St John’s Parish Church – The Early Years

The original St John's church in 1865, Albert Eden Collection

The first St John’s Church, built in 1821, was an episcopal chapel as a perpetual curacy attached to Bispham Parish Church and dedicated to St John the Evangelist. Costing £1070.0.5d, it was built with bricks moulded from clay from a brickcroft situated near the Metropole Hotel. The church was described as a “plain brick edifice with a low embattled tower and destitute of any architectural beauty.” It was consecrated by George Henry Law, the Bishop of Chester, on 6th July 1821.

The first burial, which took place on 14th October 1822, was that of John Butcher, aged 3 days!

In 1851 a stained glass window in memory of Henry Banks was installed. The window can still be seen today in the West Gable of the present church. (The Banks family were early pioneers of the resort).

In 1860 St John’s became the parish church of Blackpool. An organ worked by gas was installed in 1870. The churchyard was closed to burials in 1873 when Layton Cemetery was completed.

Due to rapid expansion of the resort, the original church was demolished to make way for the present St John’s. During the transition, services were held in the Octagon Room, Talbot Square (formerly Yates’s Wine Lodge).

The new St John's in 1925, Albert Eden Collection

On 11th July 1877 the Mayor of Blackpool, Dr William Henry Cocker, laid the foundation stone of the new church. He also contributed the sum of £1000 to the total building cost of £13,675 7s 4d. The ceremonial trowel and foundation stone can still be seen today.

The new church designed by architects Garlick, Park and Sykes was completed in 1878, built of brick and faced with yellow stone in an early English style. It was consecrated on 25th June 1878 by the Bishop of Manchester, the RT Rev James Fraser. Electric lighting was installed in 1915. Also in the same year heavy breathing was heard in the church grounds (eerie!) On investigation by fearless church parishioners, it turned out to be gas escaping from the engine used to power the organ.

In 1924 the corporation obtained the burial ground for road widening. As part of the agreement, the church was granted the right and easement in perpetuity of converting in the area an open space forever. The area is cordoned off on one day of the year, usually Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, in respect of the continued open space. Silver studs can be seen in the paving which mark the original boundary of the burial ground. The remains of 344 bodies were exhumed and re-interred in Layton Cemetery. Their names are recorded on the raised memorial stone by Cedar Square. However, the Cocker and Thornber graves remain intact.

From 1829 until 1845 the incumbent of St John’s Church was the Rev William Thornber. William was a notorious drinking and fighting curate – well known for his pugilistic tendencies. However, he was a noted historian of some repute and his graphic history of Blackpool published in 1837 made him more friends since his death than enemies during his lifetime. After having resigned in 1845, his turbulent career came to a sad and sorry end in 1885 when he died aged 82 under care in a private asylum in Stafford. His grave remains to this day at the east end of St John’s Church.

After 100 years of use the church was in need of repair, and restoration work was carried out in 1986. Further renovation took place between 2000 and 2006 at a cost of £1.6 million. A community and conference centre was built, as well as a dedicated area for the homelessness charity Street Life.

The current vicar is Rev Steve Haskett, who started his post on the 22nd February 2017. The parish is within the diocese of Blackburn, which is within the ecclesiastical province of York. It is the archdeaconry of Lancaster and the deanery of Blackpool. The church is part of the Heritage Open Days programme every September, opening its doors for members of the public to enjoy tours and demonstrations free of charge.

St John’s was designated a grade ll listed building on 20th October 1983.

Barry Shaw

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