St Mary’s, Halton

 

Halton Parish, Runcorn

 

“We seek to reveal the love of God in Jesus, through our
welcome, worship and word.”

 

 

Christ Church, Castlefields


The History of St Mary’s:


St Mary's Church stands below the walls of Halton Castle and occupies the site of a much earlier chapel which may have been in existance from around the time the castle was built by Nigel, the first Baron of Halton in 1071.

Halton chapel was mentioned in the Doomsday Book compiled in 1086 and states that two priests were provided to minister to its people. In 1133 William FitzNigel, the second Baron, founded a priory of Canons at Runcorn; its stay was very short and the following year it was transferred to a new home at Norton.

The chapel was manned by the Canons from Norton Priory who were appointed Castle chaplain of Halton and in 1398, the Bishop granted a license to celebrate divine service within the Chapel of the Blessed Mary within the village of "Hawton." The chapel was small and rectangular in shape without side aisles. The south doorway had a plain round arch with two shafts set deeply in the jambs, surmounted by plain square cushion shaped capitals. The doorway was later enriched with Norman zig-zag or chevron ornamentation. The windows were tall and narrow with round arches. These too were later enriched with zig-zag ornamentation and the exterior of the chapel was strengthened by plain Norman buttresses.

The Brooke family purchased the monastic property at Norton from the Crown in 1545, nine years after the dissolution of the monastries by Henry VIII.

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) attendance at the Sunday service in your parish church was compulsory by law. The old chapel of Halton must have stood in silent witness as many recusants (Catholics who refused to attend services at their local church) were brought up the hill from as far away as North Wales, Chester and Lancaster, to be held secure in Halton Castle, the first prison in the country to hold the most obstinate of the recusants.

No detailed record has survived of those who officiated in the chapel. However, we do know that in 1635, the Rev John King gave £5 a year towards maintaining a preacher for ever in the "Chapel of Halton."

In 1642 the great English Civil War broke out. On 22nd July 1643, the castle was surrendered to the Parliametary army. During the siege, the chapel, a plain square building with a bellcote on its eastern gable, was "demolished and totally destroyed." The Rev Thomas Woodfall, curate, went into retirement to a farm at Stockham. He returned to his curacy and his ruined chapel at the time of the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

In 1662 the Rev Woodfall's name appeared on a petition in an attempt to raise money to rebuild the ruined chapel. The petition was addressed to "all pious and charitable Christians, who have a due sense of the glory and honour of Almighty God." It described the "comely chapel in Halton" wherein the petitioners and their forefathers had worshipped and enjoyed "the benefit of divine service" until the Civil War broke out and the chapel had been "demolished and totally destroyed, to the great dishonour of God, the reproach of Christianity and the prejudice of the neighbourhood."

As a result of the petitioners endeavours, they "cheerfully contributed the sum of four-score pounds, which had raised up the walls into great forwardness and provided timber for the roof." However, at least another £60 was required in order to complete the work. The money was duly raised and the chapel, rebuilt and was described as "a small church of considerable architectural beauty." The Rev Woodfall remained in Halton until 1681.

Probably due to its exposed position and vulnerability to the elements, it was not long before some restoration work to the structure of the church became necessary and this was carried out in 1718.

A notable benefactor to St Mary's during the first half of the eighteenth century was Sir John Chesshyre. Born in 1661 at Hallwood, the family home (now "The Tricorn" public house), Sir John belonged to an ancient Halton family. After receiving a university education, he entered the Inns of Court in London and was called to the bar in 1689.

Such was his success at the bar, earning an average of £3,200 per annum between 1719-24, that he generously endowed the Chapel of Halton with the sum of £200 in 1705. This sum was increased to £600 in 1731 to enable the curate to receive a reasonable income!

A very wealty man, he was obviously very much attached to his native village of Halton and in 1733 built a small library which is situated close to the church. The library originally contained over 400 books, dating mainly from the eighteenth century, and was intended for the use of the incumbent of Halton and the neighbouring gentry. It was to be open at stated hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the curate, who was also the librarian, would be in attendance. This was probably the first, or one of the first, free libraries to be founded in an English country village! Over the door of the library there is an inscription recording the foundation and the curate as a perpetual librarian.

Moving in the highest circles, Sir John had his portrait painted by the famous Court painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723). A printed copy of this portrait now hangs above the fireplace in the library.

The handsome Georgian vicarage, also built by Sir John, is dated 1739 and is adorned with his coat of arms.

On 15th May, 1738, Sir John chesshyre died suddenly as he was getting into his coach, aged 77. Although he spent most of his time in London, he requested that he be buried in Runcorn. He was duly buried amongst his ancestors in the chancel of Runcorn Parish Church.

From 1704, the incomes of the poorer clergy of the Church of England were suplimented by a fund which drew upon ecclesiastical revenues confiscated by Henry VIII and payments made by clergymen with larger incomes. The fund was called Queen Anne's Bounty. There is a marble tablet which is incorporated into the wall of the old vestry of the present church (dated 1731), bearing an incription which records the fact that the incumbent of Halton was in receipt of £600 from this fund.

On an illustration of Halton castle and village dated 1800, the chapel is depicted as a plain stone building; in 1817, the chapel is described as "a small low building of stone, which does not contain any object of interest."

At the Easter Vestry Meeting of 1847, it was reported that the chapel required "considerable repair" - particularly to the roof, and Sir Richard Brooke, Patron of the Living and the 6th Baronet who resided in his mansion at Norton Priory, was duly appraised of the situation.

By 1851 the building had deteriorated so much that it was proposed that a new parochial chapel be built. Sir George Gilbert Scott of London (1811-1878), was commisioned to design the new chapel and Sir Richard brooke agreed to bear the cost of rebuilding.

Scott, probably the best known of all Victorian architects, designed many churches and public buildings during his career and was also responsible for the restoration of several major cathedrals. His other commissions included St Mark's, Swindon, the Midland Grand Station Hotel at St Pancras Station and the Foreign Office in Whitehall.

During the nineteenth century, there was much enthusiasm for reviving the earlier styles of church architecture dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. Scott was one of many architects who favoured this new fashionable style of building which became known as Gothic Revival. The new chapel of St Mary's was thus designed to incorporate many of the features from the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages.

Made of rough-dressed local sandstone with the doors and window frames, buttresses and quoins being of polished stone, the new building was consectrated in the name of St Mary the Virgin on Friday, 12th November 1852.

At the Easter Vestry Meeting of 1853, Sir Richard Brooke was thanked for his "kind and Christian liberality in the rebuilding of the Church." He was thanked once again in 1862 for the gift of the church bell.

The ancient chapelry of Halton was elevated to the status of praish in its own right on 3rd July, 1860 and the Rev James Cox, M.A. became the first vicar. Before this time, a curate from the mother church at Runcorn had been in charge of the chapel.

The church was originally heated by an early type of central heating system, with thick iron pipes and a vast quantity of coke needed to fuel the boiler and now replaced by a modern gas-fired heating system. Lighting in Victorian times was by candles and oil lamps although by the 1880's, the introduction of gas-lamps provided illumination to the church. In 1886, the Annual Easter Vestry Meeting recorded a yearly expenditure for Gas, Coke and Coals of £10 15s. 11d.! The faculty (request for authorisation) to light the church by electricity is dated 1930.

As most of Halton Hill consists of solid rock, the provision of a graveyard surrounding the church was obviously not possible and so parishoners had to be taken to Runcorn for burial. However, a cemetary of one acre was formed in Holt lane in 1885 and this was extended in 1937.

In the early 1930's, dry rot (caused by water penetration) was discovered in the roof of the church and it was deemed necessary to replace the exterior covering. the roof was duly re-slated in 1935 replacing the original heavy shingles with west Cumberland green slates at a cost of £900.

Until it was demolished in the 1960's, the Hill School on Halton Hill (facing the church on the north side), served as the parish hall and Sunday School. The site was acquired by the North West Water Authority as the possible location of a reservoir. The resultant compensation enabled St Mary's to build a new church hall which was linked to the restored Sir John Chesshyre Library. Sadly, the row of six eithteenth century alms-houses founded by Pusey Brooke in 1769 for "six poor and decayed honest servants" had to be demolished as they stood close to the library on the proposed site of the new church hall.

Work was finally completed on the new church hall and the restoration of the library in February, 1976. Amongst those present at the reopening ceremony of the library held in June, 1976, was Mr Hubert Chesshyre, ancestor of Sir John Chesshyre who had founded the library nearly 250 years before. A handsome framed copy of the Arms of Sir John and those of his wife, commisioned from the College of Arms in London, was generously donated by many members of the Chesshyre family. This is also displayed in the library.

Although it is now surrounded by a large new town, St Mary's still retains its unique character as a village church, serving not only Halton Village, but the wider community. The description of the church by E.K. Gregory, and written over 50 years ago, is still true today as it was then - and long may it remain!

"For elegance of design, elaborate and substantial workmanship, and chase, appropriate and ecclesiastical decoration and ornamentaion, the church is not surpassed by any similar edifice in the district."

Bibliography:
'Historic Notices' by E.K. Gregory 'The changing Scene' by A Dulson Jones 'Old Runcorn' by Bert Starkey The above extract is taken from "St Mary's Church, Halton - Guide and Short History" compiled by Philip Littlemore