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Christ Church

Christ Church was the first church built to cater for the newly arrived population of West Hartlepool. It was sited in the centre of Church Square, West Hartlepool. In its early years it witnessed one of Ralph Ward Jackson’s most notorious disputes. In recent years, it has become Hartlepool’s Art Gallery.


The idea for the church

Ralph Ward Jackson, founder of West Hartlepool, wanted a church for his new town. The town had grown rapidly, after the opening of the first dock and harbour, in 1847. By 1851 there were over 4000 people working in the new town; in the next ten years this would increase to over 29,000. Ralph Ward Jackson believed that it was his responsibility to provide for the spiritual needs of the town. He took it upon himself to find the money to build the church.

Edward Buckton Lamb, a respected London architect, won the architectural competition set up by Ward Jackson in March 1852. The winner was commissioned to design the new church. Lamb had worked on similar designs for churches before. His winning design was too large and too expensive for Ward Jackson’s budget. The church building that still stands is from his second design.

Dodgy Finances

It is difficult to work out how much it cost to build Christ Church. The stone to build the church came free of charge from Ralph Ward Jackson’s excavation for Jackson Dock. Ralph Ward Jackson said in 1856 that it cost £8,000 (£385,800 today) of which £7,800 was provided by him, his family and friends. He did not keep separate records of his private income and that of the Hartlepool West Harbour and Railway Company. This failing was to cause him trouble in later years when he was accused of misspending his company’s funds. Ralph Ward Jackson also gave a large sum of money to finance the building of a parsonage in Church Square, which cost £1,200 (£57,867 today) in 1856.

As well as the limestone, pieces of prehistoric “bog oak” (ancient trees preserved in peat) were found during the excavations. The church’s wooden altar rails were made from it. The outside of the church has little decoration other than the anchor on the south gable end of the building. The tower at Christ Church’s western end is 100 feet (30.48 metres) high. The little spire in the south east corner of the tower adds another 25 feet. (7.6 metres.)

A peal of six bells by Taylor and Son of Loughbrough cost £400, (£19,290 today) and the church organ was built by James Langley of Greatham Village (about five kilometres outside Hartlepool). The tower was not fitted with a clock until 1921.

The Church Opens for Worship

The Church was consecrated (opened for worship) at a service conducted by the Bishop of Durham, Bishop Maltby, on 20th April 1854. The prayers were read by Rev. John Hart Burges, the first vicar of Christ Church. When first opened, Christ Church contained 1,000 seats. 700 were available on a subscription basis, the wealthy members of the parish renting seats annually for themselves, their families and servants. 300 seats were free for the poor.

The fight between Ward Jackson and the Vicar

The dispute started between Burges and Ward Jackson over the provision of a parish school connected to Christ Church. The difference of opinion was over whether the pupils should only be from Christ Church parish or, as Ward Jackson wished, from all of West Hartlepool.

The first rector, John Hart Burges was 28 years old when he came to West Hartlepool. He was first housed temporarily in Albert Terrace but never lived in the parsonage, owing to his dispute with Ward Jackson. Burges was given the task of raising money for the school, which he did.

Bricking up the Church Door

Ralph Ward Jackson was not used to being opposed, and the dispute got personal. Each man had his supporters. Jackson discovered that the documents he had prepared for the establishment of Christ Church were based on an act of Parliament from 1831. The act had been amended in 1851, making Jackson’s work null and void. This meant that marriages that took place in Christ Church were invalid, making children from those marriages illegitimate. Both Ward Jackson and Burges put notices on the door of Christ Church. Jackson’s told people to go to Stranton Church to get married. Burges’ said marriages were still taking place in Christ Church. Ward Jackson asked Burges to resign in December 1855, which he refused to do. On Tuesday, 29th July, 1856, Ward Jackson put locks on all the doors of the church. The following day Burges got the Churchwardens to break the locks off. On the same day Ward Jackson then employed men to brick up the doors of the church. By this time there was a crowd present, which was getting rowdy. The men built up the barriers to about half a metre high, before the crowd broke it down again. The local paper, the Stockton and Hartlepool Mercury, was a supporter of Ward Jackson. The paper claimed that Burges’ supporters were drunk and were aping religious ceremonies, doing fake christenings, marriages and sermons. The Durham Chronicle published the opposing view, under the name “Fiat Justicia”, saying that the scandalous events in the church were all Ward Jackson’s fault.

A meeting was held on 6th August which included both Jackson and Burges. Also present was Archdeacon Thorp who was asked to judge the two men’s arguments. The Archdeacon decided that the doors should be replaced by Ward Jackson. Services should continue while the Church authorities came to a decision on how to ensure the Church documents were legal. Jackson took a month to comply, and then did not ensure the job was done properly.

Ward Jackson was still trying to sack Burges, and he eventually succeeded. Burges finally left the town in 1857. A public meeting on 25th March 1857 presented him with a testimonial from his parishioners thanking him for all his hard work.

The Christ Church building today – Hartlepool Art Gallery

Christ Church’s later history is uneventful in comparison with its early years. People moved away from the town centre following the Second World War. The town centre is now mainly shops and offices. The people moved to new houses built on estates, away from the small, cramped terraced houses built as the town grew in the mid 19th century. Many of the streets close to the church were demolished when the area was cleared in the 1970s. The new Fire Station and the College of Further Education and other offices stand on the cleared area. The people’s moving away from the centre of town resulted in the church’s closing in April 1974. Hartlepool Borough Council later acquired it from the church authorities.

Work started in 1994 and the repaired and restored building, costing £2m, reopened to the public on 5th January 1996. It is now an Art Gallery, Tourist Information Centre, cafe and craft and gift shop. The Art Gallery has a changing programme of temporary art and craft exhibitions.

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