Our History

Woolston and Woolston Hall


Woolston, three miles east of Warrington on the high road to Manchester, received its name from the first lords of the manor.  It is a derivation of "sons of the wolf", and first appears in a charter dated about 1180. 


Domestically, Woolston was described as "fertile" yielding good crops of potatoes, turnips, oats, wheat and clover, with its marshy corners devoted to the cultivation of osiers for the manufacture of potato-hampers.  Its inhabitants were employed entirely in agricultural labour and basket making.


An account of Woolston Hall can be found in Alderman Bennett's book on the old halls around Warrington.  In this book we are told that the hall stood isolated among fields, and that it was eventually demolished only in 1947.  In that same year, some timber from the priest's landing was made into candlesticks and presented to St Peter's in Woolston.


In the 15th century the manor was acquired by John Hawarden of Hawarden in Flintshire through his marriage to Annabel, daughter and sole heiress of Hugh Woolston of Woolston Hall.  The Hawardens were one of the leading families in the country and for six generations the hall remained in that catholic family until the marriage of Elizabeth, daughter of Adam Hawarden, and  Alexander Standish of Standish in August 1574. Elizabeth had inherited the hall as her share of the Woolston estate upon the death of her father. Her sister Sybil inherited the rest of the estate and she married Hugh Adlington. The descendants of Elizabeth and Alexander Standish retained the hall in the Standish family until 1870 when the hall was sold.


Catholicism in Woolston


In 1588 Woolston Hall was subjected to a rigorous search and both Adam Hawarden  and his wife were reported as recusants and harbourers of seminary priests. They were reported as spies for harbouring John Nichols, a seminary priest. Along with James Gardner, they were reported as having been educated as schoolmasters and they were also known to be priests. These priests, and many others were constantly found traveling to and fro attending to the spiritual needs of the catholics in the neighbourhood and across the county. They regularly said mass at Crosby Hall and the Wood in Melling where they met the Blundells, Molyneux and other high ranking families in the area.


From 1677 to 1831 a series of Catholic priests resided at Woolston Hall, all of whom were English Benedictines. The hall was turned into a farm house but was in very good condition. A chapel had been built in the top storey the three storey building. According to tradition, the chapel of the hall was hidden away in the eaves, but was subsequently moved to a barn.  It was in 1694 that William Standish was relieved of some of his lands after a debacle of some £1200 which was supposed to be given by his wife to the Franciscans, one of many such allegations against the Lancashire catholics and so the hall and it's chapel became permanently served by a series of Benedictine monks. By the beginning of the 19th century the chapel occupied an outhouse and was marked on contemporary maps as a Catholic chapel.


The Benedictines

The first monk was Dom Ralph Jerome Wilson a Yorkshireman who was ordained in 1677 and arrived in Woolston shortly afterwards. For a time, in 1703, he temporarily served :Broughton Hall, co. York, the seat of theTempests, but this was probably for a change, or due to some local persecution that ren­dered  an  absence from  Woolston  advisable. Anyhow,  he  served  here with  this  brief  interval  till  his death. Fr. Wilson was succeeded at Woolston by:


Dom Richard Anselm Walmesiey, O.S.B., son of Richard Walmsley,  of  Sholley  Hall, by  Jane,  daughter  of  John Hoghton,  of  Park Hall, in Charnock  Richard, Esq, who  came to the mission from  St. Laurence's, Dieulward,  and served Woolston till just before  his death  at  Ormskirk,  May  5th,  according  to the  Walmesley pedigree,  but May 12th according to the Benedictine  Necrology  in 1735. During Fr. Walmsley's administration, Bishop Williams confirmed a number of the Woolston the Woolston  congregation  at Woolston  Hall in  October,  1728. He was  succeeded  by: 


Dom Thomas Benedict Shuttleworth, O.S.B., son of Richard Shuttleworth, of Shuttleworth House, Bedford.  Though born in London, he resided  at  Woolston  from  1735-I771 , and  died  at Warrington  in  1774.


Dom John Thomas Turner, O.S.B., 1771-1779, who commenced the registers Nov. 10, 1771. In June, 1774, Bishop William Walton confirmed 53 persons in the chapel at the hall. The first Baptismal Register, commenced in 1771 by Dom. Thomas Turner, extends to 1834.  Among its entries the name Caldwell occurs 80 times; the name Gatley appears early and persists to the present; the name of Briggs with twelve entries is not without interest.  The most prolific of all were the Hankinsons, and in fact the first Register begins and ends with this family.  They arrived from the Fylde about 1723, and. one of their number, R.R. Michael Adrian Hankinson, O.S.B. (1817-1870), became Prior of Douai, and in 1863 Bishop of Port Louis Mauritius.  Gillow described him as a happy mixture of firmness and affability, and gave vivid accounts of the epidemics and hurricane that tormented his episcopal career.


In November 1777 the Warrington magistrates heard that "the children of Papists are often christened in their own house or taken to Woolston Hall.”  One specifically accused was Joseph Caldwell, a member of a famous local Catholic family.  His ancestor, William Caldwell of Woolston, was reported in 1717 as a "reed maker and papist".  Another kinsman, Gervase Caldwell, who died in 1760 aged 84 years, kept a school in his thatched cottage.  A direct descendant Miss Edith Caldwell died in January 1983 aged 95 years, and is buried in St. Peter's graveyard. 


Dom. John Turner (1764-1844) also gave Woolston as his place of birth on entry to St. Gregory's, Paris in 1784.  He was ordained in 1790, imprisoned during the French Revolution, but was spared for a long missionary career at Holme Hall, Yorkshire from 1815 to 1843.  Honoured with the ancient title, Prior of Worcester, he died in retirement at Ampleforth Monastery. 


Dom James Maurus Chaplin, O.S:B., 1779-1783. On Feb. 3, 1783, the communicants in the congregation were returned at 100, but at that date the new incumbent had not arrived.


Dom William Clement  Grimbaldeston,  O.S.B.,  1783,  till  death, Oct. 17, I824, aged 72. On Oct.29, 1784, Bishop  Matthew  Gibson made his visitation at 'Woolston, and there were 30 recipients of con­firmation, and 75  communicants.

From the History of Lancashire and Cheshire
From the History of Lancashire and Cheshire

Dom Richard Marsh, O.S.B., D.D., came in 1826, no priest having been appointed meanwhile, though the chapel was occasionally supplied from elsewhere.   When Fr. Marsh (1762-1843) arrived at Woolston in 1826 he carried a formidable reputation.  As a young monk he had swum the Moselle to escape the Reign of Terror; he had later argued for compensation for exiled religious communities with hostile republicans; he had pleaded his own case in Rome when in conflict with his Benedictine brethren; he had been Prior both of Ampleforth and Douai; and his name had been on the Terna that elected Bishop Baines in 1823


From the outset he advocated the separation of the mission from the dependence on any one family.  In this he was not without reason, because, after the opening of St. Alban's Warrington in November 1823, Mr. Charles  Standish,  of Standish Hall, the owner of Woolston, had said that he saw no need of a chapel at Woolston, as the people were not too far from Warrington. Therefore, shortly after his arrival Fr. Marsh issued a circular, in which it was stated that the  chapels  at  Woolston  Hall  and Rixton Hall were in imminent danger of becoming extinct. Woolston had been more  than  two  vears  without  a missioner,  and Rixton  had  been  in a similar  strait for more  than six years. Rixton, 6 miles distant, had been acquired, through marriage with the heiress of the Mascys by the Tempests of Broughton Hall, who offered to sell the site of the old chapel on reasonable terms. Bishop Penswick in August, 1828, handed over to Dr. Marsh the sum of £500, part of a fund of £800, towards the purchase of the land and buildings at Rixton, with the obligation  of  its remaining  applicable to the mission at Rixton, whether served by Benedictines or others, and Dr. Marsh accepted this condition under date Woolston, 20 of August, 1828. In the followingyear Dr. Marsh went to Rome, and after his return, in 1830 or 1831 , and to everyone's dismay, it was announced that the new chapel would not be at Woolston, where most of the Catholics lived, but miles away on the edge of Rixton Moss. in this way he united the Woolston congregation with that at Rixton, where he erected a handsome chapel and convenient presbytery. The chapel was  dedicated to St. Michael, being opened on Easter Monday, 1832. The last Mass  was said in the old chapel at Woolston on Nov . 19, and the seats were removed to the new chapel at Rixton over the following two days in 1832.


So as can be seen from the information above, three of the Vicars Apostolic gave Confirmation at Woolston Hall: Bishop Petre in 1755 confirmed 41 persons, Bishop Walton in 1774, 53 persons, and Bishop Gibson in 1784, 135 persons. One of the Benedictine monks eventually restored Catholic life in Warrington, one commenced the Woolston Registers, one was removed to the Abbey of Lambspring following a charge of scandalous behaviour, and placed in solitary confinement, while yet another was of such interest as to merit much wider knowledge. 

Ambrose Edward Barlow (1585 - 1641)
Ambrose Edward Barlow (1585 - 1641)

Historically, we have a strong local connection with the English Benedictine monks. One such connection, which also gave us a connection with the English Martyrs, was through St. Ambrose Barlow (image alongside) who was born near Manchester and had relatives hereabouts.  After ordination and upon returning from Spain, he served the Catholic community from Astley.


One of Father Ambrose relatives (nephew) was Edward Booth, who secured a place in the National Dictionary of Biography on account of his expertise as a maker of watches and clocks. He assumed the name Barlow after his uncle, and was ordained priest at The English College Lisbon.  After ordination he served the mission at Park Hall, Chorley but his chief employment was attending the poor in the neighbourhood, "to whom he conformed himself both in dress and diet." He died in 1719 at the age of eighty. His published works varied from 'Meteorological Essays' to 'A Treatise of the Eucharist' and included a complete Survey of the Tides around the British coastline.

Catholicism in Rixton

Rixton was not without a Catholic tradition.  For two hundred years the Massey family at Rixton Hall had afforded shelter for mass to be offered secretly, as well as giving it's children to religion.  Fr. Thomas Massey, S.J. came to the English mission in 1647 and his sister, two aunts and two nieces, went abroad to become nuns.  The famous Returns of 1767 numbered Papists in Rixton as 41, and a letter from the Vicar Apostolic in 1825 complained about the neglect of the Rixton mission.  Technically it was the responsibility of the Jesuits at Culcheth, but they had handed over to a French émigré, Fr. Lewis Richbeque, who was then occupied in removing the location to Croft.


The reason for the out of the way siting of the Rixton chapel is explained by Dr. Marsh's insistence that it should be, as far as it was possible, half-way between its neighbours at Warrington and Barton-on-Irwell.  St. Michael's Rixton was opened on Easter Monday 1832 with the Vicar Apostolic presiding, a choir from Liverpool assisted and an air of rejoicing prevailed.  


St. Michael's Rixton
St. Michael's Rixton

St. Michael's consisted of a house and chapel beneath the same roof.  No architect is known, but it is so similar to that at Aberford where Dr. Marsh had supplied as a young priest, that some believe he designed it himself, a task not beyond his capabilities.  The chapel was a rectangular room, with three many-paned windows facing southwards with three empty awnings opposite.  There was a gilded wooden altar and a rear gallery on the parapet of which was inscribed the words of the Psalmist "In Thee My God Have I Hoped". Some of the old pictures from Woolston Hall hung in this gallery; otherwise all was quite unpretentious and economical. 


In 1838 Dr. Marsh was given the ancient title of Abbot of Westminster, and although he had been provincial from 1806 to 1822, and President-General of the Benedictine Congregation from 1822 to 1826, and again in 1837, he remained faithful to his remote congregation at Rixton, and died there on the 23rd February 1843.  After his death, his Benedictine successors at Rixton numbered four, and spanned another twenty one years.


A request was then made to Bishop Goss to allow Rixton to be served from Warrington, but this was firmly refused and the mission was transferred to the secular clergy.  The number of parishioners remained extremely few; 16 in 1887, 18 in 1897, 26 in 1914.  When Bishop Goss administered Confirmation there in 1857 there were two children only (both of them Hankinsons), and two more in 1861.

Edward Statham and the Woolston Catholics

Meanwhile, Woolston Hall having been abandoned by the Bene­dictines, the Woolston Catholics were furious at the distance they had to travel and threatened to separate themselves, which they did. Providence stood ready, with not one hand, but with two, to assist the dispossessed Woolston Catholics.  On the one hand a pious wealthy layman, and on the other an influential ecclesiastic, Edward Statham was born in Warrington in 1767 and, his long life of 81 years was predominated by two factors; an aptitude for business that earned him a fortune, and consuming love of the Catholic faith.  He kept a haberdashery shop in Elliot Street, Liverpool, and owned much property throughout South Lancashire, including a farm at Woolston.  Called the Marledfield, it was managed for him by the two brothers James and Henry Hankinson.  (A third brother was baptised Edward Statham Hankinson).  Mr. Statham promised that if the Vicar Apostolic agreed, he would build a church for the Woolston Catholics.  Bishop Pens wick was old and failing, but his young co-adjutor, Bishop John Briggs had an immediate interest and promised to secure them a priest (A full list of parish priests for St. Peter and St. Michael can be found here.)  Bishop John Briggs was born in the neighbouring parish of Barton-on-Irwell in 1788.  His family owned lands all along the Mersey almost to Warrington.  There were numerous relatives and as has been stated the first Woolston Baptismal Register contains twelve entries under this same name.  While the Bishop was a seminarist his father died and his other re-married one of the Hankinson brothers.  As a priest John Briggs had served the Catholics of Chester, being elevated to the episcopate in 1833.


In Edward Statham's journal we read; "17 January 1833 Mr. Briggs was at my house in Woolston".  "22 February I was at his house at Chester."  “27 February …..  sent him a long letter.” As a result of this communication the Bishop decided to re-establish the mission in Woolston, and the foundation-stone of a new chapel dedicated to St. Peter was laid by Edward Statham, Esq., in February 1834, and  opened  July 2, 1835, by Bishop Briggs. Many Protestants in the neighbourhood generously contributing to the cost of the building. 


The outcome of the "long letter" was the building of St. Peter's Woolston. 

St. Peter's Church Woolston

Mr. Statham handled all the legal and business transactions himself, and nothing escaped his observations from the provision of spare lamp glasses, to the reservation of his own grave in the churchyard.  But he would never disclose how much he actually spent.  His friend, John Smith of Liverpool was the architect though Edward Statham designed the windows himself.  They contain 1765 separate pieces of glass, and his journal contains a sketch of one drawn in his own hand.  The choice of dedication was his and the story is told in the second window on the West Wall of the church where St. Edward the Confessor is depicted placing his royal foundation, Westminster Abbey, under the patronage of St. Peter.


Mr. Statham's private pew was beside the window with the depiction of St. Edward the Confessor in the second row centre on the right hand side.  The foundation stone was laid by Mr. Statham himself on the 19th February 1834 and the church was opened on the 2nd July 1835 with Bishop Briggs presiding and Fr. James Crook offering the first Mass.

 *** The original altar, in use until 1947, was flanked by portraits of SS. Peter and Paul by Henry Taylor Bulmer of Preston, whose ''Adoration of the Magi" can still be seen at Upholland College. Originally, there was a wooden altar sitting atop three wooden steps and a wooden carved pulpit on the gospel side of the altar. The lady altar was also wooden and statues of the Sacred Heart and St. Joseph sat on marble pillars on either side of the main altar. Around the alter were carved wooden altar rails to which was attached a linen cloth which was used when the congregation received Holy Communion. There was a beautiful sanctuary lamp suspended from the ceiling, but this was eventually taken down. There were two  brass oil lamps (since disappeared), one on each side of the church and these and the altar candles were the only means of light until electricity was installed in the church.


The wooden kneelers were always bare  until Fr. Neligan had them padded. Some parishioners paid 'bench rent'  and had their own kneelers and cushions. The original bare wooden floor was covered with linoleum prior to which the floor was scrubbed twice a year by the village women. The organ originally sat in the gallery of the church and had to be pumped with a wooden handle. The bell rope, still in its original position to this day, was tolled half an hour before Mass and then again five minutes before.


Hopefully you can see that the basic shape hasn't changed, however, the communion rail has long gone, the Lady altar, has long gone, the confessional (extra door on the left of the altar), and the wall mouldings / portraits mentioned above, are also long gone. Fascinating to see what the sanctuary used to look like shortly after our church was built and prior to the marble walling that was seen in the book of the 150 year celebration and in the picture below. For comparison, the picture from that celebration booklet in 1985, showed the sanctuary as it was before re-order with the marble walls and the addition of the large mosaics which are now a feature of our church. Stark contrast indeed. The church bell, which remains in beautiful tone to this day, weighed in at 133 lbs and has the inscription "Ruddell fecit 1834".


Of the families originally associated with St. Peter's mention must be made of the Norris's who farmed at Martinscroft.  Rachael Norris who was born in 1750 and was buried in the present graveyard in 1849, must have witnessed every aspect of this history, from worshipping by stealth at the Hall to the realisation of Edward Statham's generosity.  Mary Aloysia Norris became an Ursuline nun at Bristol, and a letter of hers dated 23rd June 1834 despatches "vestments and linen for the Woolston mission only".  Another hand has added "Dr. Marsh took all ours to Rixton".  From Orford came Ellen Atherton, a most faithful attender until her death in 1856.  Other names include Barlow, Brimilow, Dumbill, Lyons, Marsh, Massey, Talbot and Winstanley.


From Lymm came Dr. William Brigham who attempted to found a mission there.  After 1850, Cheshire was in the new diocese of Shrewsbury but the priest at Woolston had faculties there and, after saying his own Mass he was rowed across the Mersey to duplicate for the Lymm congregation.  The venture died with Dr. Brigham and it was not until 1905 that Lymm became a Mass centre again.  In the 1970's there were people who remembered the Cheshire Catholics of the late 19th century, not only crossing the river by boat for Sunday Mass at St. Peter's, but on fine summer evenings coming for Benediction too. 

Mention must also be made of Edward Statham's cousin Fr. Edward Kenyon, who is buried in the graveyard.  He ministered for many years in his native town of Manchester and later at Pleasington Priory.  He retired to Woolston where he died on the 13th October 1837 aged 77 years.  The backgammon table that he made for himself in his youth is still in the presbytery, but the portrait of Edward Statham himself, listed in an inventory of 1888, has unfortunately vanished beyond trace.


Between 1909 and 1912 the church was re-benched and marbled, with new Stations of the Cross and decorative mosaics being erected.  The mosaics were donated by families or individual parishioners as were the larger pictures and two of the smaller ones. The mosaic of the apostles in the fishing boat however, was added in 1947 at the same time as the completion of the sanctuary, the installation of a new high altar in Italian marble, and a new lady altar installation. On account of dampness the original soft red brick exterior walls were refaced with a sturdy white dressing in 1974.


Time was when St. Peter's was a secluded building on the bend of a country lane and made picturesque by a row of soaring poplars at the west end.  Parish activity was centred around a number of large events one of which was Sermon Sunday, usually in October, when the harvest was safely in. Relatives and friends from other parishes were invited, expected to contribute generously, and then given a special tea in the homes where news and gossip were freely exchanged. A special preacher was always invited and expected to give a good, rousing sermon! the ladies endeavoured to at least have a new hat for the occasion! At Mass, the schoolchildren always sat together in the front left-hand benches and teachers sat behind them to ensure good behaviour. Adults went to communion first, and children next. for many years nothing seems to change much but after Fr. Ainscough and Miss Millea (head teacher) change became much more rapid.


The advance of suburbs has surrounded the church with many new houses, small farms have disappeared, the school demolished and replaced with a new one (twice) and the advent of the car became an event in itself when people turned up to church in their new iron horse!


From a population of one hundred and eighty six in the days of Mr Statham and Bishop Briggs, St. Peter's numbered over thirteen hundred parishioners in 1985. 


In 1975 St. Michael’s in Rixton was suppressed, and its title added to that of St. Peter's Woolston.  St. Peter and St. Michael's was born!  Abbot Marsh's chapel was sold and converted into a private household.

At the beginning of 1985 the church was decorated and reordered according to the liturgical requirements of Vatican Council II, with a porch added at the back.  This work was carried out by the main contractors McGoff & Byrne Ltd of Sale, Cheshire.  The marble used for the altar, tabernacle support, and lectern is Italian Botticino, and the wood in the sanctuary area is Japanese Oak.  This work was executed by Ormsby of Scarisbrick.  Before the old altar was dismantled the papal motif was carefully removed and fitted into a wood and brass surround.  This is now mounted at the entrance to St. Peter's school in Hillock Lane. At the same time, an embroidered panel was commissioned and the details of this exquisite piece can be found here or in the tab under Our Home.


The reorder undertaken in 1985 is, save for some decoration and the odd tabernacle change or so, the church we see today. 


(*** with thanks to Cecilia Chamberlain and family for the memories of what it was like to be a parishioner at St. Peter's - words taken from the 150-year celebration booklet produced in 1985.)