Liverpool Cathedral is the largest in the Church of England, and the longest and fifth largest in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
We all know how popular Dublin – and especially the Temple Bar area – is for English stag and hen weekends. I was surprised to find out, though, that Liverpool is just as popular with similar groups of people from Ireland.
I was supposed to be in Liverpool earlier last year to speak at a conference in Liverpool Hope University, until the venue was switched to Westminster. However, I was invited back to Liverpool a few months later to preach in the cathedral, and before winter closed in I found myself rediscovering a city I had not seen since the 1970s.
Remembering the Beatles on a Liverpool shop front (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
For many, their memories of Liverpool are of a city that was the first port of call for Irish immigrants arriving on the mail boat from Dublin, or the last port for those returning from exile in England. For others, Liverpool is the city of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat, the city of the Liver-Birds, Brookside and “Scousers,” the city to be endured for Aintree and the Grand National, the city of Liverpool and Everton, Merseyside’s great football rivals, or even a city that once reflected Irish sectarianism and tensions.
Football memories are legends in every corner of Liverpool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I was surprised, then, to find that Liverpool has experienced a radical transformation. The waterfront has more listed buildings than any other English city outside London, and in 2004 it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. Then, four years ago, Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture.
The city remains a bustling and lively city, with cultural, architectural and ecclesiastical attractions that make it worth more than a quick weekend visit, with its cathedrals, museums, and art galleries ... as well as a rich and lively nightlife.
Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral
The Anglican cathedral dominates Liverpool’s city skyline and is clearly visible from the waterfront (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Liverpool has two cathedrals – the Anglican Cathedral and the Roman Catholic Cathedral –linked by Hope Street.
Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral is the largest in the Church of England, and the longest and fifth largest in the world. Its external length is 189 metres (620 ft), while its internal length is 146 metres (479 ft). The bell tower is the largest and one of the tallest in the world, and houses the world’s highest and heaviest ringing peal of bells.
This is only the third Anglican cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation –Saint Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt by Christopher Wren in London in 1666, and Truro Cathedral was built in the 19th century. Although Liverpool Cathedral is dedicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin, its official name is the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool – but it is known to one and all simply as Liverpool Cathedral.
The enormity of Liverpool Cathedral gives an impression of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s vision of our relationship with God (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The magnificent central space of the cathedral, stretching east from the bridge towards the choir and the high altar, dominates the view of the cathedral and its enormity gives an impression of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s vision of our relationship with God.
A bishop’s vision
When John Charles Ryle became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880, he found himself in a diocese without a cathedral. At first, Saint Peter’s Church served as the “pro-cathedral,” but it was too small for major church events and a cathedral was planned on the site of Saint John’s Church, beside Saint George’s Hall, in 1885. But that site too was unsuitable and the project was abandoned.
Bishop Francis Chavasse became the second Bishop of Liverpool in 1900 and immediately revived the project to build a cathedral. Although some of his clergy argued it would be too expensive, he had a vision for a cathedral that would be “a visible witness to God in the midst of a great city,” and a new site was found at Saint James’s Mount. No other English cathedral, apart from Durham, has such a well-placed site, and the cathedral dominates the city skyline, clearly visible from the waterfront.
The stipulations insisted the cathedral must be designed in the Gothic style. Robert Gladstone, a member of the committee involved in selecting the architect, said: “There could be no question that Gothic architecture produced a more devotional effect upon the mind than any other which human skill had invented.”
The stipulation stirred controversy, however, and Reginald Blomfield and others protested, describing the Gothic style as a “worn-out flirtation in antiquarianism, now relegated to the limbo of art delusions.” There was further controversy when the commission went to 22-year-old Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960). He was from a distinguished line of architects stretching back generations. His grandfather, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), designed the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford and the Midland Grand Hotel at Saint Pancras in London. His father, George Gilbert Scott (1839-1897), was a leading exponent of the Gothic Revival, known for many of his buildings in Cambridge colleges.
Young Giles Gilbert Scott had only the design of a pipe-rack to his credit, and his selection became even more contentious when it became known that he was a Roman Catholic.
The cathedral was built mainly of sandstone quarried – later the Beatles first called themselves “The Quarrymen.” The foundation stone was laid by King Edward VII in 1904. At the end of the great open-air service, the choir of a thousand voices sang the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah. The Lady Chapel, originally intended to be called the Morning Chapel, was consecrated by Bishop Chavasse on Saint Peter’s Day, 29 June 1910 – a date chosen to honour the pro-cathedral that was about to be demolished.
Critics said the new cathedral seemed too Anglo-Catholic in design. The richness of the décor of the Lady Chapel dismayed some of Liverpool’s evangelical clergy, who said that they were presented with “a feminised building which lacked reference to the ‘manly’ and ‘muscular Christian’ thinking which had emerged in reaction to the earlier feminisation of religion.”
Although World War I severely limited building work, the first section of the main body of the cathedral was completed by 1924, and the cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Chavasse in the presence of King George V. The central section was completed by 1941, and Scott laid the last stone of the last pinnacle in 1942. He died in 1960, and the cathedral was finally completed in 1978.
The cathedral celebrated its centenary in 2004, and is pivotal to the spiritual life of the city. Meanwhile, Scott is also remembered as the designer of the red telephone box, the now defunct Battersea Power Station, now in NAMA, and the Bankside Power Station in London, now the Tate Modern.
A walk down Hope Street
Bishop David Shepherd and Archbishop Derek Worlock remembered in Hope Street, linking their two cathedrals (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Liverpool’s two cathedrals are only half-a-mile apart and are linked by Hope Street, which seems a very appropriate name until you are told that it was first named after William Hope, a local merchant who lived long before the cathedrals were built.
Half-way along the street is a statue of Bishop David Shepherd and Archbishop Derek Worlock, who worked tirelessly together in the city, living out a commitment that they would never do separately what they could do together.
William Mitchell’s geometric relief sculpture of Saint John ... one of a series at the Roman Catholic Cathedral with the symbols of the four evangelists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King is about half a mile north. It was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd. But the original plan was by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), who was commissioned in 1930 to design a response to Scott’s Anglican cathedral at the other end of Hope Street.
Lutyens designed what would have been the second-largest church in the world, with the world’s largest dome, greater than even that of Saint Peter’s in Rome. But World War II and escalating costs put a stop to the project, and the present, smaller cathedral was built in the 1960s.
The four bells at the Roman Catholic Cathedral have been named locally as John, George, Paul and Ringo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Its shape is conical and the building is topped by a tower in the shape of a truncated cone. Flying buttresses attached to the truces give the building a tent-like appearance. The four cathedral bells are known locally as John, George, Paul and Ringo.
The Irish in Liverpool
With “Scouser” humour, Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral is sometimes known as “Paddy’s Wigwam” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
With typical “Scouser” humour, Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral is sometimes affectionately called the “Mersey Funnel” or “Paddy’s Wigwam.”
An important study of Irish violence and sectarianism was carried out in the 1990s by the Precentor of Liverpool Cathedral, Nick Frayling, who is now the Dean of Winchester. His book, Pardon and Peace (1996), was written when he was Rector of Saint Nicholas’s, Liverpool, during sabbatical study leave at the Church of Ireland Theological College and was launched in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Saint Nicholas’s Church – also known as the “Sailors’ Church” – is the parish church of Liverpool ... Nick Frayling was the rector while he was writing ‘Pardon and Peace’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Liverpool was so much at the heart of Irish migration that it was once a popular saying there that it was the true capital of Ireland. But the Irish presence in Liverpool stretches back over generations and centuries.
By the mid-16th century, Liverpool had a population of only 500. However, the city grew and prospered on the slave trade in the 18th century, and by the start of the 19th century, 40% of the world’s trade was passing through Liverpool.
Liverpool has been enriched culturally, socially and economically by wave-after-wave of immigration and emigration. In the 100 years between 1830 and 1930, about nine million people – English and Scots as well as Irish, but also Scandinavians and Russian Jews too – sailed from Liverpool for the New World.
Liverpool still has many Irish landmarks, and the city is also home to Britain’s oldest Black community, dating from the 1730s, with some Black Liverpudlians are able to trace their ancestors in the city back ten generations.
The Chinatown gate in Nelson Street, below Liverpool Cathedral, was built in Shanghai and is the largest, multiple-span arch of its kind outside China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The most visible minority in Liverpool today is the Chinese Community. China Town, on the southern slopes of the Anglican Cathedral, is the largest in any European city, and the city boasts the oldest Chinese community in Europe, dating back to 1834.
Lime Street, with Saint George’s Hall (left), built in 1854, the former Great North Western Hotel (right), now part of John Moores University, and statues of Prince Albert, Disraeli, Queen Victoria and the Wellington Column ... part of Liverpool’s Victorian heritage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Apart from the two cathedrals, the architectural legacy of Liverpool often goes without appreciation. Yet this is a city with more Georgian houses than Bath, and with more than 2,500 listed buildings. The Albert Dock, built in 1846, has the largest single collection of Grade I listed buildings anywhere in Britain, and Liverpool has a greater number of public sculptures than any other place in Britain aside from Westminster. English Heritage describes it as England’s finest Victorian city.
The Royal Liver Building is one of the first buildings ever built with reinforced concrete ... local lore says that should these two birds fly away the city would cease to exist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The central dome is the main focal point of the Dock Office, although it was not part of the original design, and was inspired by an unused model for Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Albion House, designed by Richard Norman Shaw and James Francis Doyle, is the former headquarters of the White Star Line, owners of the ‘Titanic’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Albion House is the former headquarters of the White Star Line, the owners of the Titanic. But Liverpool’s Pier Head is also known three buildings – the Royal Liver Building (1911), the Cunard Building (1914-1917) and the Port of Liverpool Building (1904-1907) – that are known also as the Three Graces. Together they are part of the legacy of this city’s great wealth and a symbol of Maritime Liverpool.
In recent years, the Albert Dock has become one of the main tourist attractions in Liverpool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in March 2012 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).