A Brief History of Kirkby and its Church

Situated on the edge of the fertile West Lancashire Plain about 10km north-east of Liverpool City Centre, the town of Kirkby is home to around 44,000 people. Since 1974 it has been part of the Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley and it is fair to say that since its development as a New Town began in the 1950s Kirkby’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Looking around the town today it is easy to forget that Kirkby is, in fact, an ancient settlement with a fascinating history.

The town’s name is itself a clue to its origins. It derives from the Danish Kyrka (church) and bi (a place of residence) so we know that there was a settlement there in the 9th or 10th century and that it was Christian. Nearby Ormskirk (Ormr’s Kyrka; Ormr was believed to have been a Viking who converted to Christianity) and Kirkdale date from around the same time.

But Kirkby is even older than that. In 1995 an archaeological dig next to St.Chad’s, looking for evidence of the 9th Century settlement, found traces of an Iron Age roundhouse (a timber and mud house, built before either Christ’s birth or the Roman invasion of Britain) and Iron Age pottery. These finds could date back as far as the 7th Century BC meaning that people have lived in Kirkby for 2,700 years.

The remains of an ancient track were discovered. The roundhouse, 6.5m in radius, would have housed 10 people. It was built of wattle-and-daub on a timber frame, insulated with straw and heather. It had a thatched roof on timber rafters. These discoveries were a surprise to the archaeologists, who had previously no idea of such an ancient settlement in Kirkby (although at least one Bronze Age axe had been discovered in Kirkby by 1982).

The first church in Kirkby would have been the one founded by the Danish settlers. Many Danes who came to England with the Viking raids settled here, living peacefully and adopting the Christian religion. We know very little about this church.

In the aftermath of the Norman invasion of 1066, almost all Saxon buildings were torn down and replaced with Norman ones, or else rebuilt and expanded so as to be unrecognisable. This would undoubtedly have been the fate of the church at Kirkby.

Having invaded and subdued England, the Normans set about creating an inventory of all the land and property they now governed. This was done principally to ensure that tax revenues were maximised, but the Domesday Book of 1086 survives today as a fascinating record of who owned what.

The Domesday Book refers to Kirkby as Cherchebi which is the Norman French translation of the settlement’s Danish name. At the time of the Norman invasion Uhtred was Lord of Cherchebi but by 1086 it was in the hands of the young Roger of Poitou as part of the Hundred of Derbei. A Hundred was a geographical division of land akin to a modern borough; the Hundred of Derbei encompassed much of modern Merseyside (apart from the Wirral) plus parts of Wigan and Salford.

Roger of Poitou (c. 1065-1123) was a colourful character. He owned most of the land inter Mersam et Ripam (between the Mersey and the Ribble) as a result of his advantageous marriage to Almodis, daughter of Count Aldebert II of Poitou, in the years running up to Domesday. Roger’s acquisition of the lands between the Ribble and the Lune, together with Furness and Cartmel across Morecambe Bay, in 1092 set the boundaries of what would become the County of Lancashire until Local Government Reorganisation almost nine centuries later in 1974. Roger was stripped of his holdings in 1102, however, as a punishment for his part (alongside his brother Arnulf) in a rebellion against King Henry I.

The Hundred of Derbei was administered from West Derby Castle, reputedly built by Roger of Poitou. The position of West Derby was strengthened in the 12th Century when West Derby Hundred was united with the Hundreds of Warrington and Newton-in-Makerfield, and again from 1207 when King John granted a Royal Charter to the Port of Liverpool, giving access to trade with Cheshire and beyond.

Little is known of the Norman church in Kirkby. It was a Chapel of Ease to the main Parish Church at Walton-on-the-Hill, rather than a parish church in the modern sense. We do not even know whether it was dedicated to St. Chad, as the modern church is; although St. Chad was Bishop of Lichfield in the 7th Century AD, the earliest known reference to him in the context of Kirkby dates from 17332.

By the time the Norman church was approaching its 700th birthday it had fallen into dilapidation and in 1766 it was demolished and replaced with a red brick chapel dedicated to St. Chad. Funds for the construction were raised by the minister, Rev. Thomas Wilkinson, who had been in post since 1756 and would go on to die in 1786, at the age of 64. He died in the middle of a Sunday evening service whereupon “the congregation was immediately dismissed”.

A pre-1812 drawing of St, Chad’s Chapel [W.J. Hammond]

The new chapel was a barn-like structure with a pitched roof and a small louvred bellcote at the west end and best described as functional in appearance rather than a thing of beauty. An unfortunate feature of the new building was that it did not include the ancient font which was instead cast out and used as a water butt.

At some point the font had been given a very thick coat of whitewash. It is suggested that this – which might seem to us to be an act of vandalism – was done during the Puritan era (1649-1660) as Puritan Christianity did not tolerate the use of images of people in worship. If this is so, whitewashing the font was certainly preferable to its destruction, the fate which befell many Mediaeval fonts (not to mention statues and stained glass windows) at that time. The coating also helped preserve the font during its time outside and so we should actually be grateful to those who applied it.

Following several changes of ownership, the West Derby Hundred had been bought by the Molyneux family in 1596. As Stephen Henders notes in his excellent history of St. Cuthbert’s, Halsall (15km north of Kirkby), West Lancashire was a remote outpost of England in which Catholicism was not only tolerated but even flourished to a degree long after the religion and its practices had been officially abandoned in the Reformation. Like many prominent families in the area, the Molyneux remained Catholic until relatively late, finally renouncing that religion in 1769.

In 1771 the Molyneux were elevated to the title Earls of Sefton. In 1806 they donated the land upon which the Kirkby Church School was built. The purpose-built school replaced a schoolroom which had been added to the church late in the 18th Century but which had become inadequate for the needs of the community.

Growth in Kirkby’s population required the chapel to be extended in 1812; the east end was rebuilt and a gallery added. Comparing the pre-1812 drawing with photographs of the chapel immediately prior to its demolition it is evident that it was extended from four bays to five and that what appears to have been a wooden side extension was added to accommodate the staircase up to the new gallery. The churchyard was expanded in 1846.

In 1848 the railway arrived in Kirkby when the Liverpool, Bolton & Bury Railway Company opened a station in the town. Unlike the coastal settlements to the north of Liverpool which experienced rapid growth and development in the early railway era, the improved communications between Kirkby and the rest of the world did not have a noticeable effect on the town’s population which in 1871 stood at just under 1,500. If anything the opportunity to move to bustling Liverpool 10km away caused Kirkby’s population to drop in the later part of the 19th Century.

The Molyneux family purchased the advowson of St. Chad’s (the right to select and appoint the clergy) in 1850. Around this time Kirkby became a parish in its own right for the first time. The patrons decided it was time to invest some serious money in the construction of a new “statement” church and in 1868 the fourth Earl of Seftoncommissioned the noted Lancashire architects Austin and Paley to design it.

Whilst Austin and Paley were undoubted masters of the Gothic Revival style of architecture, the design for the new St. Chad’s incorporated a number of the Romanesque features associated with Norman architecture to create a sense of continuity with the Mediaeval church. The new church was built immediately to the north of the 1776 chapel which remained in use until 1871 when the new building was complete.

St. Chad’s cost £30,000 to build (equivalent to about £3.6 million today) and was consecrated on 4th October, 1871 by the Bishop of Chester. Up until the creation of the Diocese of Liverpool in 1880, the whole of what is now Merseyside was part of the Diocese of Chester.

The 1766 chapel was demolished in 1872 and much of the masonry was incorporated into the wall around the churchyard. Today the location of its altar is marked by a cross.

Between 1872 and 1899 the church was beautified with the addition of a fine set of stained glass windows by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday. A full description of these is here.

The current organ, a Grade 1 listed, three-manual instrument by Wordsworth & Company of Leeds, was introduced in 1909 and is dedicated to the memory of Rev. John Leach. It replaced an organ by E. Franklin Lloyd of Liverpool which is known to have been in the church by 1890. Rev. Leach, a native of Wigan and alumnus of Caius College, Cambridge, came to Kirkby in 1881 having previously been Vicar of St. John The Divine, Pemberton (near Wigan). St. Chad’s was the longest and final appointment of his career, serving for a quarter of a century until his retirement in 1906. He died at Bournemouth in 1907.

The opening of the East Lancashire Road in 1934 created fast road access between Kirkby, Liverpool, St. Helens and Manchester and consideration was given to opening an industrial estate in the town. It was the onset of World War II in 1939 which ultimately brought modern industrial development to Kirkby in the form of the Royal Ordnance Factory. Officially titled Filling Factory No. 7, the first shells rolled off the production lines in 1940.

Although the initial workforce was under 100, the demands of the war effort saw this increase rapidly to a peak of 23,000, most of whom were women. The complex extended to 1,000 buildings with 18 miles of road and 23 miles of railway and ultimately produced 10% of all the munitions used in the British war effort. The Royal Ordnance Factory had its own railway station, exclusively for workers. The station never appeared on public timetables due to the secrecy of the operation and trains ran showing “Simonswood” as their destination.

During the war it was suggested that the font be removed and taken away to a place of safety given that the church was so close to an important potential target for enemy bombing. Rev. D.L. Griffiths, the Vicar at the time, refused on the grounds that he felt it would be improper to baptise Kirkby’s babies in any other font: this was a huge risk to take. Another artistic treasure, the set of fourteen Burne-Jones windows at All Hallows, Allerton (Liverpool), was removed to a farm in Yorkshire just two weeks before the blast from a stray incendiary bomb blew out all the plain glass introduced to replace the windows.

The Royal Ordnance Factory closed in 1946 and the site passed to Liverpool Corporation (despite being outside the city boundaries) for redevelopment as the Kirkby Industrial Estate. At around the same time the Corporation purchased large swathes of the Earl of Sefton’s land for redevelopment into new housing estates.

These events kick-started the incredible post-war growth of Kirkby from a settlement of under 1,500 people to a major New Town with, at its peak, almost 60,000. By 1951 the population had passed 3,000 and by 1961 it had exceeded 52,000, making Kirkby the fastest growing town in the UK. Much of the population growth was driven by the “slum clearance” policy in Liverpool where much of the inner-city housing stock had been deemed unfit and slated for demolition. Whole families, streets and communities were moved, often against their will and with little say in their destination, to Kirkby and to other new developments such as Skelmersdale, Halewood and even Winsford in Cheshire, a full 50km from Liverpool.

Needless to say, such rapid expansion created many problems. Many families were moved into their new homes before local facilities such as shops and pubs were completed and in some cases the build quality of these new homes, thrown up to meet the timetable, was so poor that they quickly began to exhibit structural defects. By October 1972 conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that a proposed rent increase sparked a 14-month rent strike by 3,000 residents of the Tower Hill Estate.

A picture of St Martins Church Southdene
St. Martin’s Church, Southdene

The rapid increase in population necessitated the construction of new churches to serve the new estates. The Church of England built three, the first of which was St. Martin’s, serving the Southdene estate; its hall was built in 1952, followed by the church in 1964. St. Andrew’s was built in 1976 but had to be rebuilt in 2002 following a fire. It continues to serve the people of Tower Hill to this day. The third new Anglican church was St. Mark’s, Northwood, built in 1970. This church closed in 2016 and sold in 2020. Another important building to mention is the Centre 63 Church of England youth club, built in 1963.

St. Chad’s, St. Martin’s and St. Andrew’s together form the Kirkby Team.

Many of the families moved from Liverpool to Kirkby were of Irish Catholic descent and seven churches were constructed to meet their spiritual needs though not all survive today. The first of these, in 1955, was the concrete-framed, brick-clad Holy Angels, designed by the prolific Catholic church building practice of L.A.G. Pritchard and Partners. Another Pritchard church, St. Joseph The Worker on Bewley Drive, opened in 1964, and has two sculptures by Arthur Dooley. In 1976 St. Peter & St. Paul on Apostles Way was opened, although it was not formally consecrated until 2002.

Kirkby was added to the motorway network in 1972 with the completion of the M57, and in 1974 local government reorganisation brought Kirkby (together with Huyton, Prescot and Halewood) into the Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley, one of six constituent boroughs of the new Merseyside County Council.

In 1975 St. Chad’s was added to the National Heritage List as a Grade II* Listed building. This recognises its status as being a “particularly important building of more than special interest” and gives it a substantial degree of protection against inappropriate development.

Kirkby’s population declined throughout the 1970s and 1980s to around 40,000 although recently it has risen slightly again. Life- expired 1960’s high-density housing has been pulled down and replaced with modern townhouses. The decline in traditional skilled manufacturing and engineering employment since the 1980s has hit Kirkby hard and the retail and warehousing jobs which have replaced them tend to be lower-skilled and lower-paid.

The refurbishment of Kirkby’s market (2014) and bus station (2016) brought some cheer to the town as did the announcement in 2019 that the town centre had been bought out by Knowsley Council from a private developer which had left much of the land undeveloped and inaccessible for years.

2019 saw the replacement of the worst sections of the church roof and the reinstatement of the missing rainwater goods. Some repairs were also carried out to high-level stonework. All this work should ensure that St. Chad’s is watertight for several decades to come and can continue serving the people of Kirkby as it and its predecessors have done for over a thousand years. Whilst the pandemic resulted in the postponement of many events and activities to celebrate the work’s completion, we know that these difficult times will pass and we look forward to writing the next chapter in the history of St. Chad’s.