Saturday 22 November 2014

"The choir of children sing their song......"

St. Barnabas' Church,
Smithdown Place,
L18 1AZ


St Barnabas' Anglican Church is in Smithdown Place, Liverpool. It stands at the junction of Allerton Road, Smithdown Road, and Penny Lane and as such is a landmark I have driven past hundreds of times on my way to and from the city centre.

I was aware of the Beatles connections - Paul McCartney was once a choir boy here and the Quarry Men / Beatles performed at the St. Barnabus Parochial Hall on Dovedale Road - but I had never had the opportunity to go in and have a really good look around until the 2013 English Heritage Day.  I was pleased when I finally did because as I hope my photographs illustrate, it's a beautiful building and the church volunteers who were on hand to answer any questions were all lovely people.

Some history...

Building work on the present St Barnabas' commenced in 1912 based upon a design from the Liverpool architect James Francis Doyle. The foundation stone laying ceremony took place on June 11th, 1912 ( St Barnabas day) and the church opened in 1914.

Before 1914 the congregation had met in a temporary iron church. This, the first St Barnabas church, was affectionately known as the "Tin Cathedral". It's likely it was supplied by Francis Morton and Co, of Garston who specialised in building prefabricated church structures. An additional £310 was spent installing a Norman and Beard, hand blown, organ. The iron church, under the title St Barnabas Mossley Hill, was dedicated on St Peter's Day ( June  29th), 1900 as the chapel of ease to SS Matthew and James, Mossley Hill. The church could seat 600 people.

The Parochial Hall, completed in 1904 at an initial cost of  £1175, was built on spare land immediately behind St Barnabas and can be seen in the coloured postcard reproduced below. The building still survives and is now used as a public house, Fogherty's. 

The church occupied the site bounded by Smithdown Road, Cramond Avenue and Blenheim Road. As the photograph below shows, it had the disadvantage of being directly opposite the electric tramcar depot* on Smithdown and the associated refuse incinerator (the "Destructor") used to generate electricity for the tramway system. Unfortunately it was both a noisy and smelly location! 

The first St. Barnabas (right) and the Tramsheds /Destructor on 29th April 1906

In fact, it is clear that from the outset the iron church of St Barnabas was considered as a temporary expedient only and consideration was being given at an early stage to the construction of a permanent building.  The site of the present St Barnabas was decided in October 1901. It occupies a small portion of land that was once the entrance to the Elm Hall estate bordering Allerton Road.

In April 1912, the plans and designs of the well known Liverpool architect James Francis Doyle were accepted and construction work begun.

The architect died in 1912 before the building was completed and the church was finished under the supervision of his brother and fellow architect, Sydney W. Doyle. The church building cost £14,000 and, with the internal fittings, its total cost was about £25,000 (£2,090,000 in 2014).

The columns are made from Storeton stone. The plan of the church consists of a four-bay nave with a clerestory, north and south aisles under lean-to roofs, two south porches, north and south transepts, a chancel with a south chapel and a northeast vestry, and a west tower.

Five-bay arcades separate the nave and aisles, and there is a three-bay arcade between the chancel and the chapel, the latter being more ornate than the former. In the east window is a war memorial in stained glass by H. G. Hiller, that in my opinion is one of the finest pieces I have ever seen. Click on the detail below for a larger view.


The two-manual pipe organ was built by Henry Willis and Sons, and there have been alterations and repairs since.

The organ case was designed by Sydney W. Doyle.

“Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John's and to a lot of my friends. It was a big bus terminal which we all knew very well. I sang in the choir at St Barnabas Church opposite.”  
Paul McCartney, Anthology

The Smithdown Place bus terminus was very familiar to him by the time he met John Lennon. In April 1956 the McCartneys finally left Speke and moved to a house in Forthlin Road, Allerton.  Forthlin was a side street off Mather Avenue, a straight run south from the Penny Lane area. Whenever he decided they needed a haircut, Jim would take Paul or Mike or both by tram to Bioletti's, the barbers' shop facing St. Barnabas on Smithdown Place. 

During "Ghosts of The Past", a 1991 BBC documentary about Paul's Liverpool Oratorio he talked about his period as a choirboy:  "We put on our cassocks...our little ruffs. We looked like little angels but we weren't. The great promise was that if you got a wedding you got ten shillings. I waited weeks and months and never got a wedding...."

What he didn't explain was why did he decide to join the choir in 1956, at a time when he was already in the thrall of Rock 'n' Roll? He was coming up to the age of 14, an age when most boys would be leaving the choir because their voices had broken (and Paul's had). He was raised as a Catholic and yet St Barnabas is an Anglican Church. How long was he a choirboy there and when, and why, did he leave? 


Today the church is deservedly designated by English Heritage as a Grade II listed building.


26 years after singing as a member of the choir Paul returned to St. Barnabas to sing as a member of the congregation. On 29th May 1982 he was best man at his brother Mike’s wedding to Rowena which drew the inevitable crowds outside the church.  

Paul, Linda, Mike and Rowena emerge from the side door after the service

Photo:  Barry Farrel

Following completion of the new St Barnabas Parish church, the site of the old St Barnabas was sold to the Liverpool Co-operative Society who built  a combined shopping complex and meeting hall on the site. The hall was known as the Holyoake Hall where the Beatles and other Liverpool groups would perform.  In later years this became the location of the Wavertree and Childwall British Legion club. Part of the site is now occupied by an Islamic Institute and Mosque. The original Parochial Hall is the black and white building on the extreme left of the photograph below.

Following the opening of the new St Barnabas Church, Grove House on Penny Lane was purchased  from the trustees of the "Home for Incurable Children" as a new Parochial Hall and Sunday School. It fulfilled this valuable community function for many years before finally being sold in 1965 and is now called Dovedale Towers, a striking white building sited on Grove Mount Playing fields.

* From 1957 these became "the tramsheds with no trams" as John Lennon described them in an early draft of his 1965 song "In My Life".


Paul McCartney: "Ghosts Of The Past"

You can read an eye-witness account of Mike McCartney's wedding here:


  1. Hi, I am writing to ask permission to use your photograph of St Barnabas as a reference for my painting for the lyrics of Penny Lane please?
    Kind regards
    Rosie Harper

  2. Hi Rosie, that's no problem at all. I look forward to seeing your finished work!
    Kind regards,

  3. Great Site! The saint's name is actually spelled "Barnabas"

    1. Thanks Cat. For some reason I spelt it two different ways. I've now fixed it.