The Oratory and St James's Cemetery

This is a picture of the Oratory with the Anglican cathedral in the background. The oratory has steps leading to classical columns at the front of the building.

The Oratory is the former chapel of St James’s Cemetery, a now disused burial ground which occupies the rocky hollow on the east side of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. This hollow was originally a quarry and provided the stone from which the Town Hall and other 18th century public buildings in the city were constructed. By the 1820s, however, it was exhausted and a proposal was made to adapt it as a cemetery, Liverpool’s only public cemetery at that date being the non-denominational Necropolis at Low Hill, opened in 1825. Sanitary arrangements for burying the dead were an urgent need in the rapidly expanding towns of the early 19th century, and Liverpool was exceptionally early in providing cemeteries to replace its overcrowded churchyards. It is worth saying in this context that the city became a pioneer in many areas of public health care as the century progressed, introducing for example the first public wash houses and employing the first Medical Officer of Health and first district nurses anywhere in the country.

A parliamentary act to establish a managing company for the new St James’s Cemetery was obtained in 1826 and the architect John Foster (1786-1846) was appointed to design the necessary buildings and to lay out the ground. Through his imaginative use of a unique site Foster created a cemetery of real dramatic grandeur. He transformed the east wall of the quarry into a sequence of broad ramps lined with catacombs cut into the rock face; these led down to the burial ground itself, laid out with winding paths and planted with trees. On the high ground to the north west, overlooking this sunken area, Foster built the Oratory (foundation stone laid 1827) and a house for the minister (later demolished to make way for the Cathedral), while at the south west corner he provided a monumental entrance arch and a porter’s lodge. The cemetery was opened on 13 January 1829 but Foster designed one more addition to it, the small circular temple which marks the grave of William Huskisson (1770-1830), the Liverpool MP killed at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway.

The purpose of the Oratory was to accommodate funeral services before burials took place in the cemetery, but it was also used as a kind of cenotaph for housing monuments to the deceased, including several works by major 19th century sculptors.

Following the closure of the cemetery in 1936 the Oratory fell into disuse. It was transferred to the Liverpool Cathedral Building Committee, and in 1980 Merseyside County Council assumed responsibility for its care and carried out major repairs. In 1986 it became part of the newly formed National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. Further important funeral monuments from elsewhere have now been added to the original collection, including some from demolished churches on Merseyside, making the Oratory into a distinguished gallery of 19th century sculpture which complements the Walker Art Gallery’s rich holdings. At the same time this small building powerfully evokes the characters and achievements of some of Liverpool’s notable citizens from the time of the city’s great expansion and prosperity.