One of Liverpool’s most famous churches is that of Our Lady and St Nicholas on the waterfront, commonly known as the Sailors’ Church. A place of worship has been there for over 750 years but the current building dates from only the early 19th Century due to two major incidents, the first of which saw the tragic loss of 23 lives, most of them children.
Situated on the site of the old Chapel of St Mary del Quay, the church was built in piecemeal fashion as the population of the town grew from the late 17th century and a spire was added in 1746. In 1776 the walls were rebuilt, but church officials continued to ignore warnings from congregation members that the spire was unsafe as it had not been added correctly to the steeple.
On Sunday 11th February 1810 the failure to rectify the dangers of the spire had devastating consequences. As the bells rang to signify the start of Sunday service, part of the steeple gave way causing the spire to collapse, crashing through the roof and onto girls from the nearby Moorfields charity school as they were walking down the aisle. The school’s boy pupils were following and all escaped injury, as well as all bar one of the bell ringers, who ran clear when they saw the first stone break loose.
Rescuers disregarded the threat of further collapse and went through the ruins to dragged out 27 bodies, 22 of whom were already dead. The following Wednesday’s Liverpool Courier called it an ‘accident of the most melancholy and distressing kind’. It described how parents arrived in ‘the utmost agitation, heightened in many cases by a long and awful suspense and terminating in the extremes of joy or sorrow’.
A total of fifteen girls from the charity school were killed, all of them aged under eleven. Their teacher Sarah Elsby was also killed. She herself was aged just fourteen. Of the six others who died at the scene, four were adults while a fourteen year old boy died at the Infirmary a few days later, and two others in the following weeks.
In many ways it was a miracle that ‘only 25’ were killed, as if the collapse had occurred ten minutes later, many more members of the congregation would have been in the aisles rather than outside. One man who was already at his pew identified himself only as ‘Martin.’ As those pews around him were smashed to smithereens, he remained untouched and after climbing over the rubble to safety, he went that afternoon to St Peter’s Church in Church Street to offer thanksgiving to God for his escape. Another who was very lucky to be alive was John Brandreth from the choir, who was saved from being buried alive due being underneath the organ at the time.
In 1863 an eyewitness account was published in James Stonehouse’s Recollections of Old Liverpool. It said: ‘The spire fell with a frightful and appalling crash into the body of the building. Amidst the rising dust were heard the dreadful screams of the poor children who had become involved in the ruins. They were horribly maimed, and so disfigured that they were scarcely recognizable. Of all the pitiable sights I ever beheld, the sight of these little things laid on the grass was the most piteous; and, as, one by one they were claimed and taken away’
The church tower was rebuilt by 1815, but in World War 2 it was the nave that was damaged during an air raid in October 1940. A subsequent raid saw it destroyed completely the following May and a temporary church was set up amidst the ruins. In 1949 work began on a new nave and the church was reconsecrated in 1952. Situated in the heart of the business district, it continues to be a key part of the local area, holding prayer services every morning except Saturday and also being used for various community events.