On this day … 25 May 1850

The Preston Guardian carried its report of the laying of the foundation stone of St Walburge’s Church on the Whit Monday. The ceremony was a testament to the efforts of Fr Thomas Weston in providing a place of worship for the growing number of Catholics in the fast-developing district, and, appropriately, the new street alongside was named Weston Street in his honour.

The laying of the foundation stone marked the realisation of the inspiration of the architect, Joseph Aloysius Hansom, for what was to become such a wonderful addition to the Preston skyline, although his spire, at 309 feet the third highest in the UK, was not added until 1867.

Joseph Hansom, now probably best remembered for his invention of the Hansom cab, was one of the principal guests at the ceremony. He was living in Preston at the time and for some time after while the work was in progress.

Indeed, in his speech at the meal after the ceremony, Hansom, himself a Catholic, revealed that he was planning to make his home in the town:

He felt, having chosen Preston, as he hoped, for a resting place, and having been somewhat of a wanderer, he felt something like comfort that he had truly Catholic patrons. In endeavouring to set up a church for the glory of Almighty God in this town, he had had this in view, that he was only one of a great number labouring and acting in the same cause.

But that was not to be, for although he had set up his architectural practice in Preston in 1847, in 1852 he left town to establish himself in London, where he died, aged 78, in 1882.

St Walburge's Preston interior
The magnificent roof, not as safe as Hansom imagined: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rpsmithbarney/4062234651/

Interestingly, in his speech Hansom addressed fears about the strength of the vast span of the wooden roof supported by fourteen hammerbeams:

He might say that there were some scruples entertained with regard to the size of the church and the method of construction proposed to be adopted. He might certainly make an error, and, indeed, some of the greatest men had committed errors also. He remembered reading … of a roof falling in. Now this was the only thing about which there were any real misgivings regarding the design of the church of St. Walburge.

He contemplated covering in a space of fifty-six feet wide with one span, without what was technically called a “tie beam.” … and he believed that 70 feet spanned over by real Irish oak was not anything extraordinary. In railway stations we saw some magnificent things; and it was now an everyday matter for spaces to be spanned over that, a few years ago, our forefathers hardly knew how to deal with.

In this, he was being over confident, for in later years a great deal of money had to be spent in strengthening the roof, ‘the original work in connection therewith being very weak and unsatisfactory’.

The Grade 1 listed building was threatened with closure by the diocese in 2007. The diocese’s proposal was strongly resisted, with one architectural historian remarking:

An outstanding building by an ingenious and imaginative architect, St Walburge’s is one of Preston’s greatest historic buildings. It was built to express the pride and confidence of the Roman Catholic community after legal restrictions on religious observance were lifted in the 19th century. To close it now would cost local people access to some of Lancashire’s richest heritage.

The protests at the threatened closure persuaded the diocese to relent, and worship now continues at the church.

Map showing St Walburge's RC Church, Preston, in the 1850s
Map showing the recently completed church, before Weston Street had been built: https://maps.nls.uk/view/231280341

Hewitson’s History of Preston
The church today: https://icksp.org.uk/preston/

One thought on “On this day … 25 May 1850

  1. Fantastic post thanks. Born and grew up in the shadow of St Walburge’s Church and went to school there. An architectural gem. I’m still at a loss as to why it wasn’t designated as a cathedral! Steph


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