A Commissioners’ church of 1840 by Edmund Sharpe
Edmund Sharpe was 27 years old when, after training under Thomas Rickman (see Clitheroe), he decided in 1836 to set up his own practice in Sun Street, Lancaster. The Church Commissioners, in response to the rapidly growing population, had begun to provide money on a grand scale to build churches to house the expanding congregations. Lancashire was provided with more Commissioners’ churches than any other county. Nineteen were built before 1830, and sixty two between c.1830 and 1865. St John the Baptist, Bretherton was Sharpe’s fifth church, built for the Commissioners at the remarkably low cost of £1,058.
The small west tower of Bretherton church immediately attracts your attention. It is pierced by tall arches on three sides at ground level. Were the openings not so narrow – the scale of the church overall is small – it could be mistaken for a porte-cochere. As it is, the device gives this slight tower a top-heavy appearance, almost looking like it is standing on legs! The prominence that this feature gives to the west entrance is puzzling given that a south gable and door are nearby and must always have been the usual way in.
Sharpe’s chosen style is closest to Perpendicular. This is suggested by the square-headed windows with hood-moulds, and the bell louvres. However, historical accuracy was not the aim in 1840, and other features – such as the motifs of the entrance gable – suggest Early English. Interestingly, in time Sharpe came to be recognised by his peers as an authority on the Decorated period (see the tower of Kirkham, St Michael)!
The interior of Sharpe’s church is a single, rectangular, undivided preaching space with a west gallery. The latter has a plain front with panels, and is supported on cast iron columns with branched tops and leaves. The ceiling is subdivided into rectangles by transverse beams. The altar must have originally been placed against the east wall. However, in 1909 a new chancel was added by Hubert (Harry) James Austin of Austin & Paley, a successor in the firm that Sharpe had started in 1836 (see Barnacre for details of the architectural practice). From the outside this addition, in historically correct Perpendicular, appears awkwardly joined to the original church – ts roof is at a different angle, and higher than the original, contrary to custom. Inside is a different story. The new chancel is finished in stone to the customary high Austin standard. Above, the roof timbers are set against a white background. The darkness of the chancel makes an excellent and appropriate contrast with the very light nave. The windows to north and south, and the large five-light east window are all filled with dark stained glass, adding to this effect. Although on a smaller scale, the chancel is similar in feel to that at Broughton of 1905-6.
The stained glass includes work by A.L. & C.E. Moore of London including an interesting depiction of scenes from the life of Mary. This three light window is quite traditional, but for the cusping of the main lights where the canopies transmute into lilies (a symbol of chastity and virtue often associated with the Virgin).