A testament to community spirit.
St Luke’s Church, known locally as the ‘Bombed Out Church’, suffered catastrophic damage during the May Blitz of 1941, leaving only its external masonry standing.
Overgrown and inaccessible, the site lay derelict for over 60 years, before being cleared, and transformed by a series of cultural events, reopening the space to the public.
Having become an established venue for theatre, dance, classical and world music, visual art, cinema, and spoken word, as well as alternate and participatory forms of work, the site now stands as a testament to community spirit and the power of the arts to affect change - a living, working monument to the people of Liverpool.
The ongoing story is one of hope and transformation.
In 1791, the land on which St Luke’s stands, was granted to the town of Liverpool by the Earl of Derby, on the condition that it should be used for the construction of a church only. The Corporation of Liverpool commissioned John Foster Senior to design St Luke’s in c.1802 and the foundation stone was laid on the 9th of April 1811. Despite this, a legal dispute regarding land to the south of the church meant that building work didn’t recommence until 1826.
When John Foster Senior died mid-construction in 1827, the project was taken over by his Son. John Foster Junior added decorative, gothic-style cast-iron railings around the grounds, and enlarged the chancel for use as a segregated area of worship for members of the Corporation. The church’s tower also received a cast-iron bell frame, which is regarded as the first of its kind in the world. Towards the end of the project, it was also decided that St Luke’s should also function as a concert hall, which it did until 1849.
In 1831 the church was consecrated and was opened the following year. it became known as ‘the doctors’ church’ due to its proximity to the city’s leading physicians who practiced on Rodney Street.
During WWII, as the largest working port on the west coast, and therefore critical to the British war effort, Liverpool was one of the most heavily bombed areas outside of London. In 1941, the city was affected by a devastating seven-night bombardment, known as the ‘May Blitz’. Just after midnight, on May 6th, 1941, the church was struck by an incendiary bomb causing a large fire that swept through the building. By approximately 3:36 (the time at which the tower’s clock stopped due to its mechanism perishing) the fire ascended the tower, causing several of its bells to cascade to the ground. While the building’s masonry shell remained largely intact, its interior and roof structure was almost entirely destroyed.
After the war, various plans were proposed, including the clearing of the site to make way for a new road out of the city. However in the 1950s, the Bishop of Liverpool suggested that the church ruins be preserved as a memorial to the casualties of WWII, and in June 1952 the church and its surrounding railings became Grade II listed. Despite this, the church’s interior remained largely derelict until the early 2000s when the space was transformed by a series of community arts and cultural events.
Today, 80 years later, the church has become an iconic arts venue and community space. Following a series of innovative installations within St Luke’s, it was reopened to the public in 2007, and has since played host to a phenomenal range of arts and cultural events, as well as community and wellbeing activities.
The story of St Luke’s regeneration exemplifies the power of the arts to affect change; organised events onsite allow attendees to relate to this story and become aware of the ways in which art and creative expression can enrich and transform their own lives in turn.
As a Grade 2 listed building and memorial to the casualties of war, the building also makes a tremendous contribution to Liverpool’s heritage, while standing testament to the fortitude of the city’s community, and in memory those who have lost their lives due to the effects of war.
In the years that have followed its re-opening, St Luke’s, affectionally known as the ‘Bombed Out Church’, has become a much loved and celebrated part of the city. It stands as a cogent reminder of the effects of war, but also as a testament to the power of resilience and community action.
The site provides a place to celebrate and engage with the cultural diversity of the city and offers an example of how arts and events can drive regeneration.
With its future secured, St Luke’s is set to provide meaningful opportunities for participation with the arts and culture, and a safe haven for community activities for many years to come.
Alongside the growing cultural programme, there is a great focus on the creation of heritage engagement projects, the expansion of learning and participation opportunities, and the community-based development of the gardens.
Improvements to the site, such as better facilities and accessibility, will further establish St Luke’s as an engaging, family friendly and welcoming space.
The story of St Luke’s transformation has been defined by the participation of the local community. Thousands of volunteering hours have transformed
the church from a derelict site into the iconic community space it is today.
THE AERIAL BOMBARDMENT OF LIVERPOOL:
During World War II (1939-1945), Britain suffered an extensive aerial bombing campaign from the German ‘Luftwaffe’ (air force). The attacks took place from 1940 until 1941, formally titled ‘The Blitz’.
In an attempt to damage their enemies power, the Nazis targeted an extensive amount of British port and industrial cities. The air raids began with the capital in London and rapidly moved to other areas including Hull, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, Birmingham, and Liverpool. Outside of London, Liverpool endured more air raids than any other UK city, suffering approximately 80 attacks between August 1940 and January 1942 (Hodgson and Matthews, 2021). The area was specifically targeted because each week, the River Mersey welcomed ships from allied countries carrying vital supplies to support the war efforts. From 1941, the city had also become one of Britain’s major naval bases.
Across Merseyside, more than 4,000 civilians were killed, over 10,000 homes were destroyed, and over 70,000 people were made homeless in the blasts (Museum of Liverpool website). The social, emotional, and cultural impacts of these events cannot be understated, and many visual markers of the attacks still remain throughout the city today.
OUR HISTORY CONTINUED...
THE MAY BLITZ AND THE CHURCH:
St Luke’s Bombed Out Church stands as a testament to these horrific bombings. In 1941, the building was blasted during one of the Luftwaffe’s most notorious attacks termed ‘The May Blitz’, so-called because bombs were dropped each night from the 1st-8th May. The blaze lasted for several days following the initial blow, leaving only the stonework shell standing.
Charred timber still remains inside the church’s walls as evidence of the flames as shown in this image.
During this one week, over 1,900 people in Liverpool were killed and close to 1,500 others were seriously wounded. In Bootle alone, 8,000 out of 17,000 houses were destroyed or damaged (Imperial War Museum website). Countless lives were completely uprooted and changed forever because of these tragic events.
THE BOMBED OUT CHURCH AS A MEMORIAL SITE:
From 1952 onwards, St Luke’s Bombed Out Church has been categorised as an official grade II listed building by the National Heritage List for England. Due to its moving history and its looming presence as an example of German attack, the church has since become a managed ruin and memorial to those lost during the Blitz.
Since 2014, our site has also been home to a commemorative sculpture named ‘All Together Now’, located to the right of the Leece Street gates. It was designed by artist Andy Edwards as a way to pay respects to the soldiers of WWI (1914-1918), honouring the famous ‘Christmas Truce’.
The statue is based on a real event that took place in 1914, during which a number of German and British soldiers left their trenches to enter ‘No Man’s Land’, momentarily ceasing their conflict to play a game of football. Therefore, the site is an important location for people to pay their respects to those passed and think about these heart-breaking conflicts.
The church now acts an open-air venue for community art events and cultural activities throughout the year. The concept of public spirit is now an important aspect of the church’s activities, symbolising Liverpool’s ability to come together in times of need and create positive change.
Hodgson. G and Matthews, R. (2021) Never Failed?, Media History [Online], 27:2, pp.162-176. https://doi.org/10.1080/13688804.2020.1769473. Published online: 29 May 2020. [Accessed 22 Jan 2022].
Imperial War Museum, The Liverpool Blitz [online]. Available from: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-liverpool-blitz [Accessed 20 Jan 2022].
National Museums Liverpool, Blitzed: Liverpool Lives. Available from: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/whatson/museum-of-liverpool/exhibition/blitzed-liverpool-lives [Accessed 20 Jan 2022]