Extraordinary Women of Winckley Square

Friends of Winckley Square Guided Walk. Photo credit: Paul Rushton
Friends of Winckley Square Guided Walk. Photo credit: Paul Rushton

The Catholic Chapel of St Wilfrid’s in Preston was once the largest in England. After works began in 1792, it was subsequently enlarged. It stands just north of Winckley Square, a Georgian square in the heart of Preston city centre. The large houses around the Square were built as homes by wealthy lawyers.

The Jesuits of St Wilfrid’s were eager to have a presbytery close to the church. The aim was to purchase one of the homes that overlook the Square. In 1877 a plan to buy one was thwarted when it was realised that Jesuits were the prospective purchasers. In 1884, in great secrecy, 1 Winckley Square was eventually bought and became the presbytery. It was adjacent to the church and it still serves that purpose today. Along with the property came the ownership of a portion of the central gardens in Winckley Square.

Fast forward to 2014, when the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was discussing the funding for the regeneration of the Square which had become a run down and neglected public space, the various private landowners supported the initiative and new leases were signed with the City Council for 25 years. The Jesuits of St Wilfrid’s played an active and positive part in ensuring that the heritage of the Square was safeguarded.

A condition of the HLF grant was the establishment of a ‘Friends Group’ which had, as part of its remit, to promote the understanding of the heritage of the Square and to promote its use by future generations. The Friends of Winckley Square (FoWS) have forged strong links with St Wilfrid’s since their foundation at the time. 

Composition of Cornelia on her wedding day, Frank her son, and Cornelia in later life. Credit: The Society of the Holy Child Jesus

To coincide with the centenary of some women gaining the vote in 1918, FoWS set about researching the lives of women who had lived, worked or influenced the Square in its 200+ years. Much of the history written about the Square had featured men. Astonishing tales emerged of women, often battling against great odds, who made a substantial difference to the lives not just of Prestonians but of society at large. Their lives were so interesting that they have been labelled ‘The Extraordinary Women of Winckley Square’. In September, an exhibition of posters and photographs will be mounted in the centre of Winckley Square. Visitors will be able to participate in guided walks on the theme of the Extraordinary Women. In October, as part of Preston Arts Festival, the exhibition will be displayed in the Baptistry of St Wilfrid’s itself. Talks too will take place in the Parish rooms.

One of the Extraordinary Women featured is Cornelia Connelly. She was the founder of the religious order ‘The Society of Holy Child Jesus.’ Two years after founding SHCJ Cornelia was asked by the Preston Jesuits to come to Preston to take responsibility for the parish schools. Cornelia had established schools elsewhere in England. She agreed and the first five sisters arrived in 1853. In the 1870s the Society was able to buy a number of properties on the west side of Winckley Square. Winckley Square Convent was established. It flourished as a girls’ Grammar School for over a century with a roll above 850 at its height.

Steve Harrison, Friend of Winckley Square, says: "what Cornelia achieved in Preston was truly amazing and it is significant that we will be able to host the exhibition in the St Wilfrid’s  Baptistry. It will be interesting to see how much parishioners and locals know about the founder and the history of the schools in this area."

The Society of the Holy Child Jesus is still active around the world, although the last of the sisters has left Preston. Sr Judith Lancaster of the Society was a great help to FoWS in helping tell the story of Cornelia and the difference she made to Preston. These bare facts do not convey the drama, suffering or achievements of a truly remarkable woman: the mother of five children, separated from her husband who had become a priest (he wanted to join the Jesuits but they wouldn’t have him). Effigies of her were burned in London, she was sued in the High Court. Her story would be unbelievable if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s true.

Read the full story of Cornelia and other remarkable women on the Winckley Square website.