Church History


A Brief History of St Paul’s Withington



St Paul’s Church, consecrated in 1841, was the first of the parishes which were spun off from the ancient chapelry of St James, Didsbury in the 19th century and which were the response to the rural villages to the south of Manchester becoming South Manchester.

The Church of England is often and rightly accused of tardiness in reacting to change, not so much the first in to the future as one of the last in the past (e.g. women to the priesthood) but the Church was ahead of the game in the founding of St Paul’s. When the church was opened there were only 1277 residents in the township of Withington and a seating capacity of 650 looked over the top, but in the following 50 years the population of Withington grew to over 14,000. By the time that began to happen in the 1850’s there was a church and there was a church school well established to serve their needs. Planners of development today could learn from that.

The church was built for the ordinary people of Withington, not for the wealthy, who with their carriages could easily reach the very beautiful St James church in nearby Didsbury. Thus it was not built for the rich but it was mainly built by the rich. Wilbraham Egerton, the lord of the manor of Withington, gave the land and £400, or possibly £800, towards the cost of the construction. Another 4 wealthy residents contributed £600. That does not sound much in today’s money but was a lot at the time and the total cost of construction was only £2790.22 (the decimalization is mine).

By 1863 the population of Withington had more than doubled and the church was enlarged. The eastern wall was taken down and the nave extended by 7 yards (6.401 metres for younger readers). A chancel, organ chamber, side aisle for extra pews and a vestry were built on to the eastern end of the nave. The organ was moved from the gallery at the back of the church to the new chamber.

In the 1890’s more developments. A choir vestry was added, new choir pews installed and a new lych gate and perimeter wall constructed. In 1901 two fine new windows were installed in the nave, the Victoria window in remembrance of the late Queen and the Light of the World window in memory of Henry Turnbull, who was one of the first children to be baptised in the church and who was the son of the first headmaster of St Paul’s school.

In 1920 the side aisle of 1863 was converted to a memorial chapel to the war dead. The so-called Great War, which deserves the adjective “Great” only in respect of the size of the casualty lists, had clearly scarred the minds and consciences of the people of Withington

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were radical alterations to adapt the church to the changed times. The churchyard, which had become an unsightly wilderness, was grassed over and a garden of remembrance created. The rear of the nave was divided off to become a separate area, a narthex. A new lower ceiling was installed. The central heating and electrical systems were renewed. The pews in the nave were replaced by chairs. The seating capacity was thereby reduced, but then so had the size of the congregations. The building was thus much more economical to maintain and more adaptable to many purposes. Adaptability was further improved a few years ago with the addition of kitchen facilities and a toilet for the disabled within the narthex area. In all these changes the eastern area, the chancel and altar have remained as before, so that during acts of worship the congregation senses little change although much has occurred. If there is such a thing as an ideal compromise between the needs of the present and respect for the past, these alterations are a contender.

If the building does not have outstanding architectural merit, it has a warmth and friendliness. If it isn’t ancient, it is old enough to be interesting and is a tribute to those who have kept the flame alight for 166 years.

We’d like to think…’ - MENDELSSOHN IN WITHINGTON


On 21 April 1847, during what proved to be the last year of his short life which had begun 200 years ago this 3 February, the composer Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy  sent a letter from Eltville House Withington Manchester to a certain R Andrews. This letter, regretting that the composer could not meet Mr Andrews for lack of time, is preserved in the Gertude Clarke Whittall Foundation Mendelssohn Collection in the Music Division of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, along with a handwritten essay dating from 1902 by Professor William T Freemantle, describing in some detail the composer’s stay in Manchester in April 1847.

‘Lack of time’ is something of an understatement !  Mendelssohn, then Director of Music for the Gewandhaus orchestra in Leipzig, was on his tenth visit to England, with his oratorio Elijah which had had its inaugural performance in Birmingham the previous year. Between 12 April and 8 May 1847 he conducted it six times, first in London at Exeter Hall in the Strand, then in Manchester with the Hargreaves Choral Society in the Free Trade Hall (on 20 April), back to London, Birmingham and finally London again. What is more, in between, he reportedly performed at a variety of other venues both formal and informal, and twice visited Buckingham Palace where he was a great favourite, having several times previously entertained the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.*

Despite its French-sounding title, Eltville House was in fact named after a village which is still to be found in Germany, on the north bank of the Rhine between Bingen and Mainz. On his (purely social) visits to Manchester in July 1842 and 17-20 June 1844, Mendelssohn had also stayed there, on the borders of what we now know as part of Didsbury, as a guest of a member of his wife Cecilia’s family, John Souchay.

Manchester in the middle of the 19th century was developing so many industrial and cultural links that it came to be nicknamed ‘the German city’. The Souchays, a Huguenot family, had commercial interests in both Frankfurt and Manchester. Charles (Carl) Souchay (1799-1872), who lived at Withington House (on the site of what is now the telephone exchange on  Wilmslow Road opposite the end of Old Broadway) is buried in our churchyard together with his wife Adelheid (Adelaide) (1809-90). Both they and John were benefactors of St Paul’s church school. Their elder daughter Adelaide married Alfred Benecke on 14 March 1850 – the first wedding in our church - and their younger daughter Juliet was married in the church in 1864 to Robert Lucius von Ballhausen, a Catholic who would later be a minister in Bismarck’s government.** The sisters were cousins of Mendelssohn’s wife Cecilia.

So these were altogether attractively fluid times also in terms of religious allegiance. Mendelssohn’s own  family were in fact nominal converts from Judaism to Protestantism, a not uncommon social phenomenon in Germany at the time. In practical terms, amongst other things, it conferred the right to travel abroad, which Mendelssohn’s parents had recognised as essential to the development of their son’s prodigious musical talent.                                                                                                                      

We know that during his brief time in Manchester in April 1847 the composer played the organ to a packed St Luke’s Cheetham Hill.* And we have a report from the earliest informal history of our own church (written by churchwarden John Kay in 1896) thatDr Mendelssohn ‘played a service and gave a recital upon the organ and it was pronounced by him to be an excellent instrument.’ So we have, at the least, a strong oral tradition  that whilst in Withington, not yet totally exhausted by his gruelling tour schedule, the composer may have stepped into our (then) five-year-old church, We can picture the church in its contemporary setting from a  print of the same year which depicts it in a field, lacking as yet even a boundary wall to define its ground.

Mendelssohn, according to Freemantle, arrived in Manchester on Monday19 April so it is not clear when, between then and his departure on Thursday 22 April, we can dare to picture the great man at our almost brand-new organ, installed in 1843 at a cost of £315, which was similar to the one at St Luke’s; but, critically, local newspaper reports of the time lead us to conclude that he may in fact have stepped onto his relatives’ threshold as early as Saturday 17 April, and thus been around for Sunday worship.Incidentally :  let us not get too carried away! – apart from a few reeds maybe, this would not be the instrument we have today.

Less than a week after Mendelssohn’s arrival back in Germany in the second week of May, his beloved sister Fanny (also an accomplished musician and composer) died suddenly. Felix never got over this blow and himself died on 4 November of that year. He and Fanny are buried side by side in a cemetery in Berlin which is difficult but well worthwhile to track down.

‘A beautiful star had been extinguished,’ wrote Adelaide Benecke in her informal memoirs*** some 60 years later. They include accounts of her meetings, during his visits in the 1840s, with the great composer whom she admits she ‘almost adored’, though sadly she remarks also that he ‘was never long in Manchester’. She grew up at Withington House but after her marriage moved to London and apart from the wedding itself she never once mentions the church.

Mendelssohn’s organ works are credited both with reviving the classical tradition of J S Bach (whose organ music incredibly was, less than a century on, barely ever getting an airing), and also with fostering the development of the Romantic organ ‘on the new principle’, of which presumably St Luke’s and ours were examples. As such he would have been keen to try them out - though less keen to give yet another full-blown concert.

Tantalising!Are we writing through our proverbial hat-works? Has anyone else heard mysterious footfall in the gallery, where the organ was located in 1847? Can someone provide such corroborative detail as may give verisimilitude to this bald and at times unconvincing narrative?                           

Ian Purver & Roy Boyle 

January 2009, revised January 2011

 * Mendelssohn : A Life in Music  R Larry Todd  (OUP   2003)

**Weber’s Protestant Ethic : Origins, Evidence and Contexts

     H Lehmann & G.Roth  (CUP   1995)

*** Memories of the Past  Adelaide Benecke (Lightning Source UK)


A Withington Childhood in the 1840s
Thomas Hesketh Thorniley - in the American Civil War
I think when I read - a brief excursion round our churchyard
Alpha & Omega - more musical connections
The Grand Organ of St Paul's Withington
We make history and we can write it
In Search of Heroes - men killed in the Great War 1914-1919
The Writing on the Wall - monuments and inscriptions in context
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