Visit to St Thomas and St George’s Churches in Stockport, the Plaza Cinema and Wythenshire Hall

The visit on this rainy Wednesday was an already packed day with yet an unexpected bonus.

The bonus was a surprise welcome at St Thomas’ Church, Stockport. We had stopped the coach merely to look at this Grade I neo-classical building. We had to get out of the coach as the view through the windows was poor. We found a door open to the church and just went in to see if we could have a quick look. Much to our amazement they were expecting us and had refreshments and a talk available. Their email confirming our visit to the church had not arrived.

This huge airy classical church had been built in 1825 using Church Commissioners’ money. The population of Stockport had been growing exponentially with the industrial revolution. At the time it was said that the population had reached 34,000 and the local parish church could only accommodate 2,500. The inside of the church was originally in a box style with balconies and glorious soaring Corinthian columns. In the late nineteenth century the box was augmented to make the interior more sumptuous.

St George’s is in many ways the antithesis of St Thomas’. It was built by a private donor, the brewer, George Fearn. The land was also privately donated. It is regarded as the masterpiece of Hubert Austin (Paley, Austin and Paley). It was opened in 1897. The style is an austere neo-Gothic. It soars upwards on huge arches and the space was massive enough to hold 1,450 people. Its plainness was deliberate to counter the growing influence of the Oxford movement in the church.

The vicar the Rev. Canon Elaine Chegwin Hall broke into her hectic meeting schedule to show us around the church. We were running very late by then, but she gave us a thorough tour of the building punctuated by the primary children of St George’s rehearsing a musical event.

We then rushed onto the restored Art Deco Plaza Cinema. Here we were warmly welcomed by the Compton organ being played and the kindness of the numerous and enthusiastic Friends of the cinema. ‘Chester Civic Trust’ was displayed in lights above the cinema where once would have been ‘Gone With The Wind’. One of our members fondly remembers having seen this film at the Plaza on its release.

The Plaza was once one amongst many such Stockport cinemas – the Princes, the Electra, the Davenport, the Tatton, and the Palladium to mention only a few. It was built in 1932. The architect was William Thornley, who designed fifteen other cinemas. At the back of the stage can be seen the sandstone cliff into which the theatre is secured. Ten thousand tons of rocks were quarried from this cliff before placing the cinema next to it.

This has been a full and comprehensive restoration from using the original carpet suppliers to provide the new carpets in the original style to the applique beehive on the auditorium curtains. We ate in the restored café on green Lloyd Loom chairs with waitresses dressed in 1950s garb. We were even able to visit the Projection Room to see the 1930s Western Electric projection equipment.

It was the Friends of the Plaza, whose tireless work resulted in the reopening and renovation of the building. They still continue to work to further improve upon the 1930s materials. At the present time one of their projects is seeking to renovate the stained glass in the auditorium.

We had caught up on our timetable when we reached Wythenshawe Hall. We had last been here in March 2016 shortly after the devastating fire in the building. One of our members, Michael Plane, is in overall charge of the progress of the restoration. He enabled us to have this privileged tour of the progress of work on the building. He guided us through parts of the building to see the devastation and restoration problems. The Friends once again gave us an insight into the history of the family, associated with the house.

Conlon Construction is now working on the site and we were regaled in hard hats and visibility gilets. We viewed where the principal destructive force of the fire had begun and traced its progress to the Main Hall, Georgian Bedroom and Withdrawing Room. We also looked at other effected parts. Many of us were overwhelmed with the size of the task, but the optimism of those involved with its restoration is huge. We are hoping to visit the finished project in 2019.

Account of visit written by Karen McKay