The Building of St Paul’s Church, Birmingham in the 1770s

An Overview

An Act of Parliament was passed in 1772 for the building of two new chapels, and the provision of burial grounds, in the parish of St Martin’s church in Birmingham. St Martin’s was, and still is, the parish church of Birmingham. Both new chapels were chapels of ease to St Martin’s. Although both had areas of the Town assigned to them, they were not, for many years, parishes in their own right. The first to be built, St Mary’s, was consecrated in 1774, and the second, St Paul’s, in 1779. This article is a detailed account that goes from the preparation of the bill to put before parliament through to the consecration of the chapels. St Mary’s was demolished in 1925 to make room for an expansion of the General Hospital, St Paul’s still stands. Although the main aim has been the story of the building of St Paul’s, the nature of the sources has been such that the building of St Mary’s has been included. The growth in the population of Birmingham in the 18th century has been well recorded, and is not discussed in detail here, but some idea of the magnitude of the growth is revealed in the figures showing that the population of the Town was 31000 in 1770 and had reached 50000 by 1780. Such rapid growth brings with it the problems of housing supply and infrastructure, and, naturally enough, the Church of England was caught up in these problems. St Martin’s was from time to time to face two major problems; overcrowding of the church on the one hand and the provision of suitable burial space on the other. For five hundred years the only Christian burial ground in Birmingham had been less than half an acre at St Martin’s. William Hutton 1 describes how through centuries of interment in the same churchyard “A considerable hill had arisen” and he could safely remark that “the dead are raised up”. Furthermore, he made the gruesome observation that “instead of the church burying the dead, the dead would, in time, have buried the church”. The building of St Philip’s helped alleviate the problems, indeed a directory of 1774 2 comments that “The churches are those of St Martin and St Philip, the latter of which has a churchyard that for beauty and extent is thought to surpass every other in this kingdom”. St Philip’s was built under an Act of 1708 3 which provided not just for a church, but for a parish to be taken out of St Martin’s parish and for a rectory. Building was started in 1711 and the church was consecrated in 1715, before it was completed. There were difficulties in raising funds and the church was not completed until 1725. The site was given by the widow of Roger Philips, to whose name the dedication alludes, and the King himself, George I, gave £600 in 1725 to help finish the job.The problems of space, for worship and for burial continued. Seats in St Martin’s were in great demand in the 18th century. A solution was sought in establishing chapels of ease to the parish church. In rural areas the purpose of a chapel of ease was said to be for the ease and comfort of those living some distance from the parish church. For Birmingham distance was not the problem, it was the increasing number of potential worshippers, and burial space. With the Town expanding to the east a new place of worship was built in 1749 at the eastern edge. This was St Bartholomew’s, a chapel of ease to    St Martin’s. The site was given by John Jennens, a Birmingham ironmaster, whose wife gave £1000 to the building of the chapel, according to Hutton “at the solicitation of Mrs Weaman”, the rest being raised by subscription. The rector of St Martin’s had the right of presentation of a potential incumbent to the bishop. St Bartholomew’s became the focal point of the Jennen’s estate; indeed a Jennens Road exists today, as does Bartholomew Row and Bartholomew Street in the old Masshouse area, close to the site of the original chapel. It had not been possible to use the name St John for the new chapel as this had already been assigned to the chapel in Deritend. It was around this time, according to McKenna 4 that other prominent local landowning families, some of whom had moved away from Birmingham, made their land available for building use. One of the first to do this was the Colmore family. The Colmores originated at Tournai in France, and acquired part of their New Hall Estate and other property in Birmingham as land speculation on the dissolution of the Priory or Hospital of St Thomas in 1536. Joseph Hill’s Conjectural Plan of Birmingham for 1553 5 shows land owned by one William Colmore. According to Chinn 6 the wealth of the Colmore family was founded on the buying and selling of fabrics in the 16th century. In the early 1700s Ann Colmore had taken over the estate and in 1747 she had a private Act passed under which the Colmore estate could grant building leases of 120 years. The estate, of some 100 acres to the north of the Town, became available for development. By 1750 most of Colmore Row and Ann Street had been developed. Charles Colmore succeeded to the estates while his mother Ann was still alive. To the northeast of the town there was the Weaman estate. This estate had been under development for many years, and there was already a Weaman Street on Westley’s map of 1731 7. There is a manuscript in the City Archives 8, dated 1745, about land adjoining Weaman Street that meets “with the approbation of Thomas Weaman of Birmingham, gent, and Dorothy, his wife”. It was to be 1771 before pressure for new places of worship emerged again. By this time the Colmore development had reached Lionel Street, but development of the Weaman estate had slowed down. Both estates were ripe for development. St Mary’s chapel was built on land given mainly by Mary Weaman, and St Paul’s chapel was built on land given by Charles Colmore. The century had started with just the parish church of St Martin in St Martin’s parish. It finished with the parish church of St Martin, three chapels of ease and the parish church of St Philip. Each of these places of worship provided only a small number of free seats, most of which were reserved at the main services for Sunday School children. An exception to this pattern was to occur with the building of Christchurch in 1805 at the junction of Colmore Row and New Street, where the whole of the ground floor was given over to free seats, indeed the church became known as the Free Church. Thomas Hanson’s Map of 1778 9, illustrates well the positioning of the chapels, with their churchyards for burials. There is space for further expansion east and south east for St Bartholomew’s, and space for St Mary’s to the northeast as it became the focal point for the Weaman estate, which later became the Gun Quarter. The development of the Colmore land to Lionel Street is evident, and there are green fields around St.Paul’s, but not quite as green as this map suggests. James Watt had moved to Regent’s Place on Harper’s Hill in 1777, quite close to the site of the new chapel.

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