticks. The ambo matches this screen. The new free standing altar re-uses the old mensa (reduced in size).
The chancel is lined with rich wooden panelling, and on the south side are triple Sedilia (stalls) with canopies. The wooden altar rails are richly carved. On brackets on either side of the chancel arch are statues of Saints Joseph and Peter.
The Lady Chapel is north of the chancel, and is separated from it by a wooden screen. Its east wall has linenfold wooden panelling, and a plain tester hangs over the plain wooden altar. The Sacred Heart Chapel on the south side has a carved wooden altar (unpainted), which served as the model for the screen which replaced the high altar. On its stands a brass tabernacle. There is bold painted decoration on the east wall. This chapel is lit by a very remarkable gabled wooden roof light, glazed on three sides.
The church was built quickly to the time schedule stipulated, by the builder Mr. Peter Rothwell whose family are still represented in the parish today, culminating in the official opening ceremony on the following 19th August 1900, by which time Canon Aloysius O’Toole had replaced Father Carton as Parish Priest.
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