An overhead view of the Curwen Tomb
There is evidence of a church on this site from the seventh century. The church occupies a prominent site and would have been originally surrounded by water commanding the mouth of the River Derwent. Its dedication to ST Michael would have been quite common as the Christian north settlers believed ST Michael was their protecting angel and would keep them safe.
Eleventh century writings tell us that the monks of Lindisfarne visited Derwentmouth in the ninth century carrying the body of ST Cuthbert to keep it safe from Danish invaders. The story explains how the monks arrived by sea but were driven back by a storm. They eventually returned to Durham, where ST Cuthbert is now interred in the Cathedral.
The Norman Church is the first building about which there is any real documentation. The church was granted by Ketel, Baron of Kendal, to the church of ST Mary in York in 1125. Ketel is generally regarded as the founder member of the Curwen family of Workington and it is believed that he was responsible for the building of the Church. The marble plaque located at the back of the church denotes the name of the first Rector as Walter in 1150. The font in the Baptistry dates front this period and was sited here after it was rediscovered in the churchyard in 1930.
Like many other border churches of that period, ST Michaels was constructed for protection as well as worship. Originally the tower would have only been accessible from the Nave. The original church was a very simple structure and consisted simply of a Nave and Chancel. There was an entrance porch located on the south side of the church, and a doorway located on the north. The church served a small community of fishermen and farm workers and also cared for the special ministry of the Curwen Family (Lords of the Manor). The medieval sculpture of Sir Christopher Curwen can still be seen in the church despite being badly damaged in the 1994 fire. Over the years, the interior of the church has been altered to obtain the best possible use of available space.
By the middle of the eighteenth century it was suggested the church should be rebuilt. But before this was done, there was a lengthy period of litigation. The local squire, Henry Curwen, and the Rector of Workington, William Addison (Henry's Brother-in-law), wanted to replace what was essentially a village church with something more suitable for the ever expanding and prosperous town. An application was made to the Bishop of Chester (as Workington was in the Diocese of Chester at that time, and had been seen since the Reformation). There was an amount of local opposition to this which was referred to the Lord Chancellor in London, even though the plans at this stage were well in advance and subscriptions towards the new building were being collected. In those days, the parish of ST Michael included Great and Little Clifton, Stainburn and Winscales, as well as central Workington. Villagers raised objections because in the new church they would lose the right to certain pews as "free hold" and they were often bequeathed or even sold by the families who occupied them.
Despite the objections, in 1762, plans were agreed to demolish all of the church except the tower. It was to be replaced by a much wider and longer building. About 50 subscribers had raised the sum of £1075, and those who had contributed most were to have the first choice of pews. After much argument, appeals and protests, a faculty was eventually issued in April 1770 to rebuild the church, more than 20 years after the original proposal. Building work lasted two years, when the new church opened there was seating for 1,500 people within the Nave and two side galleries. The Organ occupied the West Gallery .The Northern tower was strengthened and a peel of six bells were installed.
In January 1887, less than 100 years of completion of the Georgian Building, ST Michaels church was almost entirely destroyed by fire. Only the tower and outside walls remained. The following is a report from a local paper:
" On Monday morning, 17th January, fire broke out in ST Michaels church and spread with great rapidity throughout the building which, in a few hours was completely gutted. Nothing but the tower, porch and outside walls remain standing. On arrival of the fire brigade, there was little hope of saving the building. During the early hours of the morning, there was little wind, but the flames were drawn from the North West where the fire was thought to have originated (possible from the heating apparatus). By this time, thousands of spectators had assembled in the vicinity of the church and the scene, though terrible, was magnificent. Forked flames issued from the windows, the galleries fell, the stone windows toppled over, the roof collapsed and gigantic sheets of flame towered upwards lighting up the entire neighbourhood."
The third rebuilding of the church was completed within three years at a cost of £7,000. The seating galleries were rebuilt, but not in the West, the Organ was resituated in the North Chancel. The Sanctuary was extended, which made the altar the most prominent feature. The Norman arch was rediscovered, having being plastered over by the Georgians. The Pulpit was made from Derbyshire Marble Pillars and the choir vestry added some time later.
In 1938, extensive reorganisation and redecoration was undertaken. The stone pulpit was replaced with a simple wooden structure, the pews were lime treated to blend better with this and the choir and clergy stalls. The timbers above the chancel were splendidly painted red, blue and gold (like those at Carlisle Cathedral). The Norman Font was reinstated. Several decades later, the soft sandstone of the window tracery had began to deteriorate and to this end, a restoration appeal was launched. The work was completed in 1994 and to celebrate its completion, in September, a flower festival was held. During the night of 28th September 1994, as a result of a burglary, fire broke out again at ST Michaels. As day broke on the 29th September 1994 (Feast Day of St Michael), the smouldering Parish Church, again lay ruined.
Permission to rebuild the church was given by the Diocese of Carlisle, but strict conditions were attached. The church had to be economically viable and should contain facilities which would benefit the whole community. Although a daunting prospect, this offered an exciting opportunity for the Parish to extend its work into the wider community. Distinct changes were made: the North gallery became a theological library and contains over 4,000 books donated by the widow of a former Rector Arthur Atwell (who went on to become Bishop of Sodor & Man). Within the library, artefacts discovered during the archaeological excavation (which took place before rebuilding) are displayed. The West gallery was incorporated to house a fully equipped conference room to accommodate up to 100 people.
It was decided that the worship area should have a traditional feel, as dictated by its Georgian outline and gothic windows. Ash and light oak were used incorporated with white paintwork made the new building seem very bright. The colour scheme was planned to lift the eyes from earth to heaven by way of carpets and paintwork. Dark carpets in the reception area lead through to the main church and ultimately to the Chancel and Sanctuary, which are resplendered in the Gold.
The 1994 destroyed all stained glass in ST Michaels with the exception of the Sunday School Window in the Baptistry. This window was the gift of ST Michaels Sunday School to the church after the 1887 fire.
The fire of 1994 may have seemed disastrous at the time, but many people have commented on the new facilities we have including: a kitchen, parish office, toilets, conference facilities, theological library and gift shop. Rebuilding costs for the 1994 project to date are well of £3 million. The church was rededicated in a series of services beginning 4th February 2001 and is now in daily use.
We offer a warm welcome to all who visit us at ST Michaels. We are truly a church for the new millennium.