WRITTEN BY Hayley Flynn
IMAGES BY Andrew Brooks
READING TIME: 3 minutes
The coffins and air raid shelter beneath Chapel Street
St Philip's church was designed by Sir Robert Smirke in 1825 in a Greek revival style unique to the area, and taken from a design Smirke had done previously for St Mary’s Church in London. The building is unassuming yet classical and unlike any other church in the region.
Inside the church you’ll find a Renn and Boston organ, a rare example of British 19th century organ making with most having been destroyed or altered. Made in 1829, the organ has been restored twice, and now includes pipes taken from a dismantled organ from New Jerusalem Church on Peter Street, Manchester. It is regarded as the finest surviving example of Renn’s work.
There’s also something waiting to surprise you beneath the church, for down below is a crypt.
The crypt houses around 8 bodies though could hold many more. Three aisles run beneath the length of the church with the centre aisle opening up onto recessed vaults on either side; the two bordering aisles have only vaults on the outer walls.
The coffins down here are lead-lined as it was thought that these reinforcements would help counter the spread of disease. Now, through ventilation gaps in the walls, you can see the silvery lead exposed beneath the rotten wood.
Many of the vaults are anonymous, such as the first one you approach on the right. Not only is this not labelled but it’s totally bricked up; no bricks have been left out for ventilation as they have in the other vaults. The solid wall is further reinforced by a locked gate – someone wanted to be sure this body didn’t escape!
St Philips was ‘the soldiers church”’ and along the same wall, neighbouring the high security burial, is the resting place of a General Sir Thomas Arbuthknot. Arbuthknot was a distinguished officer, selected by Wellington as commander of the forces in the Northern and Midland districts. He died in 1879, age 78. On the day of his funeral Chapel Street was closed, even the mayor was refused access through and the turnout was so large that people lined the roof of the church so that they might witness his burial.
The crypt has other uses and during the war it was used as shelters; you can spot at the far end on both sides, two small sets of stairs and handrails that lead to nowhere. These were new entrances added during the war that have since been bricked up.
The Scouts have even used the crypt for their meetings which is clear from the old painted graffiti images of wolves and black cats in the centre vaults.
Used as storage over the years there’s a box of papers down here which include some wonderful 60s architectural sketches of St Philip’s Parish Club and Rectory, complete with two strolling figures in the foreground looking remarkably similar to those made famous by Lowry…
Andrew Brooks is a photographer, a digital artist and a film maker living in Manchester, his previous works include the Secret Cities exhibitions with Curated Place. Please visit his site to see these images and more from our collaborative projects, in high resolution and in all their glory!
Look out for Skyliner tours of the venue over on our tours page.