Christ Church, New Street
Opened in 1805 at the edge of the town Christ Church was built to cater for the large number of people in the rapidly-growing town who were unable to rent a pew in any other church either because of the cost or the fact thta all available seats were already taken. It became known as 'The Free Church'.
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Above: Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge map of Birmingham 1839. Image courtesy of the Mapseeker website - http://www.mapseeker.co.uk/ - reuse permitted for non-commercial purposes.
Christ Church also appears on the 1890 Ordnance Survey map available at British History Online - http://www.british-history.ac.uk/mapsheet.aspx?compid=55193&sheetid=10098&ox=799&oy=1281&zm=1&czm=1&x=524&y=344 .
Christ Church Passage, no longer a passage but a set of steps leading up from the top of New Street to Waterloo Street, betrays the former location of the now demolished Christ Church.
Built in 1805 by public subscription at a time when seats in most churches were rented, leased or even held freehold, it was built to alleviate the shortage of free seats in the town. With all the ground-floor seats free and only the galleries reserved for rent it was long known as the Free Church.
The land was given by a local landowner, W P Inge whose ancestors had given the site of St Philip’s Church just down the road. Set in the angle between Colmore Row) and New Street, the church stood above the level of New Street and was approached by a wide flight of steps at the west end. At that time this was the north-western limit of the town.
Christ Church was a stone building designed in a neo-classical style with a small apsidal chancel and a west portico of three bays supported on Doric columns.
The square west tower was surmounted by an octagonal belfry with Ionic pilasters and a balustraded parapet, above which was an octagonal spire. The tower, originally been designed with a cupola rather than a spire, was not completed until 1814, the year following its consecration.
The design was by local architect and sculptor William Hollins, but the work was carried out by the Birmingham builder and surveyor, Charles Norton. King George III was to have opened the church, but due to his indisposition, the ceremony was performed by the Earl of Dartmouth. Nonetheless, the King gave £1000 towards the completion of the building.
The cost of building turned out to be more than anticipated, so the trustees applied to Parliament for permission to convert the arches under the church into catacombs. They proposed selling spaces for £4 each and they themselves bought one third of them. However, up until 1818 only two corpses had been interred there. It was hoped, ‘that when the inhabitants are familiarised to that mode of sepulture, they will prefer them to the present custom of erecting vaults, which are attended with considerably more expense.’
In 1865 a parish was assigned from those of St Martin's and St Philip's.
Charles Pye described the building in 1818:
The body of the church being free to all description of persons, is fitted up with benches for their accommodation; but rent being paid to the clergyman for kneelings in the galleries, they are finished in a style of elegance, with mahogany, supported by light pillars of the doric order . . . .
The ascent to the galleries is by a double geometrical staircase, of stone, with ballustrades of iron, coated with brass, which appear light and produces an elegant effect; these, with the railing at the altar, were an entire new manufacture, invented by Mr. B. Cooke, whose manufactory is carried on at Baskerville House. The altar piece, designed by Mr. Stock, of Bristol, is of mahogany, above which is a painting by Mr. Barber, representing a cross, apparently in the clouds. . . .
The portico and spire were both of them erected by Mr. Richardson, of Handsworth; the former at the expense of £1200 and the latter £1500, which was completed in 1816. In the year 1817, a clock was affixed in the tower, by Mr. Allport, which has four dials, and each of them both hour and minute hands. This place of worship is computed to accommodate 1500 hearers.
The erection of this free church confers great credit on the town, as the want of such accommodation was very apparent, from the increased population; and this is manifest by its being so well attended; the congregation being considerably more numerous than can be accommodated, and they express their satisfaction by decent and orderly behaviour.
Charles Pye A Description of Modern Birmingham Whereunto Are Annexed Observations Made during an Excursion Round the Town, in the Summer of 1818
When first opened, the building and the number of free seats were much admired, though the fact that men and women sat separately in its early days, led some wit to pen the following:
Our churches and chapels we generally find
Are the places where men to the women are joined;
But at Christ Church, it seems, they are more cruelhearted,
For men and their wives go there and get parted.
Showell's Dictionary of Birmingham 1888
Image (right) from Beilby, Knott & Beilby 1830 An Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Birmingham, a work now out of copyright. This book may be downloaded from Google Books.
The church building was not much loved in its later years, when the Gothic style held sway for church architecture. Bates's Pictorial Guide to Birmingham 1849:
With its appearance most of our readers are too well acquainted; it is a heavy, plain, stone structure, with a projecting roof, and a tetrastyle Doric portico at the western end. The present ugly spire was not erected until 1815, and was a deviation from the original plan, . . . it appears to have been the architect's intention to have given the building a dome and cupola, in humble imitation of those of St. Philip's, and far more in keeping with the building itself, - heavy and unsightly as it would even then have been,-than the senseless and tasteless combination of a spire intended to be Gothic, (of the most debased order,) with a building supposed to be Classic.
Eliezer Edwards described it in 1877 as ‘the excrescence called Christ Church, which still disfigures the very finest site in the whole town.'
As the City Centre turned increasingly to business and commerce, the central population moved to districts immediately outside the City Centre. The congregation fell to unsustainable levels and the church closed in 1897 and was demolished two years later. The parish was merged with St Philip's The proceeds from the sale of the land helped to fund the building of St Agatha's Church in Sparkbrook.
Burials from the catacombs beneath the church were transferred to the Church of England Cemetery catacombs in Warstone Lane, including the remains of John Baskerville. The Angel Fountain of 1850 was moved to St Philip's Cathedral.
Acknowledgements - See British History Online - Victoria County History of Warwick Volume 7 The City of Birmingham ed. W B Stevens 1964 - http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22976.
See also Charles Pye 1818 A Description of Modern Birmingham downlopadable from
Project Gutenberg - http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1480660 .
William Dargue 14.02.2012