11 June 2012

The Unloved Church: Christ Church

Christ Church stood from 1805 to 1899, but why was it demolished?.

The photograph pictures (what is today) Victoria Square in the 1890s, with the now demolished Christ Church dominating the scene. I am often asked how it is that some of the beautiful buildings that once lined Birmingham's streets were ever demolished, and with many, that is a hard question to answer. Many buildings simply outlived their use, they were too small, inconvenient or outdated. Christ Church was one such building that was no longer fit for use; it had originally served a thriving community, and had been the first free church in Birmingham, offering free seats to the poor. Towards the last quarter of the nineteenth century though, those people that had lived near the church began moving out to the newly formed suburbs. Between the years of 1871 and 1896, the population of Christ Church's parish decreased from 6,636 to 2,500,* and the area became filled with more and more uninhabited shops and offices. The church had served a community, but now that the community was leaving, the church was obsolete. It is not a co-incidence that many churches were built at the same time in the suburbs, as were being demolished in the centre of town, in fact, the proceeds of the sale of Christ Church went to building St. Agatha’s in Sparkbrook, which still stands.* The land that Christ Church sat on was just more valuable as an office and retail complex, which it became, than as a church.

But there is more to the story of Christ Church's demolition. The church was never particularly liked, it was described by one observer as 'ungraceful in its form' and in general 'bad in its whole effect'.* Eliezer Edwards did not hold back, calling the edifice an 'excrescence' which 'disfigures the very finest site in the town'.* Building had begun in 1805, but the church was not completed until 1815 due to difficulty in finding funds. The original design was probably by William Hollins, and had been for the church to have a dome and cupola, similar to St. Philip’s, but he only completed the base (without the portico), sometime in 1813. In 1815 the £1500 Gothic spire** with a single bell was added by John Richardson*, a stone mason from Handsworth, which for some sat unhappily on Hollins's Neoclassical base. In the same year the £1200 classical front portico with its four Doric columns was also added, again by Richardson.* This hodge-podge of styles from different builders and architects arising from the slow process of its building did not set it out as an architectural beauty, and no-one seemed to mourn its demolition in 1899.

* References on request.
**  The clock was added by Samuel Allport in 1816.*
Illustration copyright Jenni Coles-Harris 2012

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