Once again we are deeply grateful to Dr Jenny Freeman for submitting a suggestion for Chapel of the Month:
The Church stands like a beacon on the Fylde coast amid prosperous streets of substantial Edwardian houses, whose arrival heralded the need for a new church, now known as the White Church. The place name – Fairhaven – was an inspirational theme in its creation from the start.
Pinpointed by its tall, white faience campanile-style tower at the north-east corner, in part resembling a lighthouse, in part a lantern, the church reflects the vision and purpose of its creators. Today we witness a confident statement of religious certainty, which characterised that period of economic expansion just prior to 1911. But there are also deeper allusions in its presentation that reach back to early Christian churches and to the origins of Nonconformity. Like many Nonconformist churches it has not been given the attention it rightly deserves.
Fairhaven Congregational Church (later URC) reached completion in 1911. Briggs, Wolstenholme and Thornly of Blackburn were the architects, but the brilliant guiding hand behind its conception was Luke S Walmesley, an elder of the church and a stained glass designer from St Anne’s (whose family had long associations with the project). The church was designed deliberately as “the distinctive feature in the district”, distinguishable from others by its prominence, with gleaming white facades that memorably catch the seaside sunshine.
Its style is described as “Free Byzantine”, the plan form being that of a Greek Cross as adopted by the Eastern Roman Empire, with a typical domed crossing. Decorative treatment of Eastern churches often included mosaic, metalwork, embroidery and artwork depicting religious figures. These feature at Fairhaven, combined with the Western craft of pictorial stained glass. Walmesley’s involvement with the Arts and Crafts Movement was employed to great effect, uniting Christian history with contemporary methods and materials.
Interest in Byzantium and Byzantine Art had been exemplified by J F Bentley’s Westminster Cathedral with its tall campanile and shallow domes. Key exemplars such as the Church of St Sophia in Istanbul were influential. Knowledge of this, other churches and their furnishings had been intensified through foreign travel and photography. Architect Henry Wilson had, for instance, provided a Byzantine silver altar frontal for St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, in 1902. The poet W B Yeats wrote of the “Holy City of Byzantium” in his much-read, mystical poem Sailing to Byzantium. Later on, the Catholic architect F X Velarde was to be inspired by early Christian and Byzantine Art.
Externally, Fairhaven Church is surrounded by a lawned garden, open to all, bounded by a lowish wall with elaborated posts and iron gates. The slim tower over the main entrance is 90 feet high, its slender three-tier tower top pierced with openings and latticework, surmounted by a small dome and cross. The main body of the church has a shallow domed roof, smaller domed turrets occupying corners over each of two octagonal porches. The fourth is occupied by an organ chamber.
The walls between them are canted back, each filled with three arched glazed panels. Each gable above the porches is decorated with the distinctive Chrisma, originally the imperial device of the Byzantine Emperors and monogram of the name of Christ. The whole church is clothed in gleaming white Cerramo tiles made at the Middleton Fireclay Works in Leeds.
Internally, there is an airy uninterrupted space below the dome, with functional rooms around the perimeter reached through arched openings. On the walls behind these openings is extraordinary stained glass.
Luke Walmesley, with Charles Elliott of London, designed the glass, all executed by Abbot and Company of Lancaster. The windows “illustrate key moments in the unfolding story of the Old and New Testaments and the history of the Church before and after the Reformation”. They are divided into three parts, the largest, upper image of each group being the key component. The first deals with the lives of Moses and David and from there the life of Jesus. The Crucifixion at Calvary, the first Easter, the Ascension to Heaven and the Day of Pentecost are represented. Thence, events surrounding the Reformation are illustrated including the trial of John Wycliffe, dissident translator of the Bible, and William Tyndale, also translator and scholar, burnt to death at the stake.
Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley are depicted, martyred at the behest of Catholic Mary I. The Lord Protector and Arch-Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, features boldly with dissident Henry Barrowe and C18 Bishop John Robinson (who tried to unite the Swedish and Anglican churches). The Great Ejection of clergy from the Church of England is recorded. Pilgrim Fathers sail away in the Mayflower. Major figures of Nonconformity are represented by preacher John Bunyan, the poet John Milton and John Wesley, founder of Methodism, together with Congregationalist missionaries David Livingstone and William Carey. Isaac Watts represents hymn-writers. The whole forms an impressive panorama of religious struggle and indomitable individual conscience.
The size, scale and vivid pictorial impact of the glass has the huge benefit of reminding viewers how much is owed to early Protestant and Nonconformist ideals and how hard won have been the long battles for freer religious expression and beliefs. Today, Congregationalists (and the English Presbyterians with whom they united in 1972) embrace a wide variety of theological understandings with a belief in the value of personal convictions, equality and the brotherhood of all believers – looking, as church literature states, “to no council, assembly or synod to authorise and sanction their order of worship.”
The platform retains many original timber fittings including the Pulpit. This was once centrally placed but later moved to one side. Its memorable feature is the panel of beaten bronze, made by Walter Marsden at the suggestion of Luke Walmesley, and unveiled as a War Memorial in 1921. It depicts the winged figure of Truth cradling the body of a Fallen Warrior taken from the battlefield, together rising heavenward. In iconography and emotional impact the work is a significant memorial to the Great War, yet its visual dynamics also draw upon the decorated reliquaries of Early Byzantium.
There is much use of terrazzo, mosaic paving and embroidery created by the Ladies Sewing Circle of the congregation, including a Chrisma worked in gold thread for the pulpit fall.
The church was constructed embracing up-to-date technology for the heating and lighting. The dome, spanning over 30 feet, has a concrete shell roof, metal laths and steel beams. The fibrous plaster ceiling is suspended on wires.
- V. L. Atroshenko /Judith Collins, The Origins of the Romanesque, Lund Humphries, 1985
- Clare Hartwell and Nikolaus Pevsner, Buildings of England series, Lancashire: North, Yale, 2009
- Irmgard Hutter, Early Christian and Byzantine, Hobart Press, 1988
Dennis Hurlstone Mason, Fair Domes of Fairhaven: A History of the White Church, Fairhaven URC, 1990
- Various church guides and literature (anonymous)