Back in the 19th century two local brothers, Nathaniel and Thomas Greenhalgh who had made a large fortune in the cotton spinning industry, were determined that some of their wealth should go towards improving the spiritual and moral welfare of the people living and working in the industrial sprawl on the outskirts of Bolton. Being fervent members of the evangelical wing of the Church of England they decided to build a school and a church on land they owned off the main road running north from the town centre, and though Nathaniel died in 1877 at the age of 60 Thomas decided to proceed with the scheme in his memory and work started on the school that same year.
In 1878 the architects Paley and Austin of Lancaster were appointed to design the church, with Thomas Greenhalgh’s remit being that the building should be without interior obstructions so that everyone could see and hear the sermon, and there should be no uncomfortable draughts for people to catch colds. Work on the Gothic Revival-style church started that same year though it was entirely without ceremony as Greenhalgh didn’t want the pomp of laying an official foundation stone; the contractors were Cordingley & Stopford of Manchester and the total cost of the build was £20,000, the equivalent of almost £2.4 million at today’s prices. The new church was consecrated by Bishop Fraser of Manchester on June 30th 1881 and the first vicar was the Reverend William Popplewell.
Built of locally made red brick with Longridge stone being used for the external dressings and Stourton stone inside, the church has a north porch and a west door, a small octagonal turret on the north side and a west tower 26ft square. The roofs were covered in Westmorland slate and at one time the tower had a weather vane bearing the date 1881 but unfortunately this was blown off during a storm in 1952 and was never replaced.
Thomas Greenhalgh’s remit that the church interior should be without obstructions produced a large nave 52ft wide and 86ft long with just one central aisle, and a chancel measuring 40ft x 25ft. The high vaulted roof and the panelling of the nave walls were made of pitch pine, as were the original pews which could seat 800 people. The pulpit, lectern, reading desk, choir stalls, altar and communion rails were all designed by Paley and Austin and made of oak.
The church was originally lit by twelve gas pendants then in 1929 electric lighting was introduced, with electric blowers being added to the organ at the same time. The organ itself was built by Abbott of Leeds in 1880 from a specification prepared by S W Pilling of Bolton, with extensive overhauls being carried out in 1959 and again in the 1970s by Peter Wood of Huddersfield. The case, again designed by Paley and Austin, was made of Danzig oak.
The chancel floor is made up of white marble with inlays of Dent black marble, which isn’t true marble but a black crinoidal limestone found in certain areas of Dentdale and quarried during the late 18th century. With its amazing quantity of embedded fossil remains it became known as Dent Marble and was, at one time, very much sought after.
The reredos was designed by John Roddis of Birmingham, sculpted from Mansfield stone and made up of a series of panels containing the Apostles’ Creed, the Decalogue and the Lord’s Prayer, while the large font near the west door was also designed by John Roddis and sculpted from Mansfield stone. In later years an oak font cover was added which was paid for by public subscription in 1930 and dedicated to William Popplewell, the church’s first vicar. The inscription on the plaque reads “To the glory of God and in loving memory of the Rev’d William Popplewell, first vicar of this parish 1879 – 1923”
The eastern windows of the chancel were all made by Clayton & Bell of London and date from the building of the church. Clayton & Bell was one of the most prolific and proficient English stained glass workshops during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, well known for their use of exceptionally bright primary colours. The company was founded in 1855 and continued until 1993 with their windows being found throughout the UK and in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The windows in All Souls were given in memory of Nathaniel Greenhalgh and show scenes from the New Testament including several from The Acts of the Apostles, all with the relevant quotation below them.
Fast forward through the years and what had once been a large congregation gradually dwindled over time and by the time the church celebrated its centenary in 1981 it was becoming obvious that the building had major problems. From the 1940s there had been several outbreaks of dry rot and in later years vandalism was rife – in 1970 the stained glass windows in the tower were removed after being badly damaged. They had been made by Shrigley and Hunt and had depicted the six days of the Creation but they were replaced with plain glass containing a cross in the upper part of the central light.
In 1986 it was stated that over 80% of the area’s population were of Asian origin with most being Muslims and with the small congregation unable to meet the parish’s financial commitments closure of the church was inevitable; the last service was held there on December 28th that same year. To avoid All Souls suffering the same fate as its sister church, which had been in another area of the town and was demolished in 1975, in June 1987 the church was vested in the Redundant Churches Fund, now known as the Churches Conservation Trust. Since then the Trust has undertaken several major repairs to the fabric of the building including eradicating the dry rot and pointing the brickwork.
In 2007 a local resident, Inayat Omarji, who had lived in the area all his life, recognised the church’s potential to be a community, events and business centre and after gathering support and financial backing for its regeneration a rescue plan was developed in partnership with the Churches Conservation Trust. Renovation and restoration work began in September 2013 and was completed in November 2014, with the doors finally reopening to the public on December 6th that year.
Because the inside of the church had been originally designed without pillars or aisles it was very adaptable to its new purpose as an events and community space. The philosophy of the restoration was to preserve the original beauty of the church while incorporating the very best of contemporary design and the interior now features two connected 3-storey ‘pods’ which are independent of the main building and touch neither the sides nor the roof of it. The newly designed interior provides an events space in the main body of the church for heritage and community activity, a ground floor coffee shop, a history wall, office space and five meeting rooms, while the chancel and all its original features remain intact. The building is still consecrated as a church and weddings can still be held there with the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In spite of All Souls being only a mile from home I’d never actually been in there, either in the past or in more recent years, however I visited a couple of weeks ago on one of the Heritage Open Days – and I have to say that what you see on the inside is definitely not what you would expect to see from the outside.
After spending some time wandering round taking photos and reading various bits of information on the history wall I sat down to listen to a very interesting talk on the history of the church given by Suzanne, one of the community workers, then I had the opportunity to climb the tower steps up onto the roof, stopping a couple of times on the way up to look down into the main body of the church.
The tower is 117ft high with a narrow spiral stone staircase of 180 steps and a ring of eight bells cast in 1880 by J Taylor & Co. of Loughborough. The tenor bell alone weighs over 23cwt (1160kg) with the whole ring of eight weighing a total of 90cwt (4570kg). Going up the staircase was certainly a test of heart and lung capacity, though with no handrail or rope to hold onto coming back down was more a test of nerve and definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The strenuous climb up the tower steps was certainly worth it as I was rewarded with 360 degree views and I could see for miles in all directions; the weather was glorious and I got several good shots looking over the immediate area and beyond, with the high-rises of Manchester city centre on the horizon.
Back at ground level I had another wander round to catch up on anything I’d previously missed – and I still didn’t manage to see or read everything – then it was time to go as it was almost closing time. I’d been there for over two hours and it was certainly time well spent – I’d learnt something of the history of All Souls and it had been interesting to see the modern ‘building within a building’. The church is open every weekday so who knows, I may very well be tempted to pop in sometime when I’m passing to sample their coffee and cake.