In Aug 2013 the BBC reported a Church Building boom across Romania, It was reported that at least 10 new churches were being opened across the country month. 170 years ago, we could have been saying the same about Blackpool. Between 1840 and 1940 there was an unprecedented programme of church building in the Fylde area.
Exactly why it happened is subject to further investigation and debate. Clearly the burgeoning demand of visitors and residents as the town grew is not in question, but why there was a seemingly incongruous development of on the one hand pleasure palaces and facilities and on the other, the growth in the number of places of worship. A preliminary assessment of why might include the reaction to the search for truths, certainty and order, brought about by engineers and scientists of the Industrial Revolution. Unexplained and unconfirmed ‘truths’ being answered by belief and faith. Around the time and before conditions were right for what became known as the ‘Evangelical Revival’. Clergymen with conscience moved out into the highway and byways preaching salvation. Methodism and its contemporaries were born and grew. New thinking, new ideas and philosophies Mormons; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and Christian Science; Darwinism; Marxism; Freud’s new ‘psychology’; History as an academic subject; Spiritualism; all of them seeking to question or incorporate the legitimacy of Scriptures and Christian teachings.
The 19th Century was a time for missionary zeal both nationally and internationally, with Protestant missions established throughout the UK. Bible Societies; the Sunday School Union; ‘Reform’ societies were Established as a reaction to slavery, drunkenness, prisons, education, poverty; Migration of rural populations, often forced via the Poor Law arrangements and simplest of economics, into the industrial centres. The established church had been unable to keep up with demand for its services.
Revolution and uprising also presented a threat. France had gone through tumultuous revolution. In the UK, the higher social echelons expected the church to provide religious and moral guidance in justification of the ‘status quo’. Further, it had been argued that the church should be a sponsor of ‘Social Control’, inculcating defence of the State and its functions for the support of the population.
For the ‘Established Church’ there were internal worries: Ownership, structure and patronage, absenteeism amongst Vicars who could afford Curates; parochial income and stipends; poorly organised training for the priesthood; increasing questioning and The 1818 ‘Church Building Act’ allocated funds and empowered the ‘Church Building Commission’ to build churches in the great cities of the Industrial Revolution. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners, established 1836 by act of Parliament, were an essential factor in making the explosion of church-building of this period, possible. Their administrative powers, church property and income from the churches was supplemented clergy’s income.
In Blackpool, there had been a Church at All Hallows Bispham since 1100’s. Hutton’s 1817 ‘Description of Blackpool’ makes the observation that ‘There is no place of public worship. Bispham, the parish church, is the nearest. Neither could I learn that divine service was performed in any one of the rooms.’
Porter records: At this time Blackpool was not only without a church, but in the whole place there was no room where the inhabitants or visitors were accustomed to assemble together for divine worship’. Until 1821 when St John’s was built. Although plans had been laid by 1789 for a church, plans for funding it came to nothing. Small congregation met at a local Hotel with ministers from Poulton & Bispham, or occasionally a visiting Vicar officiating.
In the period 1840-1940, we know that 110+ churches were built, with the peak building taking place between 1890 and 1920. The numbers reveal recognition of need between 1840 and 1860, with only 2 churches built. Later, church building appears relatively meteoric, however it fails to keep up with the population and these are resident populations, they don’t take account of the visitor numbers and temporary residents, like those who were posted to Blackpool in both world wars.
A review of the various Blackpool Directories and & Guides for the period don’t add any light regarding numbers of church openings. Up to 1870 they show 5 or 6 of the main congregations in Blackpool. Perhaps a little more telling is the number of Councillors expressing a religious affiliation. 60% of Councillors at the time of the formation of Blackpool as a Borough in 1876 expressed affiliation, with the vast majority Church of England, perhaps recognising the need to keep the moderates and reformers out of power, to protect the interests of the town’s entrepreneurs.
The conclusion can be drawn that in spite of demand and an ‘Evangelical Revival’ the main focus of the bulk of the resident and visitor population was and remains fun and entertainment.
A table associated with this article, is available to download here. It gives details of the dates and range of church openings, together with sources of further information. There is some confusion resulting from some churches changing name and location, temporary structures, denominations sharing facilities, etc. There are also discrepancies between the range of sources, especially with reference to ‘establishment’, opening and building dates. Some information about building and opening dates and location has not been found, but the churches mentioned are all referred to within the sources.