Since early medieval times there has been a church in Shrewsbury dedicated to St Chad, first Bishop of Mercia in the 7th century. By the end of the 18th century the large but ageing building (see photo to left below) had fallen into disrepair, and cracks had appeared in the tower. The great engineer, Thomas Telford, advised that it was in danger of collapse, and he was right. One morning in 1788 the parishioners awoke to find they had a pile of rubble but no church.
Old St Chad’s
After much argument a new site was found on the derelict town wall, and the Scottish architect George Steuart, who had designed nearby Attingham Park and a church in Wellington, was commissioned. He submitted various designs, and although the Parochial Church Council preferred a rectangular one, ‘due to a misunderstanding’ he actually completed a circular plan that had been considered but rejected. Time was short, however, and it became the final design. Stones from old St Chad’s were used as foundations and the foundation stone was laid on St Chad’s Day, 2 March 1790.
The new church was opened on 19th August 1792. Its design differs from typical Georgian buildings, and mixes Ionic, Doric and Corinthian styles in its facade and interior. The central hall, with a sweeping double staircase to the gallery, is more like a country house than a church, as is the decoration on the ceiling of the nave. Yet the church is a child of its time, for the delicate banisters and the slender pillars supporting the gallery are early products of the Industrial Revolution then beginning in Shropshire. A bust of William Hazledine, the great iron-master who worked with Telford is on the left of the sanctuary, and one of John Simpson, master builder and stonemason is on the right. They both played a major part in the church’s construction.
On November 15th 1809 Charles Darwin was baptised in St Chad’s Church.
The circular nave is unique, with pews arranged like a maze. The original ‘three-decker’ pulpit from which the preacher could more-or-less look those in the gallery in the eye (and thunder down on the mortals on the ground floor) has been replaced by one in Arts and Crafts style in copper and brass, placed under the rim of the gallery. This opens a clearer view of the Sanctuary, which, bordered by Corinthian pilasters and columns, contains a fine reredos and a colourful window, made by the renowned Shrewsbury firm of Betton and Evans. The window is a replica of Rubens’ triptych containing ‘The Descent from the Cross’, held in Antwerp cathedral. A fuller description is here. Around the church in the gallery, and in some locations in the inner vestibule, is a noteworthy collection of hatchments, which are armorial bearings that, as was the custom in the 19th century, were placed on a hearse on the way to a funeral in church, to identify the body in the coffin. More information, including a list of the hatchments, is here.
On the right hand side of the main entrance to the church is St Aidan’s Chapel. After the Second World War it was made into a memorial chapel for the local regiment: the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.
You may notice that the full title of the church: “St Chad’s with St Mary’s” is sometimes used. When St Mary’s was made redundant in 1987, the Churches Conservation Trust took on responsibility for the care and preservation of its building. It is the vicar of St.Chad’s who has spiritual over-sight of St Mary’s