St. Mary’s Church, Wigton

The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Wigton, was built between 1785 and 1789 on the site of a previous church built in the year 1100. Unfortunately no records of the old church exist so there’s no documentation of its size or appearance though it’s known that round about 1330 a pele tower was added to the building to fortify it after it suffered considerable damage during the Scots raids in the early part of the 14th century.
The contract for the new church was awarded to Messrs Pattinson and Holmes (joiners) and masons Parkin and Nixons (the Nixons being father and son) with one of the conditions being that none of the old church should be incorporated in the new building, though it seems that this condition may only have applied to the exterior of the building as some of the oak beams in the new church tower appear to have been taken from the old church.
Constructed to the same design as St. Michael’s in Workington and St. Cuthbert’s in Carlisle St. Mary’s was built of red sandstone from Shawk Quarry, Rosley, with the tower being raised about nine feet higher than originally planned so it might serve as a landmark. A new bell was cast by bellfounders William Mears & Co and in June 1790 it was transported from London to St. Mary’s at a cost of £3 19s; still in use and weighing 12.5 cwt it’s the biggest single bell of any parish church in Cumbria.
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To meet the changing needs of its congregation and the people of Wigton St. Mary’s has seen many repairs and improvements over the years. In 1880/1881 the floor was remodelled and relaid with blocks, two new stained glass windows and a new heating system were installed, and the high box pews with their doors and brass name plates were removed and taken to the workshop of John and Daniel Pearson where they were converted into the open pews seen in the church today.

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The first organ in the church is believed to have been a small barrel organ, later exchanged for a larger instrument which was in turn sold for £30 in 1859 to Causewayhead Church near Silloth. Thanks to the generosity of George Moore from nearby Mealsgate who personally paid the cost of £240 the second organ was replaced by a new 12-stop organ built by Gray & Davison, one of the leading London organ builders. This was situated in the West Gallery, the traditional site for church organs, but changing fashions meant that fifty years later its position was considered to be inconvenient.
In 1912 Harrisons of Durham built the current organ which was sited at the south east corner of the church within the space occupied by the former vestry. At a cost of £800 it was built much larger than its predecessor with two manuals, twenty stops and more than 1200 pipes, some of which came from the previous Gray & Davison organ. Harrisons were advised in their work by influential organ designer Colonel George Dixon of St. Bees and thanks to their combined expertise the organ was remarkably versatile.
Harrisons have periodically maintained and tuned the organ since its installation, carrying out repairs in 1938, cleaning and renovation in 1977 and further repairs to the pneumatic action in 1994. Unfortunately in more recent years the organ became less reliable and a complete restoration was necessary; a scheme was proposed by Harrisons and approved by the Parochial Church Council and in 2011 the Centenary Restoration Appeal was launched. In 2012, 100 years after it was originally installed, the organ was granted a ”Historic Organ Certificate” by the British Institute of Organ Studies then in January 2013 it was dismantled and various parts were taken back to Harrisons in Durham. After extensive work and the meticulous cleaning of 1200 pipes the organ was rebuilt and returned to full working order in June that year, with the total cost of the rebuild standing at £120,000.
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In 1928 the remaining original ornate box pew, formerly occupied by the owners of Highmoor House, was removed from the eastern end of the north aisle and twenty five years later a side chapel was installed in its place by the Reverend John Ford in memory of his mother. The chapel is dedicated to St. Catherine and behind the communion table is a reredos made of re-used carved oak panels of North German origin. In 1952, prior to the installation of the side chapel, the church interior was completely redecorated, with the midnight blue of the flat ceiling and the gold detailing on the decorative plaster roundels complementing the overall scheme.
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In 1958 the whole of the church’s exterior, including the tower, was restored and improved with the work being carried out by Messrs John Laing of Carlisle, and during this time the bell was re-hung. Between 1973 and 1976 the vestries were modernised, the ceiling insulated and the whole building rewired which meant that further redecoration was necessary though this kept to the Reverend Ford’s original scheme. The following year a number of pews were removed from the back of the church to provide a space for social gatherings and informal activities then in 1985 the vicar’s vestry was repositioned to provide a space for a new kitchen.
Early 20th century Baptistry
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Indian carved lectern
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Designed by R B Edmundson of Manchester and dedicated in 1865 the East window was donated by William Banks of Highmoor to celebrate the coming of age of his eldest son, though the centre section attracted widely differing opinions. Featuring Jesus blessing little children it was described as ‘fine Venetian glass’ by one person and ‘intensely ugly, portraying grotesque children’ by another, though William Banks had paid for the best which was available at the time.
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East window centre – Suffer little children
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East window left – the Baptism of Our Lord
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East window right – the Last supper
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Throughout the life of the church there was never any serious attempt to install a complete ringing peal of bells until discussions in early 1996 resulted in the Parochial Church Council voting to pursue the possibility. A structural survey of the tower proved positive, estimates were obtained and early in 1997 an application was made to the Millennium Commission for a 50% grant; work then started to raise the remaining 50% and by the end of that year the Millennium funding was in place. An order for a new set of eight bells was placed with John Taylor, bellfounders in Loughborough and work was started on preparing the tower.
In 1998 a band of novice ringers started training and on February 19th 1999 the bells arrived in Wigton, being initially displayed in the church before being installed in the tower and tested on March 3rd. On Easter Sunday that year the new band of ringers rang the bells for the first time for the morning service and on May 1st the first full peal of 5,088 changes was rung by members of the Carlisle Diocesan Guild of Bell Ringers. New Year 2000 was rung in by the new local ringers and since then the bells have been rung regularly for services and special occasions. The original 12 cwt bell, standing in a steel frame and ball bearings, remains in the top stage of the tower and continues to be rung for funerals and to sound the hours every day.
In 2006 broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg (Lord Bragg of Wigton) who grew up in the town, offered St. Mary’s the gift of three new stained glass windows, not only remembering his relatives past and present but also with a theme of bringing Wigton into the church and showing St. Mary’s as part of the community. Brian Campbell, a well known local artist, was chosen to design the windows and after many meetings with church authorities the designs were approved. Alex Haynes of Albion Glass, Brampton, created the stained glass and the windows were installed on the north side of the nave in July 2009.
Each of the windows is filled with images of the town, the church and its people and the left hand window shows much of the commercial life of Wigton including the auction mart, mill, factory and a street with church. St. Mary’s church tower is the dominant feature in the centre window while the right hand window includes the George Moore fountain, Highmoor Tower, Nelson Tomlinson School, the cenotaph and the Caldbeck fells, and even though the windows are so modern they all contain Christian symbols.
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During the first few years of the 21st century it became apparent that the church roof was raining in and wasn’t in a good state of repair. Following meetings with architect Elaine Blackett-Ord it was agreed to apply to English Heritage for grants to help towards the cost of repairs and fund raising began in 2007. The contract was awarded to local firm RMT Slating & Tiling and work on the nave roof was completed first, with completion of the tower roof in 2010.
Since it was built in the late 18th century each generation has contributed in some way to the present church and it’s hoped that those latest roof repairs will keep St. Mary’s waterproof for the forseeable future. It’s a lovely old building with many interesting features and after discovering it while I was doing the Wigton Heritage Trail in September I was glad I was able to look round and uncover some of its history.

11 thoughts on “St. Mary’s Church, Wigton

  1. It really does look like a beautiful church with a lot of history. Your photos are really good although I have to say I prefer the old more traditional stained glass windows, (sorry Melvyn).

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  2. I like the modern windows as they are so colourful and I can understand the theme but I think I would prefer to see them in a modern church. My favourite in the whole of the church was the two carved angels on the lectern, they are so intricate and so beautiful – the photo of that one doesn’t do it justice at all.

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  3. The stained glass windows are lovely Jo and the colours of the modern ones are stunning. At least I was able to get some decent photos of them all – very often windows are so high up in a building it’s impossible to get really good shots of them.

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  4. The widows were all really beautiful and even the old ones had vibrant colours. It was a lovely church with an interesting history, and when so many these days are closed to the public it was nice to be able to look round this one 🙂

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