Reversal of Fortune

Even in fragments, the monastery church of St. Francis and Gorton commands our attention. Built in the mid 1860s at the height of Manchester’s industrial prosperity, St. Francis and Gorton was in its day the largest parish church built in England since the time of the Reformation. Yet within a century of its completion, it stood in ruin—its once magnificent interiors fallen prey to vandalism and decay. How, one wonders, could such a masterpiece of ecclesiastical architecture, designed by Edward Welby Pugin (1834–1875), one of Britain’s leading exponents of the high Gothic style, come and go in a blink of the eye? Located in Gorton, just four kilometers east of Manchester city center, the church looms over an area that a century ago lay at the heart of seemingly endless prosperity. By 1845, a railway linking Manchester to Sheffield had been completed, its railhead at Gorton—an economical town, yet an accessible distance from the city center. In 1846, the Great Central Railway established its main manufacturing plant in Gorton, and within a decade, Manchester became Britain’s leading producer of locomotives, carriages, and wagons. Complementing these industries, Manchester was known as a textile center specializing in items made of cotton. As production increased, so did the city’s workforce—and within a few years, small neighboring villages, including Gorton, witnessed unprecedented development as they absorbed a burgeoning population. The new arrivals were predominantly Irish emigrants lured to the area by the prospect of employment.

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