Lancashire Churches

St. Mary & St. John Baptist’s Church in Pleasington

A church of 1816-19 by the Manchester architect John Palmer.

The foundation stone of the Roman Catholic church of St Mary & St John the Baptist Pleasington, also known as Pleasington Priory, was laid on June 6th 1816. On the 24th August 1819 the church opened. In the intervening period £20,000 had been spent to create a church that Pevsner describes as “astonishing”.

The building is the work of John Palmer, a Manchester based architect and antiquarian. Palmer was born in Bishop Middleham, Durham, in 1783. He died in Manchester, from where he practised, in 1846. Other work by Palmer includes the church of St Mary, Blackburn – now the Cathedral – (1820-6), Holy Trinity, Ashton-in-Makerfield (1837-8) and St Augustine’s Catholic Chapel, Salford (1820). In 1816 he re-erected the Saxon crosses in the Market Square, Sandbach, Cheshire. Palmer also wrote an “Architectural Description of the Collegiate Church” (now Manchester Cathedral), and did restoration work on that building.

Pleasington church was paid for by John Francis Butler (later known as Butler-Bowden), as a thank-offering. The Butlers were prominent Lancashire Roman Catholics, and the west front features a portrait bust of the donor in military uniform (see photograph).

The church is a large building comprising a five bay nave with aisles, a tall polygonal apse, and an exceptionally tall clerestory. In place of a tower are two large pinnacles that rise above the west front. The southern one has a single bell. Entry is not by the traditional south porch, but by the west door. This has three orders of concave moulding with paterae that sweep around the arch, uninterrupted by capitals. Above is a hoodmould with fleurons. The door is set in a large arch with three figure brackets. At its apex is an “Eye of Providence”, a symbol popular in the C17 and C18, seen on the Great Seal of the United States, and sometimes associated with Freemasonry. Above this is a large rose window. The gable is topped by an attractive openwork parapet. In a niche is the inscription Johannes Palmer Architectus.

The church, like many in the period 1800 – 1840, though obviously Gothic, does not exhibit a particular Gothic style. Nor is there a considered attempt at historical accuracy: Pugin’s influence had yet to be felt. Overall the feel is Perpendicular – see the aisle windows and arcade piers. However, the triple stepped lancets of the clerestory suggest Early English, and the west front uses a variety of elements, including C12 dogtooth ornament. The south side of the church reflects the five internal bays. The windows are separated by slender buttresses with canopied niches. The buttresses have pinnacles at the west and east end, and those between have pedestals. The aisles are embattled, whilst the openwork parapet of the west front continues above the clerestory.

Inside the church the emphasis is on the vertical. The nave arcades are tall and slender, and though inspired by Perpendicular precedents, have Early English dogtooth. The tall chancel arch frames the apse, and all the ceilings have plasterwork vaulting. Very large flat bosses with scenes dominate the quadripartite vaulting of the nave roof.

The church has an unusual narthex/entrance which allows the visitor to view the interior of the church without having unbridled access – less satisfying than an open church, but better than being locked out!