A History of Catholicism on the Fylde
It was once said that ‘Lancashire was the backbone of Catholicity in England … and the Fylde was the backbone – the cream of Catholicity in Lancashire’.
Blackpool is on the west side of the Fylde and the Fylde is, of course, a peninsula, bounded on three sides by the Irish Sea and the Rivers Ribble and Wyre. Its landward boundary is less distinct. It hardly extends as far east as the Pennine fells. Whatever its eastern frontier, the Fylde certainly forms a distinct sub-region, sometimes known locally as ‘Windmill Land’. It is said to have consisted of the six medieval parishes of Bispham, Lytham, Poulton (Little and Great Marton was part of Poulton parish since the 11th century until the time of the Reformation), Kirkham, St Michael’s, and Woodplumpton, Although it was remote from London, the Fylde was on Preston’s doorstep, but it was certainly isolated behind its rivers, marshes, and mosses. Even until the Industrial Revolution, the Fylde was sparsely populated.
Before the Reformation the Fylde was part of the archdiocese of York. Its liturgy, therefore, was the elaborate use of York, similar to the better-known use of Sarum, with its chanting and processions. The church administered the sacraments, including the rites of passage at birth, adulthood, marriage, and death, and Mass was celebrated in the parish churches on Sundays and the abundance of holy days.
The Catholic traditions of a thousand years were largely swept away, however, by ‘the new religion’– but not quite when it came to the Fylde. That said the devastation was massive. Under King Henry VIII royal supremacy replaced papal supremacy over the English Church, the monasteries, including the Benedictine Priory of Lytham, a cell of the monastic cathedral of Durham, were dissolved, and Lancashire was included in the newly created diocese of Chester. Under King Edward VI England became an officially Protestant country, the chantry chapels, where Mass was said for the families of the founders, were dissolved, and a new Protestant English liturgy was imposed upon the people. Queen Mary I briefly restored Catholicism, but Elizabeth I re-imposed Protestantism. Meanwhile the Council of Trent (1545-62) defined the challenged doctrines and endeavoured to revive the discipline of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic challenge to the Elizabethan Settlement was led by a native of the Fylde, William Allen who was born at Poulton-le-Fylde in 1532, he went up to Oxford University in 1547, the year that Henry VIII died. He took the degree of M.A. in 1554, the year of the Marian restoration, and in 1556 he became principal of St Mary’s Hall. In 1559, rather than accept the new dispensation in religion, he resigned and later went to Louvain. He returned briefly to Lancashire, Oxford, and Norwich to rally support, and then returned to the continent. Ordained priest in 1565, he established the English College at Douay (Douai) in 1568. The original purpose of this college seems to have been to train priests ready to return to England if Catholicism was restored once again. However, in 1574 he began to send his seminary priests to work on what became known as the English Mission.
Meanwhile, English people were under social and legal pressures to conform to the Established Church as Protestantism spread and became more widely accepted. An increasingly severe and cruel penal code enforced conformity to the Church of England. That there were Catholics who refused to conform to the Anglican Church, Catholic recusants as they were known, who came to form a distinct Catholic community, was largely the result of the work of Allen’s seminary priests. Allen went on to found the Venerable English College in Rome in 1580. He was made a cardinal in 1587 and appointed archbishop of Malines in 1589.
During the period 1584-1646 fifteen Catholics were executed in Lancaster for their faith with many more across the country. The law at this time made it illegal to convert or be converted to Catholicism, to say or hear Mass or to help or conceal the presence of a priest. To be a priest ordained abroad was classed as treason.
That the Counter-Reformation English Catholicism was strongest in Lancashire and particularly on the Fylde may owe more than any other factor – remoteness, large parishes, the personalities of provincial officials – to the personal influence of Cardinal Allen which he exerted through his wide network of family and friends.
Throughout the penal period the gentry were the pillars of the Catholic community, and their houses contained the chapels where the wider Catholic community worshipped. There was a chapel at Lytham Hall from 1625 until 1764 when it was replaced by a larger tithe-barn in the grounds. There was also a chapel at Mowbreck Hall, which was re-built about 1731 with a purpose-built chapel and quarters for the priest. At Great Singleton in 1618, however, the Catholics bought a disused pre-Reformation chapel to use for Mass. Moreover, in time provision was made by the clergy for somewhat independent clerical missions.
Interestingly, the first reference to Blackpool that we have with any certainty appears in the Bispham Parish Church register for 1602 recording the christening of Ellen Cowban, daughter of Thomas Cowban of ‘Blackpoole’. And that is precisely what the place was; a black pool near the mouth of the Spen, its waters coloured by the peaty moss (Marton Moss) through which it flowed. The area was remote, marshy and windswept and was a part of Lancashire known as Agmunderness, whose main townships included Poulton, Rossall, Bispham, Lytham, Thornton and Inskip. When Ellen was alive most people along this part of the coast lived in single-storey cottages built with arched timbers (crooks), wattle and clay walls, and thatch made from rushes. One of the first houses of any substance to be built near the blackpool was Fox Hall.
It is said that around the year 1655 Edward Tyldesley, a member of a Catholic pro- Royalist family whose seat was at Myerscough Hall, near Garstang, built Fox Hall as a summer residence in what is now Blackpool. An alternative theory is that given the Hall’s remote location, it was in fact used as a base for pro-Royalist activities and that Charles II may well have been a regular visitor in the years before the Restoration. The Hall was close enough to the sea to allow the King a chance of escape should the need arise. The Hall was soon the first recognisable Mass centre for Catholics in Blackpool in penal times. It was eventually abandoned by the Tyldesleys and after being used as a farm was converted into an inn; alas nothing remains of the original building today as it was demolished in the 1980’s.
Widespread poverty was endemic in early modern England, and the Catholics of the Fylde were actively engaged in trying to remedy the problem. The Broughton Catholic Charitable Society was formed in 1787.
By the end of the eighteenth century the Agrarian Revolution was changing farming in the Fylde with the draining of the marshes, as the Industrial Revolution in nearby Preston was providing for a new and expanding market. The Relief Act of 1778 removed the legal restraints on Catholic landowning, and the Relief Act of 1791 permitted the opening of public Catholic chapels under certain conditions. Then in 1829 the Emancipation Act allowed Catholics, at last, to hold public office.
Despite Catholic Emancipation the famous Thomas Clifton of Lytham had conformed to the Church of England in 1831, and closed the Catholic chapels on his estates. Fortunately, by this time the Catholic community was now strong enough to manage without his patronage, and in 1839 St Peter’s church was built in Lytham in the fashionable Gothic style.
In the mid-nineteenth century more fundamental economic and social changes arrived by the coming of the railways, as the line was extended from Preston to the new port of Fleetwood. Agriculture flourished, and the cotton, sailcloth, and fishing industries were developed in the Fylde. Industry brought immigrants, including especially Irish Catholics. Thus, the Catholic population of Kirkham increased from 621 in 1851 to 1,016 in 1855. Above all, the new seaside resorts, Blackpool and Lytham St Anne’s developed on a coast ‘devoted to the art (or craft) of pleasure’, and splendid new churches, such as Sacred Heart on Talbot Road and St Cuthbert’s on Lytham Road, Blackpool, were built. The English hierarchy was restored in 1851, and traditional Ultramontanism reigned. Bishop Brown had already suppressed the lay trustees who had set up the mission in (St Mary’s) Fleetwood. James Sharples, coadjutor bishop of the Lancashire district and the last prelate to die as an English vicar apostolic, is buried at St Mary’s Great Eccleston. Papal infallibility was defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870, and the Catholic Diocese of Lancaster was created in 1924.
The Diocese initiated a major building programme of new Catholic churches in post-war Blackpool and its environs. Bishop Flynn had said at the opening of the temporary church (now replaced) of Our Lady of the Assumption, Blackpool in 1947: ‘We need churches…In Blackpool alone I need to provide two or three more churches as soon as possible. I have opened five temporary churches…in the last two or three years. I want others through the length and breadth of this large diocese’. These temporary churches were largely replaced throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Unfortunately, with the challenge of programmatic secularisation in the Western world in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and despite the confidence the Council promised, the need for such expansion did not last long in the scheme of things. The lapsation of parishioners with the pastoral burden of large church and school buildings on the smaller numbers who remain was highlighted by The Fit for Mission? Review (2007-2008) and consultation and successive bishops of Lancaster have sought to bring the Catholic parishes of the town and the wider diocese into greater collaboration ready for an inevitable new shape for parish organisation and mission in the near future.