Who bricked up the church doors?

Ringing World   1st March 1996

The story of Christ Church, Hartlepool, and its bells
- now an Art Gallery and Information Centre

  The town of West Hartlepool owed its existence to an entrepreneur by the name of Ralph Ward Jackson. In the mid nineteenth century, he transformed a patch of wind-scoured sand-dunes into a thriving dockland town that by the end of the century had a population of over 50,000. To provide for their spiritual welfare, Jackson and his company donated land for the construction of a large church. Limestone excavated from the docks was used to build it.

  The first vicar of Christ Church, as it was called, was Rev. John Hart Burges. He worked hard to serve his parishioners and initially got on well with Jackson. Before long, however, controversy developed between the two men, mainly over the question of the church school that was shortly to be built. Jackson thought that all poor children from the town should be able to attend, while Burges believed that destitute children from the parish should be given priority. Matters came to a head after a grand dinner given by Jackson to celebrate the presentation of his portrait to the town. Among other things, Jackson complained that the bells had not been rung to commemorate this joyful occasion. At the height of the dispute Jackson, who presumably believed he owned the church, as well as the harbour, docks and town which he had created, ordered the church doors to be bricked up, to prevent Burges from carrying out his duties. While this was being done, and before the walls were no more than a few feet high, a mob arrived, and with cries of “Down  with the walls, lads! Down with ’em!” used  ladders and other objects to demolish them.

Photo: Christ Church Hartlepool
  Illustration from a watercolour
    by Walter F. Parker
“Rainy day in Church Street,  Hartlepool,    1983”.

The church was then entered, and the scenes that followed are some of the most shameful in the town’s history.   Those present were afterwards described as ‘drunken sailors, Irishmen and navvies’, and, they ran amok, performing fictitious ‘marriages’ and ‘baptisms’. Flags of distress were flown from the tower and amateur ringers tolled the bells. Sermons were given from the pulpit on profane and obscene matters by pipe-smoking navvies (family lore has it that one of these was an ancestor of the present writer), while beer flowed endlessly, unspeakable oaths were uttered, and members of the ‘congregation’ relieved themselves openly and unashamedly in the comers of the nave. The appearance of the Rev. Burges, who thanked them for their support, but asked them to leave, brought the proceedings to an end, but not before further damage had been caused, seats torn up, hassocks ripped and thrown in all directions.

  Eventually Burges was forced to resign the living of Christ Church, and left West Hartlepool to become the vicar of Bishop Ryder’s church in Birmingham. He is said to have found the people of Birmingham a good deal more hospitable than those of West Hartlepool. In later life he was Rector of Devizes.

  The riots at Christ Church lived long in the town’s memory, the cries of ‘Who bricked up the church doors?’ were frequently heard at elections long after those who uttered them could remember what was being referred to.
By the early 1970s, the congregation of Christ Church had shrank from 1000 to less than a dozen, and the church was closed. The building rapidly fell into disrepair, and was considered by many to be an eyesore which ought to be demolished as soon as possible. However, the local council purchased it for a nominal sum, and eventually was able to restore it completely, using grants from ‘City Challenge’ and E.E.C. inner city funds. The result is a beautiful building, outside and in, that is a key part of the wider redevelopment of the dockland area that has transformed the town and made it attractive for visitors.

  The six bells are by Taylors, and date from 1854, the consecration of the church. Their cost was 400. They were always hung for chiming only, but during the recent restoration, and thanks largely to the initiative of Colin Banton, they were retuned and hung for ringing. New floors were put in the tower, which is open to the public. One curiosity is a rotating camera on the tower roof which provides superb panoramic views of the new dockland area for those unable to make the climb.

  The Art Gallery and Information centre, as it now is, was officially opened on January 5th, and the first peal was rung ten days later by a band with strong Hartlepool connections. Five of them learned to ring in Hartlepool over a time span of 35 years, and the other, Richard Turner, has rung and taught bands at St Oswald’s for over 20 years.
Finally, on a personal note, I can remember, as a child, going to services at Christ Church (travelling in a horse-drawn carriage along cobbled, gas-lit streets). The place was cold, dark, dreary, and seemed a hideous monstrosity. Now, it is a wonderful building that the town can be proud of.

The bells, all by John Taylor.
   old weights  after tuning
Treble 6-1-10 (1853) 5-3-20
2nd 6-3-03 (1855) 6-1-12
3rd 7-1-01 (1855) 6-3-16
4th 7-2-07 (1855) 7-1-20
5th 8-1-27 (1855) 8-0-18
Tenor 10-0-13 (1855) 9-2-24
Key of G

 Originally, a single bell was ordered, and left Loughborough on November 8th, 1853. Eighteen months later, five more were added, and were sent on May 25th, 1855. The chime of six was hung in four large “A” frame sections and the bells are still in two tiers, because of the staircase arrangements. One of the original frames is now in the Bell Foundry Museum at Loughborough. It is interesting to see how much metal was removed from the treble in tuning. J.P.

Art Gallery and Information Centre
(formerly Christ Church)
Sunday January 14 1996
2h58 (10)
5040 Plain Bob Minor
Seven extents
Susan J Hanson  
Ann Wilby   2
John Pladdys
 (C) 3
Richard Turner   4
Ron B Hanson   5
DChristopher A Leese   6
Michael le Marie   7
Mark Philipson   8

First peal on the bells.

To celebrate the completion of the restoration of this building and transformation into an Art Gallery.

Rung in affectionate memory of Bill Maughan and Ken Lawson, who did so much for ring ing in Hartlepool. Five of this band were taught by them.

End of article


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