Interior of the nave looking towards the church tower with no roof or windows or interior furnishings.

The nave of the bombed-out Charles Church, Plymouth, in 1942 © Historic England Archive. NBR_LEICA_VI_21_(03)
The nave of the bombed-out Charles Church, Plymouth, in 1942 © Historic England Archive. NBR_LEICA_VI_21_(03)

Preserved in Ruin

No building could survive a direct hit from a high explosive bomb but many buildings that were struck by incendiary devices were not totally destroyed.

Some of these were repurposed after the war. They stand as moving reminders of the devastation of the Blitz and the resilience of civilians on the Home Front.

Charles Church in Plymouth and St Luke’s Church in Liverpool have both been kept as they were following wartime damage.

Charles Church, Plymouth

Charles Church was the second oldest church in Plymouth. Named for King Charles I, it was completed during the Commonwealth between 1640 and 1658. It was hit in a series of raids on Plymouth and Devonport in the spring of 1941.

The worst of the bombing took place on Thursday 20 and Friday 21 March 1941. Much of the centre of Plymouth was destroyed.

The bombing took out several water mains. Volunteer fire crews struggled to cope with the fires and despite being so close to the sea, Charles Church could not be saved.

A month later on 24 April the Bishop of Plymouth led a service in the remains of Charles Church to mark what would have been its 300th anniversary. Many of the congregation were in tears.

The church tower and walls of Charles Church, all that remained after bombing.
The bombed-out remains of Charles Church, Plymouth, showing its overgrown graveyard in 1956 © Historic England Archive. AA57/00340

St Luke’s Church, Liverpool

Less than a month later, Liverpool, the most bombed city outside of London, suffered its worst air raid.

For successive nights in the first week of May 1941, 870 tonnes of explosives and over 112,000 fire bombs were dropped on the city (National Museums Liverpool).

St Luke’s Church in Berry Street was designed by John Foster and completed in 1832. It was known as the ‘doctors' church’ as it was close to Rodney Street, the home of many of Liverpool’s leading medical practices.

In the early hours of the morning of Tuesday 6 May, the area around Berry Street was hit by a series of incendiary bombs. Fires raged all night, and many were not put out until the next day.

Acting Sergeant Tom Jones of Liverpool Police was sent up to Berry Street with a pump engine and some firemen drafted in from Lytham St Annes. They found an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) team doing their best to put out the flames at St Luke’s with ‘a trickle of water’, as the nearest water mains at Duke Street were dry.

The team tried to bring in water from Cornwallis Street Baths, but other crews had emptied these and the church could not be saved. Only a lectern, some memorial chairs, a memorial desk and the alter cloths survived.

View of the nave with the church tower visible because the roof was lost to bomb damage.
Vegetation growing in the roofless nave of St Luke’s Church, Liverpool © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. AA63/07033

A Plan for Plymouth

The idea to turn Charles Church into a memorial came about before the war was over.

Plymouth’s city engineer, James Paton-Watson, and architect and planner, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, started working on a scheme to rebuild the ruined city in 1941. Their report, ‘A Plan for Plymouth’, was published in 1943. It proposed keeping the remains of Charles Church as "a fitting memorial to symbolise the city’s grief".

By the early 1950s changes to the plan brought new roads closer to the Church and there were calls for its removal. The Council’s Reconstruction Committee voted to demolish the church in June 1953, but the decision was overturned.

On 1 November 1958, Charles Church was formally dedicated as a memorial to Plymouth citizens killed in air raids. In March 1991 the Bishop of Plymouth unveiled a new plaque in the church to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Plymouth Blitz.

Elevated view looking down over the roofless nave and isles of the bombed out Charles Church, Plymouth © Historic England Archive. DP086900

Uncertainty in Liverpool

St Luke’s Church was also threatened by post-war redevelopment. There were plans to demolish it to build a new road, but this never went ahead.

The church authorities were uncertain about what to do with the remains. The local population had dwindled, so that a church with room for 1,400 worshippers was no longer needed.

There was some talk of demolishing the remains and using the site for new diocesan offices. The Bishop of Liverpool suggested that a memorial would be a more fitting purpose.

People enjoy the tranquillity of the gardens surrounding St Luke’s Church, Liverpool © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. AA63/07027

St Luke’s had never had a graveyard - part of a covenant put on the original land when it was built - and the local council had been maintaining its gardens since the war. These were already a popular spot for office workers and they and the building were seen as a memorial by locals although the church itself remained closed.

In 2017, following an extensive piece of conservation work St Luke’s was opened as an arts venue and heritage site called ‘Bombed Out Church’.

St Luke’s Church, Liverpool has become a memorial to those killed in the Second World War © Historic England Archive. DP169192.

Other bombed out churches

Other bombed out churches have been partly preserved as memorials to the damage caused by war.

The tower and walls of St Peter’s Church in Bristol survived heavy bombing in November 1940. The ruins now stand in Castle Park, which was landscaped after the war.

The 12th century Holy Rood Church in the centre of Southampton was burned out in November 1940. In the 1950s the ruins were preserved and dedicated to the memory of the men of the Merchant Navy who died during the war. Holy Rood also contains a memorial fountain dating from 1912 that commemorates Southampton residents who died on board the Titanic.

The remains of Holy Rood Church, Southampton, photographed on 22 July 1941 © Historic England Archive. AA53/01893

Some churches were rebuilt keeping some of the damaged ruins. St Mark’s Church in Broomhill, Sheffield, was largely demolished by an air raid in December 1940. The new building, designed by George Pace, retains the surviving spire and porch.

Pace also oversaw the reconstruction of St Martin-Le-Grand on Coney Street, York, where he again kept some remains of the bomb-damaged medieval building.

Other countries followed the example of preserving bomb-damaged churches as memorials. Aegidienkirche in Hanover and Kaiser Wilhelm Church in Berlin are two examples of buildings destroyed by Allied bombing, whose ruins have been preserved as war memorials.

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