St Thomas’s Church, Park Lane, Liverpool
1750 – 1905
Despite being built in 1750, closed in 1905 and demolished in 1911, the Church of St Thomas is still closer to us than many people realise. Equally so are the legacies of many who were buried at the church. Just 0.5 of a meter below your feet as you walk around the Memorial Gardens at the end of Paradise St/Park Lane lay the remains of early ‘elite’ Liverpool citizens in brick lined vaults capped with gravestones.
In the process of researching into St Thomas’ it has been exciting to uncover what appear to be some previously unrecorded facts, and be able to help fill in some gaps in previous accounts. Amongst some unrelated books I was fortunate to find in Liverpool Archive Records Office a fascinating manuscript copy in the Joseph Mayer Papers (ref: 920MAY Box 10). The manuscript covering the period 1747 – 1773 was presented by Mayer to the ‘Liverpool Free Public Library in Oct 1863’. Facts taken from the manuscript are referenced (JM).
The church when completed back in 1750 would have been a sight to behold, as indicated by the following extract:
Picture of Liverpool: Strangers Guide (Anon 1834, 18):
It is a handsome stone building, with a rusticated base and has on each side two rows of windows, adorned with Ionic Pilasters, crowned with a cornice and balustrade, and surmounted by vases. The chancel end is of a semi-circular form. The lower part of the steeple is quadrangular, supplied with windows, and ornamented with Corinthian columns, on which rises a neat balustrade. This spire when complete was 258 feet high, and remarkable for its beautiful symmetry, and was seen to great advantage from the river and the opposite shore: …… The chancel is panelled and decorated with beautiful gilt fluted Corinthian pilasters. The galleries rest on eight pedestals, which support a corresponding number of columns, of the Corinthian order of architecture. The pews are commodious and calculated to seat 1188 persons.
Built, and designed, by leading Liverpool architect-mason Henry Sephton along with William Hatton and William Smith, the church was built on land donated by Mr. John OKill (c1687 – 1773) a timber merchant and ship-builder of Park Lane, and representatives of the late Mr Marsh of Prescot. The indenture was dated 17th Feb 1747, the conveyance for ‘two lives and twenty one years’ and ‘in consideration of five shillings of lawful money of Great Britain to the said John Okill’ was paid. The parcel of land measured 22yds by 26yds (JM). The representatives of Mr Marsh are later noted has having given ‘four yards more of land on the North side of the church….’
When the church, paid for by subscription or a ‘pew rented church’, was completed it was the fourth church erected within the town centre (St Nicholas, St Peter, and St George) and it boasted the tallest spire at some 241ft to the top of the weathercock (JM pg59)
The main church was built of ashlar stone from the site of St James Cemetery (Quarry Hill) and cost £5,100, and the spire of stone from ‘Brownley Hill stone’ (Brownlow). It originally had ‘neither organ nor church yard’ – a new organ was built in 1770 on a small gallery at the west end (extended 1828).
Having found the manuscript copy in the Mayer Papers we now have available some great detail on the original Orders of Council, building estimates submitted, the Articles of Agreement, Commissioners Meetings, Consecration Deed, staff appointments, and the original pew holders etc:
Following subscriptions amounting to £2300 an ‘Order of Council’ was made dated 27th January 1747 proposing the building. Fourteen Commissioners were appointed by act of parliament and paid £500 for ‘directing the building of a New Church in Parke Lane’: Thomas Shaw; Joseph Bird; Bryan Blundell; John OKill; Thomas Seel; Charles Goore; James Crosbie; John Gorrel; John Parke; Richard Golightly; William Shaw; John Seddon; Samuel Irlam; William Martin.
On 23rd May 1748 adverts were placed in the local weekly press of Manchester, Preston and Chester for tradesmen to bring ‘plans and proposals for erecting said church on or before 24th of this instant’ (June), and they were to attend the ‘Golden Lyon, Dale St’ on 6th/7th July at 3 o’clock. (JM)
On 2nd June 1748 the Commissioners appointed Mr James Crosbie to be the ‘Treasurer for collecting the subscription money and paying tradesmen’s bills on account of the said building’. (JM)
Tenders were submitted, and following some initial unsatisfactory work, finally awarded including as follows:
- Digging of foundations: John Walker and Timothy Platts with four ‘able men’
- Masons work: initially to J Longfield but finally to; Henry Sephton, William Hatton and William Smith – whole church and steeple – £1500 + £25
- Joinery and Carpentry: Nehemiah Cowley, John Cowley – £1050
- Slating: Henry Fairclough – ‘three pence half penny per yard’
- Lead work: John Eden
- Windows: upper Mr Eden and Mr Eccleston; lower Mr Ellams
- Reading desk, pulpit, clerks desk – in Danish Oak – John Cowley
- Rails for Communion Table – in Virginia walnut – Nehemiah and John Cowley
Click to read the Articles of Agreement with the Cowley’s for the ‘Carpenter & Joiner work’ 2015_03_27_23_29_13_2
With reference to the possible architect of the Church it is now fair to confirm that it was indeed Henry Sephton of West Derby. The Articles of Agreement dated 20th July 1748 (JM page 21):
…the above stating ‘as is more particularly set forth and described in a Design drawn and signed and given in to the said Commissioners by them the said Undertakers……’ The agreement was signed 20th July 1748.
It is also interesting to note the following entry in the manuscript copy:
Eyes had submitted an estimate for the carpenter and joiner work but was beaten by the Cowleys. Are the draughts referred to for his proposed but rejected design of the church? He also appears to have been paid to monitor the actual build on behalf of the Commissioners – ‘surveying & measuring the ground and foundation work….and that hereafter may be done in and about measuring workmanship about the said church’
The foundation stone was laid on 24th June 1748 by Mayor Thomas Shaw. The event was announced by the ‘Bell Man at Exchange hours’ on the 23rd June. The procession walked from the Exchange at 4 o’clock on the 24th to lay the corner stone at the Church. ‘Several thousand of ye common people’ watched the ceremony which followed the tradition of throwing some new pieces of coin underneath the foundation stone, and throwing money on to the stone for the workmen (JM pg19).
This event was also later recalled- Under and Over:
As an aside a further fascinating snippet, this time from 1961, claims that Mr Wood (architect of Liverpool Town Hall) had a hand in designing innovative pews for the Church.
The Church was consecrated on Wednesday 12th Sept 1750, the Bishop of Chester having been collected by boat from Eastham Boat House. Following the consecration a dinner was hosted by Thomas Benham in Water Street ‘at the Corporation expense’. (JM pgs 40/41)
On Thursday 20th Sept 1750 the process of ‘division of pews’ by ‘lotts and choice’ was started, and ended on Sat 22nd. This process resulted in 169 pews being assigned accruing an annual rent of £170:14, and subscriptions of £3992. Twenty eight pews had not been assigned but were subscribed to the Commissioners at £25 each thus taking total raised to over £4000 (these were later assigned/sold to others with just two remaining by 1756).
John Okill in ‘consideration of giving the greatest part of the land….’ was given first choice and selected pew No.8 in the Gallery. There also appears to have been an agreement (signed by George Okill on his brothers behalf) for a pew (No. 93) to be given to representatives of the late Mr Marsh for giving ‘their part of four yards of land on the North side of the said church fronting at one end to Park Lane and at the other end to a new street called Prices Street……’ (JM pg 44) (Reference is made to some of Mr Price’s land having been used at the Chancel end. Cleveland Square had originally been called Price’s Sq)
At the time of opening the population of Liverpool was just 20,000, and Steers Old Dock, which was but 35 years old, would have been a bustling hive of activity and commerce. How amazing that remnants of the Dock can still be visited today below Liverpool One. The nearby Cleveland Square was lined with trees, and like Park Lane was still home to wealthy merchants, and sea captains (see Map 1. below) An additional £500 was paid for 50yds of some adjoining land to the south in 1750, also from John Okill, for a churchyard.
Liverpool was still heavily involved in the slave trade, the Town Hall (Exchange) was being re-built by John Wood, and we were still ten years away from having direct coaches through to London.
The first appointed Minister of St Thomas’ was Reverend W Martin, incumbent from 1750-1771 and paid £130 per annum.
Shortly after opening (8th Oct 1750) John Cowley was further commissioned to build a ‘Singing Gallery’ It was declared ‘this Gallery should be built exactly as St. Peters’ (JM pg58)
Lofty Spire problems…..
Williamsons Liverpool Advertiser and Mercantile Register:
LIVERPOOL, 18th March 1757
‘On Tuesday Morning about 9 o’Clock a violent Gale of Wind ?????? West, preceded by a dreadful Roaring of the Sea arose here……
‘The damage in the Town was very considerable. Numbers of chimneys from Homes and many Yard and Garden Walls, were levelled with the Earth. Roofs unstripped, and the Showers of broken Slates, Bricks &c. &c. rendered the Streets impassable. About 42ft of the lofty Spire of St Thomas’s Church (which was esteemed one of the most beautiful in Europe) fell upon the Body of the Church, broke through the Roof and has torn down the West galleries.
The Damage done in most parts of the Town is surprizing and the Losses are estimated at many Thousand Pounds.
We have hourly Accounts from different Parts of the adjacent County of Barns, Homes, and other Buildings, being stript, and many levelled with the Ground. Considerable damage is done at Knowsley Hall, the Seat of the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Derby. Crosbie, Sephton, Woolfell, Spellow and several other Mills are blown down, Ricks of Hay entirely destroyed and carried away………………………….. The gale abated and back to N.N.W. and N. about one o’Clock in the Afternoon’
Source: Williamsons Liverpool Advertiser and Mercantile Register 28 May 1756 to December 1758 Reel No. NP03217 (Box 1) – Liverpool Library Archives.
The upper part of the spire was rebuilt in 1759 but shortened by 18ft. A further mishap occurred in 1783 when it was struck by lightning. By 1822 the spire was again of such a concern that it was reduced back to the tower level. This would be the same year the fantastic St John’s Market would open.
From c1840 street ballad ‘Liverpool’s an Altered Town’:-
The spire of fames St Thomas’s that long had stood the weather,
Although it was so very high they’ve downed it altogether;
And the Old Dock, the poor Old Dock, the theme of many a sonnet,
They’ve pulled it up and now have built a Custom House upon it.
The Church did not originally have a churchyard but this was remedied when further land was purchased from John Okill in 1750 for the sum of £500. We then have copy of a letter dated 2nd February 1767 written by the present Church Wardens Mr John Beckwith and Mr Thomas Wycliffe (JM pg66). In it they seek permission to sell and dispose of burial plots of ‘Six feet eight inches long, & three feet four inches broad’. The receipts of sales are to be used towards ‘paying for inclosing said churchyard with a stone wall, and for ornamenting of the said church’. The Wardens also suggest that a strict condition be applied for ‘a Grave Stone be laid on every burial place’. This appears to be borne out by the findings of the fascinating archaeological digs of 2005/2010 (see link for report)
The graveyard was subsequently consecrated on 12th July 1765 by the Bishop of Chester, who the previous day had consecrated St Paul’s Church. The record of those buried here is in itself a fascinating glimse into Liverpool’s history. There are burials of many merchants and sea captains whose homelands included Germany, Sweden, Barbados, Jamaica, and one eptitaph includes from ‘North Britain’. Some of the wealthy merchants also used their family plots for the burial of faifthful servants. The low life expectancy of the times is graphically and sadly illustrated by the plot owned by Dr James Currie in which James, aged 2yrs 9mths, and Sarah aged 9mths were buried.
In 1766 the Gores Directory for Cleveland Square lists nine sea captains, six traders/merchants as well as artisans and professionals. At this time John Okill is listed as living at Park Lane (quite possibly No. 22), and his businees ‘Okill John & Co’ at Flint Works, South Shore.
In 1773 benefactor Mr John Okill would pass away, having just started to build Lee Hall in Woolton/Gateacre), and we have a note suggesting he donated £20 for a candlestick to the church in his will. (JM pgs 78/79)
As the port rapidly grew and expanded the demographic of the area around the church would change, becoming less and less salubrious and with many poor residents. It also became increasingly Catholic. By 1828 Cleveland Sq was occupied by an open market and most of the houses had been converted into shops. This year also saw the church organ gallery extended to the full width of the Church to accommodate children from the South Corporation Schools.
The 28th April 1828 would however hold the wedding of renowned Liverpool architect (Sir) James Allanson Picton (1805 – 1889) to Sarah Pooley:
‘One bright April morning (April 28th 1828), without saying a word to a mortal, we were married at St Thomas’s Church, Park-lane’
– Extract from Liverpool Mercury 6th Nov 1891
After remaining spire-less for 16 years, the original tower was also then taken down in 1838 and a new octagonal structure built – compare these two pics of 1830 and c1896:
In ‘John Foster and Sons Kings of Georgian Liverpool – Hugh Hollinghurst’ the plans for the new tower are accredited to John Foster Jnr during his time as the Borough Surveyor.
Between 1827 and 1839 the church would have been witness to the closure and filling in of The Old Dock, and the slow rising of the mighty 5th Customs House (see Map 2 below)
Of the many notable Liverpool dignitaries and merchants buried at St Thomas’ the year 1840 would see one worthy of special mention, that of Joseph Williamson the ‘King of Edge Hill’ who had passed away on 1st May 1840 and was buried in the Tate Family vault. After 165 years of being lost under a public car park, Joseph Williamson’s grave was revealed on Sunday 23rd October 2005 (FoWT – see pics and story in above link). Williamson, whom had held a pew at the church also married his wife Elizabeth Tate here in 1802. (FoWT)
The family plot of one of the original Church Commissioners, Thomas Shaw, was also located in 2005 – Plots 121/122. Shaw came from an influential family and Shaw St in Everton bears his name.
John Blackburne Jnr who built the still standing Blackburne House, Catharine St between 1785-89 was buried at St Thomas’s in 1789 aged 67. He was the son of wealthy salt refiner, and slave trader John Blackburne Snr 1693 – 1786. The family held plots 63 and 63a.
….Here also lie the remains of the said Alderman John Blackburne Esquire who departed this life on the 23rd August in the year of our Lord 1789 in the 67th year of his age.
He was elected Mayor of this Borough in the year 1760
The epitaph of William Pownall was indeed impressive:
Underneath this stone are deposited the remains of William Pownall Esq. late Mayor of this town who dy’d 12th March 1768 Aged 40.
It would be doing injustice not to point out his conduct in the stations of life he bore as the retrospect will return fraught with pleasure and instruction
As a merchant of extensive commerce in whom trade had the finest friend as by his punctual integrity thereon he did an honour to business
As a magistrate steadfast to the finest principles. Exemplary in the execution of his office.
Divine in his allegiance as a husband, Father and Master
Equally distinguished in the several duties relative thereto. In public life a successful Arbitrator and reconciler of differences. Ready to every good work which benevolence of disposition proved him the friend of mankind in general such he lived a favourite of the Friends of Merit
On 10th Sept 1848 one of the parishoners of St Thomas’s, Mr J.R Thompson, was compelled to:
‘try and do something for the children growing up amid such wretched
and degrading conditions’
and subsequently wrote to the church Clergy suggesting the setting up a Sunday School. From his book ‘Leaves of My Life’ (ref: H920THO) we learn this was quickly put into motion with a Sunday School starting in Argyle St on 24th Oct 1848.
The Liverpool Mercury of 6th Oct 1848 reported that ‘A Sunday School is about to be established in connection with St Thomas’s, Park-lane’.
The success of this venture led to an Evening School for Adults, and a Mens Bible Class. Just two years later larger rooms were aquired in Park Lane but these again could not accommodate the demand. In 1852 two old houses in Upper Frederick St were purchased and demolished to allow the building of a new school. The foundation stone was laid in November 1854 by Alderman Robinson, and opened on 4th January 1856:
The new school had cost £360 for the land, and £1150 for building and equipment. It can be seen below still standing in the 1940’s
Another grand neighbour for St. Thomas’ would arise in 1850 in the shape of the magnificent Sailors Home and no doubt many visiting sailors from all parts of the globe would have visited St Thomas’
A cutting from the Liverpool Mercury of Friday 24th Dec 1852 highlights that the original land owner John Okill was still remembered:
Burials at St Mark’s would have ceased following the 1853 Burials Act. These can be researched via 352 CEM/1/17/1 at Liverpool Central Library, Archives
The deteriorating condition of the area around St Thomas’s is again illustrated in a clip from the Daily Post of 4th Sept 1856 reporting on the Town Council, when it was asked:
‘…whether from St Thomas’s Church to the Custom House was not a disgrace to the Town?’
In 1870 the church was clearly aware of its changing circumstance, now ‘comprising in it’s locality some of the lowest haunts of vice’ but was also striving to encourage a wider congregation and ‘throw open the Gallery of this Church free to the masses’… ‘the Seafaring and Working classes’. For this purpose a fund was raised to compensate for loss of pew rentals:
Liverpool Records Office Ref 920 TOM1613 (leaflet and letters written in 1870) St Thomas’s click for full and larger version
In May 1871 the Church reopened after major alterations with the organ re-erected on the lower gallery. This would accommodate the increasing numbers and presumably those mentioned above now living within the parish.
As the town continued to expanded 1885 would see Paradise Street extended cutting across the northwest of St Thomas’s graveyard with approximately 222 graves removed (see Map 4). The Church received £750 in compensation. This must have been a sad event for many families and records show some claiming the burials of relatives and moving them to other cemeteries including, Smithdown Road, and St James.
At this time the currently standing Church House on the corner of Paradise/Hanover St was built as the Mersey Mission to Seaman and a temperance pub.
The church would no doubt have received many dignitaries in its time and one such occasion is reported in Dec 1891:
‘A warm reception was accorded to Mr Gladstone on Sunday afternoon on his visiting St Thomas’s Church Park Lane, Liverpool in the company of his nephew….’
Cambridge Independent Press Fri 11th Dec 1891
The changing fortunes of the Church are further illustrated in 1899 when the galleries are closed to make the ‘congregation more compact’
In 1903 The Bishop of Liverpool’s Commission to enquire into the spiritual needs of the Diocese recommended the closure of St. Thomas’ Church. The Liverpool and Wigan Churches Act, 1904 confirmed this recommendation and the church was to close on 31 December 1905. At this time over 65% of the parish were now Roman Catholic. The parish was absorbed into that of St. Michael, Upper Pitt Street.
A shot of the church interior 1904:
The church finally closed on 31st Dec 1905 but evidently not without some controversy……..
…and even the Bishop was questioned….. (2)
The final service to be held in the church was the annual ‘Watchnight’ service held at 11 p.m. on 31st Dec 1905. The work and Services of the church were then to be taken up by St Michael’s in Pitt St. (2)
St Thomas’s was finally demolished in 1911 at a time of further great expansion in Liverpool. Cleveland Sq was now home to the Chinese community and the world famous Liver Buildings, the 2nd of the Three Graces, would open on the 19th July. It would also be the year gun boats were positioned on the Mersey in response to the General Strike.
This would not be the end of St Thomas’ though and 2005 would see the first archaeological investigation by Oxford Archaeology North and its amazing discoveries.
Time-line for St Thomas’
1748 – Liverpool Corporation Act passed to enable building
– [Liverpool Corporation Act] An Act for building a church in the town of Liverpool, in the County Palatine of Lancaster, and for enlightening and cleansing the streets of the said town, and for keeping and maintaining a nightly watch there.
1750 – 8th May, Vestry confirm purchase of fifty yards of land in Park Lane from John Okill at ten pounds a yard for a churchyard
– 16th May, John Latham elected as Clerk of the Church at a salary of £20 per annum
– Building completed, and consecrated on 12th Sept
– 13th Sept, Richard Marsh appointed Church Sexton at salary of £10 per annum
– 13th Sept, John Gorrell and William Shaw appointed Church Wardens
1751 – 29th May, the weather cock is fitted and scaffolding taken down
1757 – Part of spire blown down in a March storm
1765 – Churchyard enclosed by a wall for use as a cemetery, subsequently consecrated 12th July
1770 – Organ built on small gallery at west end. Extended 1828
1783 – Spire is damaged by lightning
1802 – Joseph Williamson and Elizabeth Tate marry at the church
1822 – Spire is finally taken down
1838 – Church tower rebuilt
1840 – Burial of Joseph Williamson takes place
1848 – Sunday School starts
1853 – The Burials Act of 1853 meant that no further burials were permitted within urban centres. Some 445 burial plots could have accommodated approx. 2670 burials (1)
1856 – On 4th January official opening of St Thomas’s Schools on Upper Frederick St
1862 – Closed for 6wks for cleaning and painting, re-opened 4th May
1871 – Galleries made ‘free’
1876 – Rev Thomas L Pain passes away having caught a severe cold visiting the poor of the district. He had held the position ‘for nearly half a century’
1882 – It is noted that ‘the population of the Parish was 6,400, with 83 public houses, and ten dancing saloons’
1885 – Part of graveyard taken for road improvements/extension of Paradise St. Gravestone memorials recorded (see LRO – 352 CEM/1/17)
1899 – Galleries closed to make congregation more compact
1905 – Closed 31st Dec with the final incumbent being Rev. George Peters whom was transferred to St Thomas’ Wavertree
1911 – Demolished
1920 – Graveyard is now neglected, eventually being used as a car park.
2004 – Remnants of church foundations and possibly an exterior pathway at the south side of the church unearthed
2005 – During ‘Liverpool One’ development 43 grave stones and grave plots were uncovered in an archaeological dig by Oxford Archaeology North (1)
– 23rd Oct lost grave of Joseph Williamson is located in Tate family vault
2009/10 – Second archaeological dig by Oxford Archaeology North (1)
2010 – St Thomas Memorial Gardens are completed.
- 1765 illustrating proximity to the Old Dock
2. post-1830 illustrating proximity to the 5th Customs House
- c1850 Illustrating area built up and original extent of Cleveland Sq prior to Paradise St extension
- c1890 Illustrating 1855 extension of Paradise St across the graveyard
- 2015 illustrating were the church (straddling Paradise St) and graveyard (Memorial Garden) would have sat
A selection of just some of those who were buried at St Thomas’s along with family members
Joseph Williamson – 1840 / Elizabeth Williamson – 1822 / William Hutchinson – 1801 /Andrew Fuhrer – 1797 / Richard Tate – 1787 / William Pownall – 1768 / Charles Goore – 1783 / RH Roughsedge – 1829 / Captain James Stewart – 1786 / Captain Nicholas Boulton – / Cornelius Bourne – 1806 / Edward Molineux – / Parr Family – / John Blackburne – 1783 / Thomas Staniforth – / Richard Kent – 1790
You can read a little about them here pages 13-37:
Liverpool Records Office:
920MAY (unlisted) Box 10 (Acc2528A) St. Thomas’s Church 1747 – 1773
283.1 THO (1907) – Volume of cuttings. Thompson W. D. (not yet located)
H920THO – ‘Leaves from My Life’ J.R. Thompson
920TOM 1613/1, 2 – leaflet and letters from 1870 ref making galleries free
352 CEM/1/17/1 – (micro-film) Surveyors Dept., Municipal Offices, Liverpool, 1885. St Thomas’ Churchyard, inscriptions of gravestones
352 CEM 1/17/2 – Transcript of Graves of St Thomas’s Churchyard (RB163 2/47)
624.193 HIG – ‘Discovery of the Grave of Joseph Williamson’, Higham, Don and Norma White (2009),
929.5 GIB – Epitaphs and inscriptions on tomb-stones and monuments in Liverpool churches, chapels, churchyards and cemeteries. Gibson, J.
(2) H283/THO – St Thomas Church, Park Lane, 1903 – 05 (The St Thomas’ Parish Magazine)
(1) Archaeological Watching Brief Report; Oxford Archaeology North (2010)
History, Directory, and Gazetteer, of the County Palatine of …, Volume 1 – By Edward Baines
The history of Liverpool: from the earliest authenticated period down to the present time. By John Corry, Thomas Troughton 1810 (page376)
….and a great colour post card to finish: