St James Birch in Rusholme
The history of Birch, or as it was first called, “Hindley Birches”, takes us back to the reign of King John. In about 1190. Matthew de Birche received a grant of land here from the Lords of the Manor of Manchester, for services rendered in the Crusades. His family survived as owners of the estate until it was sold in the eighteenth century.
The original Birch Chapel was built by the Birch family in about 1595-6, and stood for some 250 years. Consecrated by Bishop Chaderton of Chester, it was at first a private chapel for the family, who resided at Birch Hall (where Manchester Grammar school now stands). It stood on the south side of the lychgate path. It was a brick building roofed with slate. It consisted simply of a nave, the roof of which bore a plain cross at the east end, and a small octagonal bell-turret to the west. It held 350 people and was enlarged by John Dickenson in 1753.
At first the chapel was wholly endowed, the maintenance of a resident minister being left to the voluntary contributions of the local people. As a result, vacancies were not infrequent. As early as 1598, the Visitation Return notes : "Birche Chapel in Rusholrne latelie erected and now void of a curate." In 1640 a subscription-list was opened for the purchase of land for a permanent endowment fund. A small estate was bought, and this was conveyed in 1672 to a body of trustees, among whom the names of Birch and Worsley figure prominently.
The Birches of Rusholme and their neighbours, the Worsleys of Platt, seem all to have stood firmly in the Reformed, or '·puritan” tradition. In 1560 William Birch. ordained by Bishop Ridley and appointed a chaplain to King Edward Vl, was installed by Queen Elizabeth as the first Protestant warden of the Collegiate Church of Manchester. In the seventeenth century Colonel Thomas Birch was a distinguished officer in Cromwell's army, while Colonel Charles Worsley (father-in-law of Deborah mentioned above) was one of the more influential figures in the Protectorate, being appointed by Cromwell as one his “Major-Generals”, with jurisdiction over Lancashire, Cheshire and Staffordshire. He died at the early age of 34, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Even after the Restoration, Birch Chapel seems to have encouraged Dissenting opinions, and its ministers were chosen accordingly. The Reverend Henry Finch was one such notable non- conformist. He served as minister of Birch Chapel from 1672 to 1697, but then the new patron of the Chapel turned him out. He had a considerable following, and his supporters built Platt Chapel (on the Worsley Estate) for him as a kind of rival preaching-house. He appears to have taken with him from Birch two silver Communion-cups of curious design, which are now kept at Platt Chapel.
The Dickenson family contributed handsomely to the endowment during the eighteenth century, and grants were also made from Queen Anne’s Bounty. In 1850, Birch was noted in the Returns as a District Chapelry, with an annual value of £180. Tt was formally constituted as a Rectory by an Order in Council of 1854. The old Chapel survived until 1846, when the present Church was consecrated. Nothing survives except some of the interior woodwork which (it is said) was used to make cupboards and drawers in the present vestry. A few of the old foundation stones have been dug up at various times and are placed near the south gate. More recently a square flagstone was unearthed, and is set in the footpath of the Garden of Remembrance.
It was in 1844 that the decision was taken to build a new Church. The population of Rusholme had risen rapidly and there was not enough room in the old Chapel. An extract from the appeal that was launched records that “the population of the township at the last census in 1841 amounted to nearly 2,000 and has been rapidly increasing; about three-fourths of this population consists of the labouring poor; that the only church accommodation in the area is at Birch chapel, which is at present merely a private chapel with not a single legal free sitting, and which therefore offers no benefit to the poor; that new and spacious schools have recently been erected, with places for upwards of 200 children. These children cannot all be taken into church on account of the want of room in the chapel, those which are taken are obliged to sit in the aisle and other place, much to the inconvenience of the adult worshippers. Under these circumstances it is a manifest duty that measures should be taken to provide the necessary accommodation for the poor in the way of free sittings. It is therefore proposed, in order to make provision, to rebuild Birch Chapel.” A new Church was therefore commissioned to seat 700 people, having 400 free sittings in the best (centre) part, and 300 rented sittings in the side pews. The initiative in this matter was taken by the Reverend George Henry Greville Anson.
The style is Early English, typical of church buildings in the first half of the thirteenth century. The octagonal spire rises 128 feet from the ground. At its base are carvings of “four living creatures “to symbolise the four evangelists (St Matthew represented by the Angel, St Mark by the lion, St Luke by the Calf and St John by the Eagle.) The four niches in the spire were intended to hold figures of the Evangelists themselves but this was never completed. The heads of Queen Victoria and the Arch-bishop of York (Vernon Harcourt) flank the south door. Over the south and west doors there are small crosses roughly chiselled in the stone. These were carved by Archdeacon Anson and his curate. All the stone blocks used in the building were hand-faced, not machine cut.
By this time Mr Dugard had resigned and, the Rev George Henry Greville Anson was nominated to the Chapelry on June 26th, 1846. He later became the first Rector of the new parish of St James Birch in Rusholme, and served there for 52 years, during twenty of which he was Archdeacon of Manchester (1870-1890). He died in 1898, and is buried in the churchyard.
0161 224 0535
Manchester M14 6JZ
Sunday 10.00 Sung Eucharist
Monday 19.30 Eucharist
Thursday 12 noon Eucharist
Content and images © 2020 Holy Innocents Church and Jamie Neville