THE CAST IRON CHURCH
A review of our January talk - by Anna Alexander
On 29th January we were pleased to welcome Mr Alan Matthews, archivist of St Michael in the Hamlet, to talk about this unusual church. The church was built by John Cragg, who was the owner of the Mersey Iron Foundry in Tithebarn Street. As we were to learn, he used cast iron in some inventive ways in the early 19th century. Cragg was born near Altrincham in 1767, but moved to Liverpool as an apprentice. His cast iron pans were exported to the sugar plantations, and he manufactured iron structures for use in the Lancashire cotton mills, which allowed the mill-owners to replace wooden floors with stone and thus reduce the risk of fire. He served as a churchwarden of St Nicholas Liverpool and was very keen to build churches, seeing it as an opportunity to use his cast iron.
Cragg was a member of the Liverpool Athenaeum, and met Thomas Rickman who became a friend and associate. Rickman, born in Maidenhead, tried his hand at various professions including grocery, medicine, accountancy and as a corn merchant, but none was a success. He came to Liverpool to escape his creditors. Rickman's hobbies included painting toy soldiers, but his true passion was architecture, and he visited more than 3,000 churches, becoming an expert on the gothic style, inventing the term 'perpendicular'. Cragg allowed Rickman to use a room in his house in which to produce his architectural drawings and designs. Cragg saw nothing wrong in using these, without Rickman's permission, for his own purposes, and when he started to build a church at Everton (St George's) Rickman did not know that his drawings were being used.
Cragg's architect at Everton was J.M. Gandy, and he used Gandy again when he had the opportunity to build a church in Aigburth, on land purchased from the Earl of Sefton. Cragg had used cast iron moulds for St George's church, and he used the same moulds for St Michael in the Hamlet. All door and window frames, and the pinnacles were made of cast iron, which was disguised as stone by sandblasting it. The gaps in the iron frame were filled-in with poor quality bricks, which were then covered with stucco. The pillars of the church acted as interior drainpipes, which later caused problems of condensation.
St Michael in the Hamlet was consecrated by the Bishop of Chester in 1815. The box pews in the church were rented by wealthy parishioners. Their servants had designated spaces (labelled with their masters' names) under the tower, and the poor were allowed to sit in an area labelled as such on the church plans! When the number of parishioners grew, the cast iron structure of the church facilitated its extension sideways. The churchyard was the site for many burials including a communal grave purchased by the potters of the nearby Herculaneum pottery.
There has been a major programme of restoration work at the church. The building is Grade I listed, so there are restrictions on what may be done. The pinnacles of the church have been painted with red oxide to preserve the iron, and this gives the church an unusual appearance. The great east window of the church was covered for many years with dark oak panelling, which has now been removed. The church is open for visitors on Saturdays from 11am to 2pm, and Sunday services are held at 10.30am and 6.30pm. Thanks to Alan Matthews for a fascinating talk which prompted many questions.