The origins of the parish
The ancient parish church of Liverpool was St Mary’s Walton on the Hill, 3 miles (5km) from the present location. In 1699 Liverpool, with a population of less than 5000, was created an independent parish with two churches: Our Lady and St Nicholas (often called the ‘Old Church’ or St Nicholas) and a new parish church of St Peter. The new parish had the highly unusual arrangement of having two Rectors, who were to be of equal status and to preach alternately in both the churches. By 1734 St. George's the first of many daughter churches, had been built and by 1865 there were 27 in the area of the parish. These have gradually been closed and demolished and since 1916 Our Lady and St Nicholas has been the Parish Church of Liverpool. St Peter’s, which stood in Church Street, was demolished in 1922 after serving since 1885 as the pro-cathedral.
The origins of the church
The story begins in the 13th century. Liverpool received its charter from King John in 1207; by 1257 a small chapel known as the Chapel of St. Mary del Key can be inferred. It probably stood close to the site of the present tower overlooking the waterfront of the River Mersey. During the Middle Ages the town grew slowly as both a market town and a port principally engaged in trade with Ireland. In the years 1355-61 a new chapel, dedicated to St Mary and St Nicholas, was built on land granted to the burgesses by John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. The new chapel was begun c1355 -61, located adjacent to the old chapel. It was dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. During a plague in the town in 1361, the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry (whose diocese then included North-west England) licensed the burial ground, and the following year the chapel itself was consecrated.
The early modern period
During the later Middle Ages the town of Liverpool grew and prospered slowly; in the late 15th century the church doubled its size with the addition of an aisle and three chantry altars which were established, each with its own priest – all paid for by a wealthy patron for whose soul he was to pray. In 1515 a fourth chantry was founded and a school established by the Crosse family of Cross Hall. Chantries were abolished at the Reformation and the building was gradually adapted to Protestant forms of worship. Between 1673 and 1718 the building was further extended piecemeal and galleries were built to house the increasing population. Among the innovations was a pew for the choir (1695) which is the first recorded example in Britain. In 1746 a spire was added to the tower to increase its use as a navigational mark for shipping.
Rebuilding the church
By 1775 the pressure of the rapidly growing population of Liverpool and the decayed state of the building forced the decision to rebuild the church. However, the number of private family pews whose owners resisted any change was such that the parish took the startling decision to rebuild leaving the existing pews and galleries in situ. The style of the new building was an undistinguished Georgian Gothick and the interior was adapted to comply with this. The new roof was supported by classical columns set on the medieval bases. Though slightly larger, the new church followed the lines of the old building.
The only portion of the church untouched was the tower, now carrying the weight of its wooden spire. The movement of the tower and the weakened state of the masonry gave rise to concern, but no decisive action was taken. On Sunday11 February 1810, as the bells were ringing and the people assembling for morning service the steeple crashed into the nave killing 25 people and injuring as many again. Twenty-one of the casualties were girls from the Charity School in Moorfields. There was much discussion about the steps to be taken, including suggestions that the damaged church should be abandoned or rebuilt in its entirety. Eventually the contract for the design of a new tower was given to Thomas Harrison of Chester. The new tower was built on a slightly different site and in the rebuilding, the remains of the old chapel of St Mary del Key, which had served as a school, a boat house and a tavern, were demolished.
There were alterations to accommodate liturgical changes, notably in 1851-52, when the church joined the popular High Church movement. On the creation of the Diocese of Liverpool in 1885 and the appointment by Disraeli of an Evangelical Bishop, John Charles Ryle, it was perceived that the High Church movement in Liverpool would be overwhelmed. Disraeli's great antagonist W. E. Gladstone, himself a Liverpool man, bought the patronage of the living from the Corporation to ensure the appointment of Anglo-Catholic clergy. The patronage remains in the hands of the Gladstone family.
Disaster strikes again
From 1815 until 1927 the building was little changed but in that year an administrative block, which now includes the Parish Centre, was added. In 1940 on 21 December the church was hit by incendiary bombs during an air raid and in the blaze which followed, the church was destroyed. Only the tower and the administrative block were unscathed. A great many interesting memorials to individuals and families important in the early history of Liverpool were lost, along with a set of stained glass windows, many of which also had historical links. Throughout the war worship continued in the ruins and in a series of temporary buildings erected on the site.
The church today
Largely due to the initiative of the congregation the building of the new church began in March 1949: it was consecrated on the Feast of St Luke (18 October) 1952. In 1993 a major re-organisation of the administrative block was undertaken to install a lift, improve refectory facilities and access for visitors with physical impairment. At the same time the chapel in the north aisle was reordered to become the Maritime Memorial Chapel and the great statue by Arthur Dooley of the Virgin of the Key was installed. A team ministry of three clergy was established in 1990 but changes in the availability of clergy and the demographic profile of the parish led to the suspension of living from 2002 until 2006 when the parish of Our Lady and St Nicholas was established and the freehold vested in the Rector.