Friargate’s Catholic ‘chapels’ 1605-1990

See also:
When Preston’s Catholics had to lie under ye Bushel
Christopher Tootell – a 17th-century Preston priest
Lancashire’s Catholic chaplains on the Western Front
Preston priests go to war: Fr Bernard Page, Fr John Myerscough and Fr Tom Baines

Sketch of thFriargate Preston St Mary's Catholic Chapel
Fig 1. The Rev P. Cronin’s sketch of Friargate’s 1605 ‘chapel’.[1]
Fig 2. Beth Hayes captured this photograph of the rather tired looking front of St Mary’s Chapel on Friargate in 1990, shortly before its demolition. An earlier chapel occupied a site lower down Friargate in the early 18th century and claims are made for a chapel on that site as early as 1605. Image courtesy of Preston Historical Society.

It has been commonly supposed that a Catholic chapel was opened at the bottom of Friargate in Preston is 1605. This supposition would seem to be based on a reference in Charles Hardwick’s History of Preston, where he writes,
‘For some time after the reformation, the Roman catholics were, owing to the rigorous persecution to which they were subjected, compelled to worship privately and in secret. The tone of public feeling, in this respect, however, so far improved, that a small thatched building, in a place called Chapel-yard, in Friargate, below Bridge-street, is said [by whom?] to have been used by them as a place of public worship, as early as 1605. This building, after being converted into cottages, and again transformed into a stable, was pulled down a few years ago, and a joiner’s shop erected upon the site. It was dedicated to St. Mary, probably in memory of the ancient hospital on the Maudlands.’ [2]

Anthony Hewitson repeated the story a few years later in his Our Churches and Chapels, in which he wrote: ‘… we find that in Preston a small thatched building – situated in Chapel-yard, off Friargate – was opened for the use of Catholics. This was in 1605. The yard, no doubt, took its name from the chapel, which was dedicated to St. Mary.’ [3]

In his History of Preston, a few years later, he was writing: ‘At Preston, a little thatched building, in a yard, on the western side of Friargate, was opened as a Catholic chapel. This was in 1605. The chapel was dedicated to St Mary. It was used as a chapel, by Catholics, until 1761, when a new place of worship – built on the west side of Friargate brow, a short distance southward – supplanted it.’ A note adds, with reference to the yard, ‘This yard is still in existence. It is nearly opposite the Catholic Men’s Club, and derived the name it is now, or was until recent years, known by – “Chapel yard” – from the chapel which was situated in it.’ [4]

Neither writer supplies any evidence for their assertions (it is probable that Hewitson simply plagiarised Hardwick), and whatever was the source of their inspiration, it will most likely never be known.

And yet even now the existence of the chapel would seem to be established. John Hilton, the acknowledged authority on the history of Catholicism in the North-West, in his 2016 PhD thesis writes, ‘Catholics tended to be concentrated in towns such as Preston, which by 1605 had its own chapel, the majority of its congregants living in the town.’ [5]  Dr Hilton bases his assertion on his 1994 book, Catholic Lancashire. There he writes, ‘As early as 1605 there was a secret Catholic chapel in Preston in Chapel Yard off Friargate, serving 68 recusants in the town and another 19 in the surrounding rural parish. [6]

This statement he bases on page 137 of the second volume of Blundell’s Old Catholic Lancashire, but all of relevance that appears on that page is the following, ‘… in Preston a small thatched building – situated in chapel yard – off Friargate – was opened for the use of Catholics. This was in 1605.’ [7] Blundell bases his statement on Hewitson. Yet two pages further on he makes plain there is no stronger authority than Hewitson, and his endorsement of Hewitson is not compelling, ‘As this was at the period of most severe persecution it is difficult to believe that even in Preston a definitely Catholic chapel could exist in the town itself; still the tradition of some sort must have been there for Mr Hewitson to record it.’ [8]

Tom Smith, in his Catholics in Preston, is more circumspect. He notes that ‘When the Bishop of Chester conducted his visitation of 1605 some 68 recusants of Preston were presented to him and 19 others from the parish townships.’ The churchwardens apparently singled out prominent recusants, including ‘William Ridley who was “supposed to have many Masses said in his house since the death of the queen, where unto many have resorted”.’ He then cautions against putting too much reliance on Hewitson’s 1605 Catholics chapel, ‘There does not, however, seem to be any contemporary evidence of his claim.’ [9]

Leo Warren begins his Through Twenty Preston Guilds with an introduction to Catholicism in post-Reformation Preston and notes the Bishop of Chester’s 1605 visitation but does not even mention Hewitson’s chapel. [10] 1605 was also the year of the Gunpowder Plot, surely an inauspicious time to be opening a Catholic chapel in a town with a strong Puritan presence?

David Hunt in his History of Preston is similarly sceptical, ‘It has been suggested that a Catholic chapel was re-established in Preston town in 1605, but on what evidence this assertion is made is unclear. Hopes of a Catholic revival were dashed in 1605 by the “Gunpowder Plot”.’[11]

Fig 3. The proposed location of the Jesuit chapel in Friargate in the 1680s is shown as empty space on this section of the reconstruction of the 1685 survey of Preston
Fig 4. A section of one of the sketch plans drawn by the 1685 surveyors on which the above reconstruction is based. The junction of Fryer Lane (present Marsh Lane) with Friargate and the Friargate barrs are shown. (DDX194/7 Reproduced with permission of Lancashire Archives).
Fig 5. A section of another of the sketch plans. The junction of Fryre Wind (alternative name for the present Marsh Lane) with Friargate is shown. (DDX194/19 Reproduced with permission of Lancashire Archives).

There was no mention of the chapel by the surveyors who produced a detailed plan of the town in 1685, the relevant section of a reconstruction of which is shown above. It is unlikely they would not have noted a Catholic chapel in the town yet there is no sign of a building in the empty space behind the corner of Friargate and Fryre wind (the present Marsh Lane) in their sketch plans.

Firmer evidence for a Preston chapel comes two years later, during the brief period of Catholic ascendancy that James II introduced and which flickered and died between 1687 and 1688. In Lancashire this ascendancy was heralded by Molyneux’s appointment as lord lieutenant in 1687. It was he who leased the Fishwick Hall estate to the Benedictines, who established a chapel there at this time.

Smith uses the visitation of Bishop Leyburn in 1687 as evidence of the existence of a Friargate chapel at that time in that the bishop’s visitation register ‘shows that on 7 September 1687 some 1,099 people were confirmed at Fernyhalgh and on the following day 122 at Tulketh Hall and 1,131 in the chapel in Friargate which the Jesuits had re-opened.’ [12] He relies on the published transcript for the figures and Warren for this information. [13]

Yet the transcription records the priest at the Preston confirmations as the Benedictine Bartholomew Hesketh, priest at the new Fishwick chapel, making no mention of Jesuits. [14] Warren writes, ‘It would seem that 122 Catholics were confirmed at Tulketh Hall, while the rest were confirmed in Friargate, in the Catholic Chapel, then situated in a churchyard opposite the present Sun Hotel. This courtyard is known as Old Chapel Yard, off the western side of Friargate between Edward Street and Marsh Lane , formerly Bridge Street’ [15]

The difficulty is that Warren simply gives his source as ‘in the Westminster Cathedral Archives’ (he was writing before the Visitation transcription was published). Also, his figures do not tally with those in the transcription. Would the Visitation transcribers have missed Smith’s Jesuit connection, for which neither of his quoted sources supply evidence?

The Jesuits themselves lend him no support in the history of their Preston mission published towards the end of the 19th century. [16] There they give little credence to a Catholic chapel in the town in the 1680s. In fact, they compared the state of Catholic worship in the town unfavourably with neighbouring Wigan. The historian of the Preston mission, Henry Foley, wrote:

We are led to believe that at this time the Catholics at Preston were but few, because we do not find that any stir was made during the short sunshine of the reign of James II, as occurred in other places ­ – Wigan, for example where we read that we had opened a flourishing college, with one hundred scholars; that the foundations of a new college and chapel had been laid, the old chapel being too small for the multitudes that flocked to the sermons, at which the Governor of the town and his attendants used to frequent.

By contrast, when the Jesuits did establish their mission in Preston in Preston at the turn of the century ‘a tenement at the lower end of Friargate’ served as their place of worship. [17]

It was during Foley’s ‘short sunshine’ that Leyburn had been made bishop by Pope Innocent XI in 1685 at James’s request. He returned to England from Rome shortly afterwards as vicar apostolic. Despite this interest and favour shown by James, Leyburn shared the pope’s distrust of the Jesuits generally, and especially those who surrounded the king and were his advisors urging him to foster a Gallican Catholicism. It could be said that Leyburn and the Jesuits detested and distrusted each other. [18] What would Leyburn have made of Jesuits establishing a mission in Preston?

The speed with which James had attempted to implement this French model of Catholicism led to much confusion and fostered great resentment. Thus he appointed regulators, many of whom were Presbyterians, Quakers and Baptists, to ‘regulate’ corporations such as Preston by purging them of those resistant to his reforms. They ‘made contacts with local informants, interviewed … officeholders and potential officeholders, and gathered relevant local political gossip’. [19]

In Preston the regulator appointed was a man named Tompson, who appears to have been assisted by a Quaker, as Thomas Bellingham reports in his diary entry for 24 September, 1688:

Mr. Rishton gave an account of the quaker. His name is Scansfield. He pretends to be a docter – a dangerous, seditious fellow, and not without some suspicion of being a Jesuit. All his relations are R. C. He sayd there was a plott discovered of ye Bpps Keeping confederacy with Holland for raysing disturbances in England. He pretended to have an interest att Court, and to have an interest in electing Burgesses for this corporation. He and Tompson the Regulator were much together.

John Scanfield was a Quaker, but a very disreputable one. Quakers throughout the country had expressed concern about his behaviour, suspecting him of ‘tampering with severall women’. After he visited Margaret Fox at Swarthmore later in the year she found herself having to defend herself because of suspicions of the nature of her association with him. [20]

Given such deep suspicion of the agents James attempted to insinuate in the town and the concern that one of them might be a Jesuit, it seems unlikely that the Jesuits would have so publicly advertised their presence as to open a chapel in one of the main streets of Preston. If they had it is unlikely that it would have escaped the notice of Bellingham or of his fellow diarist, Lawrence Rawstorne. Yet there is no mention of a Jesuit chapel in either diary, and the only suspicion of the presence of a Jesuit in the town comes in Bellingham’s reference to Scanfield.

What Lawrence Rawstorne does recount is his detention and committal to Lancaster of a Catholic priest, Christopher Tootell, on 28 May 1689. Fr Tootell was the priest who took charge of the mission at Ladywell, Fernyhalgh, in 1699, at the same time being appointed rural dean of Amounderness and later, grand-vicar for Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumberland and Westmorland. On the same day in May that Tootell was apprehended, Bellingham reports dragoons going out in the evening ‘to search for Papists’ armes’. It is hardly likely Jesuit priests would have been allowed to officiate at a chapel in Preston at this time.

A chapel in the Preston area was attacked in July 1689. Smith believes this was his Jesuit chapel in Friargate, ‘the newly-opened chapel in Preston was destroyed by an angry mob’. [21]. However, he is relying on a single entry in Thomas Bellingham’s diary, for 18 July, and this contains merely the brief statement, ‘Ye soldiers unslated the Popish Chappell’. This entry does not substantiate Smith’s statement: it does not specify a Friargate chapel, it could have been, for example, the new chapel at Fishwick; the chapel was not necessarily destroyed, merely ‘unslated’; and the ‘angry mob’ is too encompassing a description, suggesting local residents were involved, when Bellingham makes clear it was soldiers who were responsible. The soldiers belonged to Sir Henry Ingoldsby’s Regiment of Foot. This was a very ill-disciplined regiment as is witnessed by their performance in Ireland later in the year, ‘Colonel ill and incapable, as are almost all the other officers, who are usually Absent, and are so greedy of money that the soldiers can scarce get paid, very badly clothed, and without shirts; as bad a Regiment as possible, except Drogheda’s, which is worse.’ [22]

The Bellingham and Rawstorne diaries from the end of 1688 through 1689 detail the constant arrival of Protestant gentry fleeing Ireland with tales of their ill treatment at the hands of Catholics. The diaries also describe the arrival and temporary accommodation in Preston of regiments on their way to Ireland to relieve the besieged Protestants in Derry. It was clearly not a propitious time to be a Catholic in Preston. So many troops in the town occasioned much heavy drinking and unruly behaviour as both diarists record, while they themselves happily joined in the officers’ tours of the town’s taverns.

William III was clearly concerned about the condition of his regiments in the north, especially as many of the soldiers had previously pledged loyalty to James II. He sent three commissioners to Lancashire in 1689 to investigate and they were in Preston for two days (Bellingham/Rawstorne diaries 20 and 21 June). Two of the commissioners were among the seven noblemen who had originally invited William to invade. The third was Thomas Wharton, a man who was clearly no respecter of Anglican church property: a few years previously he had been fined £1,000 for sacrilege: ‘In a state of intoxication he and his brother Henry forced the doors of the parish church of Great Barrington in the middle of the night, rang the bells, tore up the Bible, and “pissed against a communion table”.’ [23] He and his like would be even less respectful of Catholic property and persons.

A more propitious time for Jesuits to open a mission in Preston would have been at the beginning of the 18th century. Colin Haydon makes use of Fr Tootell’s correspondence in his account of anti-Catholicism in 18th-century England. Fr Tootell describes a period of relative peace shortly before 1715 when Tories, who he describes as ‘truly Civil Magistrates’, controlled the quarter sessions. The Tories resisted an attempt by Preston’s Whig vicar, Samuel Peploe, to indict several local Catholics, including Tootell, who wrote that the Tory magistrates ‘were so favorable as to discharge the Persons indicted, upon their appearing by an Attorney, and paying off the costs and charges of the Suite’. When the Whigs gained control of Lancashire at the end of 1715 the change was swift, as Tootell writes, and in place of ‘the Quiet we had enjoy’d under the late Magistracie’ the succeeding Whigs were ‘active and severe in their Office’. [24]

This period of relative calm for Catholics before the events of 1715 clearly did not please Peploe, as is shown in his letter of 29 January 1713-4 to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge which monitored Catholic activity in the provinces. In his letter Peploe describes Catholic activity in Preston:

We have 5. or 6. Houses in this Town where Papists meet, sometimes at one sometimes at another, and pretty often in 2. or 3. at once: In these Houses they have Chappels deck’d with all Popish Trinkets. They go Publickly to their Meetings as we go to Church, and on Sabbath Days they go by our Bells. One Knight is the only Priest that lives in the Town, who sometime agoe came from Ireland. There are others who come to officiate every Sunday and Holy Day. In the Country part of this parish, which is made up of 12. large Townships, there are several Preists who live among them: Their Names as far as I can discover are Tootel, Melling, Kendal, Richardson, Smyth, Vavasor, who is now Sr. Walter, as some say. Tootel and Melling live together, and have a publick chapel [at Fernyhalgh]. [25]

What is clear from this letter is that if Peploe complained about a public chapel at Fernyhalgh he would not have overlooked a chapel on one of Preston’s main thoroughfares. It does seem that Catholic worship in Preston at this time was a private affair, practised in the homes of local Catholics and possibly in ‘the tenement at the lower end of Friargate’.

Peploe does not mention Fr Gilbert Grey, who appears to have been the Jesuit priest based in Preston in 1701:

In an ancient ‘Status Collegii,’ dated 1701, is the following: ‘Preston: Mr. George Gray. Salery, 00 : 00 :0 !’ For George we should read Gilbert. Father George Grey, who was Provincial 1671-4, died in the year 1686. Father Gilbert Grey, vere Talbot, afterwards thirteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, was certainly at Preston very early in the last century, as we find by a letter of his in 1736, when Rector of St. Aloysius. [26]

By 1714 he had probably been succeeded by the knight Peploe refers to, who was Sir Walter Vavasour. He was a Jesuit priest, a member of a prominent Yorkshire Catholic family, who served the mission in Preston and died there on 10 April, 1740. His mail was addressed to ‘Mr. Walter Vavasour, to be left at the White Bull in Preston Lancashire’. [27] Warren confuses his inns when he writes of Vavasour:

One well known name was Sir Walter Vavasour, who, it was reported, could be seen openly in Church-gate and entering the White Bull near the church. For years his address was ‘to be called for at Mr Jackson’s, the White Bull’. The innkeeper, Mr Richard Jackson, was a prominent Jacobite and his hostelry in New Street was used by the Jacobites both in 1715 and in 1745. It was demolished in November 1893. [28]

He is wrong in locating the White Bull in New Street. It was the inn that later became the Bull and Royal, which was in Church Street or Church-gate as the context of the above quotation makes clear. Richard Jackson was landlord of the White Bull from at least 1685. New Street was not opened until early in the next century, and would not have been described as near the church, it was on the north side of the Market Square. There was a White Bull there but it was a much smaller and less prestigious establishment than its Church Street namesake.

Warren, and Smith who followed him in the error, seem to have been led astray by Fr James Splaine who in his History of the First Catholic Charitable Society records another priest having his mail directed to the White Bull, which he places in New Street. [29]

Fig 5. The entry in the Preston Poor Book recording the presence of the ‘Papists Chapel’. Reproduced with permission of Lancashire Archives

The Preston Poor Tax Book of 1732 contains concrete evidence for a Catholic chapel for it records a ‘Papists Chapel’ rented to ‘Papists’ for a yearly rent of £6 in a property on the ‘west side of Friargate without barrs’ owned by Dr Bushell and leased to the executors of Henry Fisher. This was probably the Old Chapel Yard shown on the 60in OS plan of 1849. The tax book records a workhouse and two other properties on the site. [30] Further evidence is found in the town’s court leet records which show that in October 1737 David Brown was fined £5 for offences including ‘not repairing the Platts in the Common Footway leading from the Chapel Yard, thro’ his Fields to the House of Correcion’. He was fined for the same offence the following April. [31]

Fig 6. A section of the 1849 60″ Ordnance Survey plan of Preston showing the location of Old Chapel Yard between Bridge Street (present Marsh Lane) and Edward Street

Peploe’s letter suggests it was unlikely there was a public Catholic chapel in Preston in 1714, but one had been established by 1732 as the Poor Tax Book makes clear. In a draft of a reply dated 19 February 1726-7 on the back of a letter from Mr J. Wilkinson, of Wrightington, Christopher Tootell speaks of addressing ‘a considerable congregation of the Catholic inhabitants of the Town’. [32] Could this have been in the Friargate chapel?

Warren provides an account of the way in which the site of the future St Mary’s Chapel at 62 Friargate was acquired and secured. He traces the property, known as ‘Greystocks Houses’, back to a deed of 1713. Between then and 1761 when St Mary’s Chapel was built the property passed through several ‘owners’, in order, as Warren notes, to secure it in Catholic hands. In 1742, the lawyer handling the transactions confessed that the work caused him ‘a great deal of trouble’.

In a deed of 1762, according to Warren, the property is described as:

… formerly consisting of two Dwellings with out-housing and Garden … on the South side of the Fryergate Barrs in Preston … with a large edifice or building largely erected in the Garden thereof sometimes called the Chapel which was formerly the estate of George Graystock, late of Preston, deceased, and since in the possession of Mrs A Sandford, widow.

Warren did not supply references for any of the deeds he examined. [33]

There is another reference to the purchase of a property in Friargate in the short biography of Fr Alexander Leigh in Foley’s Collectanea where it is recorded that in 1730 he began service with the Jesuit mission in Preston ‘his address being, “To be left at the ‘White Bull’, in Preston. He purchased a house in Friargate, in 1733, which was then used as the only Catholic chapel in the town.’ [34]

This purchase is referred to by Foley in his history of the Preston mission, when he writes:

As early as 1733, two tenements and gardens in Friargate, near the Barrs (in one document described as but one house), by the name of Greystocks, were purchased from a Mrs. Sandford, sister of Father Alexander Leigh, S.J., who was then serving at Wigan, and afterwards at Preston, and were duly conveyed to him and another. This now forms part of the site of St Mary’s. [35]

Sadly, as with Warren, no indication is given of the location of the deeds. Also, the Preston Poor Tax Book makes clear that in 1732 Fr Leigh was already living in Preston, for it is recorded that ‘Mr Leigh Pop. Priest’ was one of the tenants in the property of Mr William Southcott on the east side of Friargate. [36]

Foley further records that:

A lease for one hundred years, dated May 10, 1759, was granted to Thomas Clifton, Esq., of Lytham, our friend, of ‘a certain piece of ground , being part of a garden belonging to a dwelling house, on the south side of the Friargate, near the Barrs, then in the possession of Mr. Barnewell (Father Barnewell), as the same was then marked out, in order to erect a new building thereon.

And he notes that ‘the use of Mr Clifton’s name and calling the intended chapel “a new building”, shows the precautions taken for concealing the real object in view of this bold step.’ After the opening of St Mary’s the lease was transferred to the Jesuits. [37]

From the above records of property transactions it would appear that the Jesuits bought the property on Friargate in 1733, behind which St Mary’s was later built, their hold on the site being concealed by assigning the lease to friendly laymen. The house fronting onto Friargate would seem to have been lived in by Fr Barnewall and the garden behind the house was marked out as the site of St Mary’s in 1759.

Fig 7. The Rev P. Cronin’s sketch of Friargate’s 1761 St Mary’s Chapel. It is not known what Fr Cronin based his drawing on. The steps at the front correspond to the ones shown on the 1849 plan (Fig 8 below) [38]
In the course of an election riot in 1768 a Whig mob attacked and plundered the chapel and its priest had to flee for his life. It must have been restored by 1777 when Boswell visited Preston where he heard Mass at St Mary’s which he found ‘so filled with seats that I wondered at so much indulgence by the civil magistrates’. [39]

In June 1793 the final sermon was preached at St Mary’s by the Rev Richard Morgan following the opening of the much larger St Wilfrid’s in Chapel Street. The moving force behind the decision to build a new chapel was the Rev Joseph Dunn, Morgan’s fellow priest in the mission and the architect of the expansion of the Catholic presence in the town into the next century. [40] Dunn and Morgan moved to a new house in Fishergate. Foley describes their previous residence thus:

On the opening of St Wilfrid’s in 1793, St Mary’s chapel was closed. A paper in the archives says: ‘Fathers Dunn and Morgan used to reside in a cottage up the yard, before reaching the chapel, and also had a fine room behind the chapel, which at the time commanded a beautiful view of the Ribble, Penwortham, &c., no obstruction or building being in the way, and the chapel standing on a high eminence’. [41]

St Mary’s did not long stay closed. Foley reports that a growing Catholic population in the town led to the Friargate chapel being enlarged and re-opened in 1813 at a cost of about £1,050. Peter Whittle, writing just six years after the reopening, is possibly more accurate in putting the date at 1815. When the new church of St Ignatius was being planned it was proposed to close and sell off St Mary’s. But the Catholic population of the town had continued to increase with the arrival of Irish immigrants and so the chapel survived. A further enlargement of St Mary’s began in 1856, but the roof fell in while the work was being carried out, the ruins were cleared and a new chapel was built at a cost of £1,600. [42]

Hewitson continues his account of St Mary’s into the 19th century in his Our Churches and Chapels. [43] His account differs from Foley’s in that he dates the re-opening to 1815 (a date he probably took from Whittle), reports the roof collapsing shortly afterwards and records the rebuilding of 1856, with no mention of the collapse at that date. He is clearly mistaken: the collapse is reported in the Preston Guardian of 22 March 1856, the building of the new chapel nearing completion (PG 24 May 1856) and its dedication (PG 10 September 1856). See Preston Guardian Digest 1844-1860. He supplies a description of the chapel, its congregation and its environs in his usual prolix style:

It is a chapel of ease for St. Wilfrid’s, and is attended to a very large extent by Irish people. The situation of it is lofty; it stands upon higher ground than any other place of worship in the town; but it is so hemmed in with houses, &c., that you can scarcely see it, and if you could get a full view of it nothing very beautiful would be observed about the exterior. The locality in which this chapel is placed is crowded, dark-looking, and pretty ungodly. All kinds of sinister-looking alleys, narrow yards, dirty courts, and smoky back streets surround it; much drinking is done in each; and a chorus of noise from lounging men in their shirt sleeves, draggle-tailed women without bonnets, and weird little youngsters, given up entirely to dirt, treacle, and rags, is constantly kept up in them. The chapel has a quaint, narrow, awkward entrance. You pass a gateway, then mount a step, then go on a yard or two and encounter four steps, then breathe a little, then get into a somewhat sombre lobby two and a half yards wide, and inconveniently steep, next cross a little stone gutter, and finally reach a cimmerian square [?!], surrounded by high walls, cracked house ends, and other objects similarly interesting. The front of the chapel is cold-looking and devoid of ornament. Upon the roof there is a square perforated belfry, containing one bell. It was put up a few years ago, and before it got into use there was considerable newspaper discussion as to the inconvenience it would cause in the morning, for having to be rung at the unearthly hour of six it was calculated that much balmy quietude would be missed through it. Some people can stand much sleep after six, and on their account early bell-ringing was dreaded. But the inhabitants have got used to the resonant metal, and those who have time sleep on very excellently during its most active periods.

He adds an offensively patronising description of the mainly Irish congregation, which he finds both smelly and quaint:

Large congregations attend this chapel, and the bulk, as already intimated, are of the Milesian order [by which he means Irish]. At the rear, where many of the poor choose to sit, some of the truest specimens of the “finest pisantry,” some of the choicest and most aromatic Hibernians we have seen, are located. The old swallow-tailed Donnybrook Fair coat, the cutty knee-breeches, the short pipe in the waistcoat pocket, the open shirt collar, the ancient family cloak with its broad shoulder lapelle, the thick dun-coloured shawl in which many a young Patrick has been huddled up, are all visible. The elderly women have a peculiar fondness for large bonnets, decorated in front with huge borders running all round the face like frilled night-caps. The whole of the worshippers at the lower end seem a pre-eminently devotional lot. How they are at home we can’t tell; but from the moment they enter the chapel and touch the holy water stoops, which somehow persist in retaining a good thick dark sediment at the bottom, to the time they walk out, the utmost earnestness prevails amongst them. Some of the poorer and more elderly persons who sit near the door are marvellous hands at dipping, sacred manipulation, and pious prostration. Like the Islams, they go down on all fours at certain periods, and seem to relish the business, which, after all, must be tiring, remarkably well.

He does allow that ‘Considering its general character, the congregation is very orderly, and we believe of a generous turn of mind’.

Fig 8. St Mary’s Chapel on the 1849 60″ Ordnance Survey plan after its 1813 enlargement and restoration and before its 1856 rebuilding

A disastrous fire in 1967 caused substantial damage to the chapel. To help pay for the costs of repairs and refurbishment a short history of the chapel was produced (see below). St Mary’s was closed in June 1990 and then demolished. The site is now a car park. [44]

Fig 9. The car park that now occupies the site of the former St Mary’s Chapel
Fig 10. The entrance to St Mary’s Chapel from Friargate, with the small shrine which is the only reminder of the chapel in the car park

That demolition marked the end of a long period of public Catholic worship in Friargate stretching back to the early 18th century, and possibly into the 17th century, although this is unlikely. The period from the opening of St Mary’s Chapel in 1761 to its final closure is well documented, an earlier chapel on a different site in the street dating from before 1732 is also documented. More problematic are earlier ‘chapels’. Peploe’s correspondence makes it fairly clear there was no Catholic chapel in the town in 1714 and the evidence supplied by Leo Warren and Tom Smith for a Catholic chapel in Friargate served by Jesuits seems rather to point to the Benedictine chapel at Fishwick.

Even more problematic is Hardwick’s and Hewitson’s thatched chapel of 1605. Warren simply ignores it, David Hunt is very sceptical and Fr Blundell and Smith urge caution. It would seem that only John Hilton (even Homer sometimes nods!) now accepts the existence of the chapel, citing Blundell as his source, who follows Hewitson, yet ignoring Blundell’s circumspection. Dr Hilton describes it as a ‘secret’ chapel but it is highly unlikely that a place of Catholic public worship in the centre of Preston would have remained secret for long. No source other than Hewitson, plagiarising Hardwick, has been found and a careful study of his editing of the town’s court leet records [45] and the Bellingham and Rawstorne diaries show him to be an extremely untrustworthy witness.

Front cover of History of St Mary's
The front cover of Mr Roe’s booklet

After the 1967 fire, James Roe, chorister and choirmaster for more than 60 years, wrote a history of the chapel to raise money towards the cost of repairs. It was clearly a labour of love and is probably the fullest account of the history of the chapel that will ever be written. Mr Roe, a former secretary of Preston Historical Society, made good use of his knowledge of the town’s history in his account of the chapel and its place in the longer story of Catholic worship in the town. He also accepted the 1605 date for the first St Mary’s, without supplying a source:

Permission was granted by Fr. Henry Garnett, S.J., the Vice-Provincial of the Society of Jesus in England, to open at Preston the first post-Reformation chapel in England. It was the year A.D. 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot , and two years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, that the little thatched sanctuary was opened and dedicated to St Mary, … and it was served by the Jesuits, who have remained on the mission to this day.

Mr Roe’s booklet was reprinted in 1985 and there are copies at the Harris Library, Lancashire Archives and Fulwood Library ( LJ1 PRESTON/ROE)

[1] F. O. Blundell, Old Catholic Lancashire, vol. 2 (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1938), facing p. 130.
[2] Charles Hardwick, History of the Borough of Preston and Its Environs, in the County of Lancashire (Preston: Worthing, 1857), 478.
[3] Anthony Hewitson, Our Churches and Chapels, Their Parsons, Priests & Congregations (Preston: Chronicle (Printer), 1869), 182.
[4] Anthony Hewitson, History of Preston, reprint of 1883 edition (Wakefield: S. R. Publishers, 1969), 501.
[5] John A. Hilton, ‘The Post-Reformation Catholic Community in the North of England’ (PhD, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2016), 212,
[6] J. A. Hilton, Catholic Lancashire: From Reformation to Renewal, 1559-1991 (Philimore, 1994), 30.
[7] Blundell, Old Catholic Lancashire, 2:137.
[8] Blundell, 2:139.
[9] Tom Smith, Catholics in Preston: From Early to Modern Times (Wigan: North West Catholic History Society, 2008), 42.
[10] Leo Warren, Through Twenty Preston Guilds: The Catholic Congregation of St Wilfrid’s, Preston (Preston: AMA Graphics [for] St Wilfrid’s, Preston, 1993), 13.
[11] David Hunt, A History of Preston, 2nd ed. (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2009), 64.
[12] Smith, Catholics in Preston, 57.
[13] J. A. Hilton et al., eds., Bishop Leyburn’s Confirmation Register of 1687 (Wigan: North West Catholic History Soc, 1997), 117–32; Warren, Through Twenty Preston Guilds, 14.
[14] Hilton et al., Bishop Leyburn’s Confirmation Register of 1687, 305.
[15] Warren, Through Twenty Preston Guilds, 14.
[16] H. F. [Henry Foley], ‘The Preston Mission S.J.’, Letters and Notices 10 (June 1875): 315–36.
[17] Foley, 319.
[18] John Lingard, A History of England, 3rd ed., vol. 14 (London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1831), 103; Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (Yale University, 2009), 141–42, 191, 210-11,.
[19] Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, 157.
[20] ‘The Defection of John Scanfield’, The Journal of the Friends’ Historical Society 5, no. 4 (1908): 177–87.
[21] Smith, Catholics in Preston, 58.
[22] Clifford Walton, History of the British Standing Army. A.D. 1660 to 1700 (London: Harrison and Sons, 1894), 80,
[23] ‘Wharton, Hon. Thomas (1648-1715), of Upper Winchendon, Bucks. and Danvers House, Chelsea, Mdx. | History of Parliament Online’, accessed 23 July 2018,
[24] Colin Haydon, Anti-Catholicism in Eighteenth-Century England, C. 1714-80: A Political and Social Study (Manchester University Press, 1993), 66–67.
[25] Colin Haydon, ‘Samuel Peploe and Catholicism in Preston, 1714’, Recusant History 20, no. 1 (1990): 78–79.
[26] Foley, ‘Preston Mission’, 331.
[27] Foley, 331.
[28] Warren, Through Twenty Preston Guilds, 18.
[29] James F. Splaine, History of the First Catholic Charitable Society (Preston: Buller (Printer), 1895), 8.
[30] ‘Regulation of Poor Tax Book’, 1732, property ref: 206, CNP/3/1/11, Lancashire Archives.
[31] David Berry, trans., ‘Preston Court Leet Records’, accessed 29 January 2017,
[32] B. C. Foley, Some Other People of the Penal Times (Preston: Snape (Printer), 1992), 98.
[33] Warren, Through Twenty Preston Guilds, 18–19.
[34] Henry Foley, Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, vol. 7, Part 1 (London: Burns and Oates, 1882), 448.
[35] Foley, ‘Preston Mission’, 319–21.
[36] ‘Regulation of Poor Tax Book’, property ref 251.
[37] Foley, ‘Preston Mission’, 319–20.
[38] Blundell, Old Catholic Lancashire, 2:facing p. 132.
[39] Smith, Catholics in Preston, 72, 79.
[40] Smith, 82.
[41] Foley, ‘Preston Mission’, 322.
[42] Foley, 322–23. Peter Whittle, The History of the Borough of Preston (Preston: Whittle, 1821), 316.
[43] Anthony. Hewitson, Our Country Churches and Chapels: Antiquarian, Historical, Ecclesiastical and Critical Sketches (Preston: Hewitson, 1872), 181–86.
[44] Smith, 170.
[45] Anthony Hewitson, Preston Court Leet Records: Extracts and Notes (Preston: George Toulmin & Sons, 1905).

4 thoughts on “Friargate’s Catholic ‘chapels’ 1605-1990

    1. All the articles on this site, including this one, are by me, unless another author is named.
      Would you mind sending me a copy of the essay when you’ve finished it?
      Peter Smith


    1. First published on this site in 2018, Eleni. But there will have been the odd revision since then. So if you’re referencing it, perhaps include an ‘accessed on’ date.


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