St Mary, Whittall Street
Opened on the northern fringe of the town in 1774, St Mary's was built in a neo-classical style in an octagonal shape, a design considered ideal for preaching. This new middle-class housing development was to become Birmingham's Gun Quarter.
Image from William Hutton 1783 'A History of Birmingham' 2nd Edition
See Project Gutenberg to download this book - http://www.gutenberg.org .
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Above: Hanson’s map of Birmingham 1778.
Image courtesy of the Mapseeker website - http://www.mapseeker.co.uk/ - reuse permitted for non-commercial purposes.
St Mary's 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=2020&oy=216&zm=1&czm=1&x=297&y=45 .
St Mary's Chapel
At the beginning of the 18th century Birmingham began to spread northwards from its ancient centre around the Bull Ring. One of the earliest estates to be laid out was that of Dorothy and Mary Weaman. However, housing development here was slow, and so the ladies decided to build a church, not so much to cater for local residents, but rather to attract new residents. At a time when most pews were rented and the best pews had been taken in the other churches in the town, this would prove an attractive proposition to newcomers to the estate. They would live close to their place of worship and, if they subscribed towards the building of the church, they would be guaranteed the rent of a prestigious pew near the pulpit.
St Mary’s was built in 1774 in Whittall Street by Joseph Pickford, an architect from Derby who had worked on the Palladian Horse Guards building in Whitehall. A chapel of ease of St Martin's, St Mary’s took its dedication from the Christian name of Mary Weaman, for, although the cost of building was raised by subscription, Mary Weaman gave the site for the new church and £1000 towards its construction, by far the largest single amount. The final cost was around £4700.
When first built, the church stood in open ground on the north edge of the town, but the creation of a new church here had the desired effect and the area was soon built up around it. St Mary’s was an octagonal brick building with a small tower and spire, in a neo-classical style and surrounded by a large churchyard. The importance of being assured a place of burial was probably of equal rank to that of having a guaranteed seat in the church.
William Hutton was not overly impressed with the building:
‘Though the houses for divine worship were multiplied in Birmingham, yet the inhabitants increased in a greater proportion; so that in 1772 an act was obtained for two additional chapels. St. Mary's, therefore, was erected in 1774 [St Paul’s was the other.], in the octagon form, not overcharged with light nor strength; in an airy situation and taste, but shews too little steeple, and too much roof. If a light balustrade was raised over the parapet, with an urn in the centre of the roof, the eye of the observer would be relieved. The clock was seldom seen to go right, but the wonder ceases if there are NO WORKS within.’
William Hutton 1783 An History of Birmingham 2nd Edition
The octagonal shape of the church was considered ideal for preaching and there was only a small apsidal chancel. There a tower of three stages, the first round, the second octagonal with Doric columns at each angle, and the third octagonal with a clockface and pediment on each alternate side. There was a slender spire.
In 1776 part of the gallery collapsed during the morning service. Although there were no injuries other than the loss of some ladies their handkerchiefs and some gentlemen their hats, this was a serious matter. The trustees has difficulties in arranging a meeting with the architect. In the end the matter was settled by Pickford’s offer of £400 in settlement.
One of the Hiorne brothers (It is not known which one), the architects of St Bartholomew’s in Masshouse Lane, was consulted. He suggested using cast-iron columns to support the gallery. If this is not the first example of the use of cast-iron this way, it is certainly one of the earliest.
St Mary’s had a Methodist connection (Methodists were part of the Church of England until after John Wesley’s death in 1791). In 1786 John Wesley attended a service at the church to hear 'an admirable sermon' from the curate. A memorial tablet was set up in the church to William Thompson; it is now in St Martin’s-in-the-Bull Ring:
‘In memory of the Rev. William Thompson, who was the first President of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference. He died May 1st, 1799, and was buried in the vaults of this Church.’
The church remained a focus of evangelical preaching until the end of the 19th century.
Around the beginning of the 19th century the district became a focus for gun manufacture. The rear gardens of the large Georgian houses were first used to carry out manufacturing processes, and then the houses themselves were used. And the area quickly lost its high-class status.
In 1841 St Mary's was assigned a parish out of that of St Martin’s. In 1857 the building was renovated. The tower and spire were found to be unsafe and were rebuilt in 1866 to a very similar design, but with pilasters instead of columns and a balustrade on the second stage. In 1888 400 of the 1700 sittings were free. At some point the tower and spire appear to have been rebuilt yet again.
In 1882 the churchyard, presumably now full, was taken over by the Corporation and laid out as a public garden, known as St Mary's Garden.
In 1897 the General Hospital was rebuilt in Steelhouse Lane close to the church. Because of need for land for the expansion of the General Hospital, St Mary’s was closed in 1925 pending demolition and the parish united with that of the Bishop Ryder Memorial Church in Gem Street.
The sale of the land paid most of the cost of £20 415 to build a new St Mary’s on the new housing estate at Pype Hayes in 1929. St Mary's 18th-century silver communion service by Boulton & Fothergill now belongs to Pype Hayes church.
Above: Image from R K Dent 1878 'Birmingham Old & New'
uploaded by Sally_Parishmouse on flickr, reusable under Creative Commons licence Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) - http://www.flickr.com/photos/parishmouse/3668771543/sizes/z/in/photostream/ .
Acknowledgement - 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=22975.
See St Paul's website for John Sawkill's interesting article, An Act for building Two new Chapels and providing Burial Places thereto, within the Town of Birmingham, in the County of Warwick - http://www.saintpaulbrum.org/twonewchapels.pdf
William Dargue 10.04.2012