The Church Buildings

 

The History of the Churches

Compiled by Richard Turner

The parish of Thurstaston, which is situated some fifteen miles west of Chester and seven miles south of Birkenhead, includes some of the highest ground in the Wirral Peninsula, overlooking fields that descend to the shores of the River Dee. The Church, though a mere hundred yards from the busy main road, lies quietly in the middle of the village of Thurstaston, which unlike many of the surrounding villages remains unspoilt.

'Turstanetone' is recorded in the Domesday Book as being held by Robert de Rodelent (or Rhuddlan), a cousin of Hugh, the nephew of William I. Hugh surnamed Lupus, but called by the Welsh 'The Fat', was created Earl of Chester and gave Thurstaston to Robert along with many other lands in the Wirral and as much as he could conquer in North Wales. The earliest mention of a Church occurs about 1125, when Robert's son Matthew granted the church to the Abbey of Saint Werburgh in Chester. However, other evidence suggests that it may have existed in Saxon times.  It remained in the possession of that Monastery with the right of presentation with the Abbot and monks until the Dissolution, when it was given to the newly formed Diocese of Chester. The gift of the living then became, and still is, with the Dean and Chapter of Chester.

The Norman Church at Thurstaston
(print in the British Museum Library)

This Norman Church endured for many hundreds of years with resulting problems. In 1724 it was described as 'a mean building extremely small, low and dark, and consisting of a body and semi-circular chancel with a bell turret' and it stood at that time within the courtyard of Thurstaston Hall. 

This Church was taken down in 1820 and a second edifice was completed in 1824. This was a plain stone building of no acknowledged style of architecture. Nothing remains of the earlier church, but fortunately the tower of the second one still stands in the Southwest of the Churchyard. 

The 1820 Church at Thurstaston from a
photograph taken probably in the 1860s or 1870s.
The east wing of Thurstaston Hall is on the right.

At a Vestry Meeting on 23rd March 1871, the pulling down of the second Church was approved and the executors of Joseph Hegan of Dawpool set apart £4,500 for a new church.

The present beautiful edifice designed by J. Loughborough Pearson R.A. was erected to the memory of Joseph Hegan of Dawpool by his two daughters, and was consecrated by William Stubbs, Bishop of Chester, on the 7th January 1886. It is a splendid example of a Victorian revival of mid-gothic architecture, being of the late 13th century character and built entirely of local sandstone, both inside and out. In the same year the old building was taken down and the material used to build a wall to enclose the new churchyard, which is now separated from the Hall.

The Lychgate was erected in memory of Thomas Henry Ismay of Dawpool in 1900. The name Ismay appears many times on various brasses inset into the walls of the Church, and refers to the ship-owning family, who in 1884 rebuilt and occupied Dawpool, a splendid house that stood for only forty years. The Lychgate is of course fitted with benches on which the bearers of the dead might deposit their burden and rest before proceeding. A short path bordered by Yew trees leads to the West door of the church. Around the archway inside the porch are two inscriptions that record the dedication of the church by Joseph Hegan's daughters. Above the entrance to the porch is a small niche. Since 1988 this has contained a statue of St Bartholomew, the work of Shelagh Frances, a parishioner. There is also a beautiful stained glass window dedicated to St. Bartholomew at the rear of the church, facing the entrance door. This was paid for by the parishioners in memory of the late Reverend John Henry Dodd, Rector of Thurstaston 1922-1934.

The Parish War Memorial is a marble obelisk on which are engraved six names of those who fell in the 1st World War and thirteen who fell in the 2nd World War.  Among those commemorated from the 1st World War is Frank Lester VC.  Click on the picture to read more about him and to read the citation for his Victoria Cross.

Frank Lester VC

Frank Lester VC

Inside the Church the effect of being in a small cathedral is felt. The building was completed shortly before the architect began work on Truro Cathedral, and as one walks around one notices everywhere that on the many pillars in the church one may have an engraved band surmounting it while its pair on the other side has a plain band, possibly as if the architect then stepped back and compared the two to see which was the more pleasing design to use in his later and greatest work. Like a cathedral it is divided into three distinct areas: nave, chancel and sanctuary, the impression being given of increasing richness, as one walks eastwards, culminating in an elaborately and finely sculpture alabaster reredos, representing the resurrection. 

The reredos

Marble and alabaster abound, the floor of the chancel is an arrangement of many coloured marbles and encaustic tiles, the steps being all of marble. The pulpit is of alabaster, and richly carved in open latticework. The whole of the upper portion of the font is constructed of a solid piece of Mexican onyx, the pillars of Blue John stone and the base of three different kinds of marble. Several of the stained glass windows are very beautiful, especially the East and the West windows, and the organ contains painted wings in the early Italian style. The copying of the gothic system of stone vaulted roofing is particularly interesting.

Under the West window there is a stone taken from the south side of the first church which, in curious lettering contains an ancient inscription:

SANCTI BERTHLMI JOHN WITTMOR, WILLIAM HOE . . . it is incomplete and GARDIANI is probably the missing word: so the inscription commemorated John Whitmore and William Hoe Churchwardens of Saint Bartholomew's Church. A facsimile may be seen alongside it. 

On the West wall alongside the ancient inscription is a list of the rectors of Thurstaston. This begins with Simon de Meoles who was instituted as the incumbent in 1303 and from then the list is complete to the present day. Two rectors are known before him however, Alan de Thornton in about 1212, and Robert de Thurstaston in about 1298, though there is doubt about the latter who is described as chaplain. Some of the rectors seem to have lived eventful lives. Philip Ewyas was sued for the detention of an ox. Robert de Crouton was indicted for killing an inhabitant of Barnston, and John Whitmore of Thurstaston was bound in 100 marks to keep the peace towards Sir John Bennett in 1492. Thomas Sharpe appears to have been the incumbent for fifty-nine years, and this is substantiated by other sources. He died in about 1601 aged 91.The rector and churchwardens were again involved in controversy in 1671 as the records testify.

Over the door is a painting of the arms of Queen Anne bearing the motto: 'Semper Eadem’. Around the West end of the Church are a number of white marble tablets commemorating certain of the families of the Whitmores who for centuries lived at Thurstaston, and of the Gleggs who feature prominently in Cheshire history. It would appear from the dates that these tablets were taken from the original church together with a bread shelf dated 1723.

In the churchyard, the oldest inscription consists of a flat stone, south of the old tower marking the grave of John Whitmore and his wife Eleanor but so eroded that only some of the letters are discernible. The wills supply the illegible dates - 1672 and 1688. Nearby is an altar tomb supported by six pillars, the clear inscription mentioning Ann Hughes with the date 1688. Another flat stone inside the old church marks the grave of one of the Rectors, Robert Bradshaw 1689.

It is interesting to reflect how the parish has changed through time. Thurstaston was not an independent parish until it was probably cut out of West Kirby and Woodchurch at about the end of the 12th century. Only a small part of what is today Irby was included in the parish, and a large church was formerly never needed as can be seen from the census of 1810 when it was recorded that the population of Thurstaston and Irby together was a mere 173. With the growing importance of Liverpool and Birkenhead as a trade centre and the resulting outward spread of the towns, the number of inhabitants had risen to 272 in 1871.

The population of the parish in 1951 was 717. From then on the story is complicated by the alteration of the parish boundary to take in almost the whole of Irby, now a considerable residential area separated from Thurstaston by only a few fields. As a result the population of the parish in 1961 was 3,725. This enormous increase obviously meant that the parish needed another church. So it was that in 1967, from the contributions of parishioners, a combined Parish Hall and Church was built in Irby and dedicated to St. Chad.

With four buildings in the parish's 900 years of recorded history, the modern chapel in Irby built for the needs of a changing world, and the quiet church in Thurstaston with its elegant charm of a past age, make the parish perhaps symbolic of the Church's need to adapt in these days of change; to welcome the best of the new, whilst keeping the best of the old.