The Oratory

The Oratory

St. James's Cemetery Liverpool

Web Photo Gallery created by the Friends of Liverpool Monuments. The information and some of the images are taken from a publication ‘The Oratory, St James’s Cemetery Liverpool’, written by Joseph Sharples in 1991, produced by: Board of Trustees of the National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside. Most of the images taken by Pat Neill. © 2009 FOLM

Liverpool Monumen



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, hoverer, 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.




The Oratory and several of the monuments it contains are products of the artistic movement known as the Greek Revival. For most of the 18th century English architecture drew its inspiration from the buildings of Renaissance Italy and ancient Rome, but from about the 1750s features borrowed from other styles - Chinese, Indian and especially medieval Gothic - became popular for their ornamental qualities and romantic associations. A few adventurous architects chose to follow the example of ancient Greek buildings, which unlike their richly decorated Roman counterparts were typically severe, solemn, and massive. As with the revival of the Gothic style, this new interest in Greek architecture began as a search for novelty but became a scholarly movement based on rigorous study and firm principles.


Until 1788 the architecture of ancient Greece had been largely unknown to the rest of Europe, but following the publication of the first volume of The Antiquities of Athens by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett in that year, an increasing number of illustrated books dispelled this ignorance. The books fuelled a growing interest. and many architects travelled to Greece to study the ruins of its civilisation for themselves. Greek art and architecture were reflected in the design of countless houses, churches and commercial and public buildings throughout Britain, as well as in sculpture, furniture and ceramics. Their influence was felt particularly strongly in Liverpool where the Greek Revival coincided with a period of great building activity in the booming port. Writing in 1858 from his Liverpool viewpoint, the local architect and historian James Picton (1805-89) described the extraordinary impact of the Revival: "Greek architecture was adopted in all possible and some almost impossible situations. Shop fronts, porticos of dwelling houses, banks, gin palaces - everything was to be modelled from the Parthenon ...".




John Foster Jnr. was the son of Liverpool Corporation's Surveyor and Architect, and was apprenticed in the London office of the architect Jeffrey Wyatt. Between 1809 and 1816 he travelled through Asia Minor, Italy and Greece in the company of Charles Robert Cockerell (1788-1863), experiencing the glories of ancient architecture at first hand. Cockerell, who was to become one of the foremost neo-classical architects of the 19th century, and who designed the celebrated Liverpool branch of the Bank of England (now the Trustee Savings Bank, Castle Street) as well as completing the interior of St George's Hall, considered Foster "a most amusing youth" but "too idle" to be more than a dinner companion. Certainly Foster got into a number of amorous entanglements during his travels (he finally married a lady from Smyrna) but the use he later made of his years overseas suggests that he was far from idle. He worked closely with Cockerell on the excavation of two major Greek sites, the Temple of Zeus on the island of Aegina and the Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae,  and he produced careful drawings which record  his impressions. A number of these are now in the Walker Art Gallery.  Foster returned to Liverpool and from 1824 to 1835 he was surveyor to the Corporation in succession to his father. He carried out a remarkable amount of work in his native city, designing seven churches, a vast covered market (the first of its kind in Britain), a new frontage to Lime Street station, and a major programme of civic improvements which gave central Liverpool a network of wide, regular streets. Most of this work, nearly all of which has been destroyed, was severely Greek in style, bearing witness to the travels of his youth. The same was true of his masterpiece, the Customs House, an immense domed building (the biggest in Liverpool until St. George's Hall surpassed it) which stood at the   historic heart of the city. It was bombed in World War II and later demolished. Foster's qualities as an architect of the Greek Revival can now be best appreciated in the church of St Andrew in Rodney Street, the Huskisson Monument, and the Oratory.