Where are we?
This photograph, with its faded sepia tones and the slight foxing caused by chemicals in the paper, is one of the oldest in the Archdiocesan archives. It also encompasses two mysteries.
It represents a rural scene that you would be forgiven for not recognising, and not just on grounds of age. The rough-hewn plank fence and featureless sky suggest an almost prairie-like solitude. The stone-built church with its brick presbytery attached seems to represent solidity and permanence. Yet the building, fairly new at the time of the photograph, didn't survive much beyond its taking. And as for the priest who gave permission for the photo, he simply vanished – or did he?
Bootle was only a village in the 1840s, but a new mission was established to save local Catholics from having to walk into Liverpool where the nearest church was St Anthony's, Scotland Road. Thus in 1845 St James's Church was built, and that is the one in this image: a 'very neat edifice', designed by Sheffield architect Charles Hadfield, according to a directory of the time.
There is a strange absence of human activity in the photo, with any parishioners who might have wanted to give a sense of scale probably shooed out of the way to allow for the lengthy exposures necessary in the infant art of photography, which favoured things that didn't move.
People did, however, encroach on the church as Bootle expanded massively during the next decades. Constructed beside a canal, St James's fell victim to the march of progress. As the railways superseded canals in the Industrial Revolution, the L and Y Railway Company claimed the land for an embankment and the church was knocked down in the 1880s. The £20,000 compensation didn't quite pay for the new church which was built a little distance away and still stands on Chesnut Grove. This was also designed by Charles Hadfield, though he died shortly before it opened in 1886.
As for the other mystery, meanwhile, the photographer 'Herbert' had set up his camera with the blessing of Rev Thomas Spencer: that allows us to date it to around 1860, as he resigned in 1862. The archives don't mention him after that, though a recent enquiry showed that he went to South America before returning to serve in parishes in Dorset and Devon.