A Brief History of Shrigley under the Salesians


by Peter Roebuck

 Don Bosco'sBoys Shrigley 1929
Boys and staff in 1929 with Archbishop Guerra


In January 1929 Fr. Aeneas Tozzi, Provincial of the Anglo-Irish Province of the Salesians (1926-40), struck a deal with the executors of Colonel William Lowther for the purchase of Shrigley Hall and its demesne for the knock-down price of £8,500.  The keys of the House were handed over to Tozzi on site on 24 June that year and he stayed long enough to say Mass there and to bless the buildings.


Community life began at Shrigley on the evening of 7 August 1929 when Fr. Michael Murray, the first Prefect, arrived with two aspirants from Cowley.  Fr. Joseph Ciantar, appointed Vice-Rector and in charge until Fr. Angelo Franco arrived in the following year, had been out and about recruiting for several months and the first groups of boys arrived in batches from 19 September – some 54 in all.  The full roll rose to over 100 in 1930, and to 162 in the following year, a level which was broadly maintained until the outbreak of the Second World War.  The number of staff fluctuated from year to year, reaching a high point of 24 in 1934.  However, from 1932 to 1936 Shrigley was also home to the province’s clerical students of theology, the largest group of whom numbered 20 in the latter year.  At various points in the first decade, therefore, there were over 200 people in the College, a very full complement indeed given the inevitably gradual development of facilities there and one which was never subsequently equalled, still less exceeded.


The first decade was necessarily one of pioneering physical development.  Prior to its purchase by the Salesians Shrigley Hall had been the largely deserted home of a truncated family of lesser gentry and its adaptation for use by a large all-male community demanded substantial re-modelling and extension. 


Re-exposure of Image-01

The Shrigley Pioneers as they appeared in both 1954 and 1979 anniversary brochures

Together with new baths and lavatories, a central heating system was installed in the autumn of 1929.  During the following summer the roof of the entire top floor of the House was raised substantially to create a large dormitory.  From December 1930 a storey was added to the wing on the east of the main front to provide additional accommodation.  At right angles to this there then followed a two-storey extension with a small dormitory above and a chapel below, both of which were in use from September 1931.  The area external to this was developed as the ‘Oval’, and a rockery built nearby; also adjacent, to the front of the House a setting and plinth were created to house a statue of Dominic Savio. 


A new Study Hall, initially undivided and designed to hold the entire school, was built to the south-west of the House.  An ambulacrum was raised around the internal quadrangle.  The kitchens were almost entirely re-built and re-furbished in 1934-36; an extensive Sacred Heart Terrace was created to the south of the quadrangle and opened in 1936; playing fields were laid out and there were other improvements to outlying parts of the House and to the farm buildings.  While J. W. Clayton Ltd., the prominent Macclesfield building contractors, were heavily involved in these developments, a great deal of the most basic work was done by the Community and the boys.  This was true even of the largest project of all, the building of the new Church.


From the outset Fr Tozzi had harboured a plan not merely to build a church at Shrigley but to make it – on what was by any standards a most imposing site – the national shrine to Don Bosco.  His choice of architect was enterprising to say the least.  Philip Tilden had been highly successful and fashionable throughout the 1920s, specialising in the refurbishment and extension of country houses for wealthy patrons.  An Anglican, he had never previously been commissioned to design a church, though he had long wanted to do so.  With everything else that had to be done in the very early years it took some time for the project to get under way; and in view of its complexity and cost, it was deliberately executed in stages over several years.  The first sod on site was cut on 1 April 1934, the day of Don Bosco’s canonisation in Rome; the foundation stone was laid on 15 June 1935; and work towards completion gathered pace from the autumn of 1936, as Fr. Thomas Hall took over as Rector from Fr. Franco.  The new First Church of St. John Bosco was formally opened in the presence of 5,000 people on Sunday 25 July 1938.  What most people know as Shrigley – a complex of buildings including a church in a beautiful rural landscape – had finally been created.

There was very little time to savour this achievement.  With the outbreak of war a year or so later traffic with Ireland was severely curtailed, closing off one of Shrigley’s chief recruiting grounds:  permanently, as it turned out, once an Irish novitiate was established at Ballinakill in Co. Kildare.  By the autumn of 1939 the number of boys at Shrigley had dropped precipitately to 70 and recovered only very slowly.  There were other disruptions.  Evacuees from Manchester came and went, twice.  In the early hours of the morning following Mussolini’s entry into the war a number of Italian members of the Shrigley Community were arrested, and subsequently interned in the Isle of Man or Canada.  Above all, when the Salesian School at Battersea in London was evacuated to Cowley, near Oxford, the clerical students of philosophy, previously at Cowley, moved to Shrigley where they remained for over a decade.


One aspect of life at Shrigley which flourished abundantly during the war years was the farm.  It had done well in the 1930s as British agriculture was progressively protected from overseas competition and steadily became a substantial undertaking with numerous cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, together with associated fodder crops and potatoes.  During the war the absence of competition and the national drive for self-sufficiency led to a further and rapid expansion of activity on the farm and, no longer distracted by other projects, the Community and boys laboured there regularly.  This situation persisted until international trade got back to something approaching normality in the late 1940s.  Thereafter, Shrigley’s agricultural land was mainly let out to neighbouring farmers, although potato crops were sown (and harvested by the boys) for a further decade or so.


A significant juncture came in 1952 when through the Lomas family, their major local benefactor, the Salesians acquired the much smaller Ingersley Hall, only a couple of miles from Shrigley on the outskirts of Bollington.  From the late summer of 1952 this became home to the philosophers, so Shrigley reverted once again to being exclusively a junior seminary.  Soon afterwards, in April 1954, both Shrigley and Ingersley received their first visit from a Rector Major of the Salesians, Don Ziggiotti.  By that academic year of 1953-54 the number of boys at Shrigley had recovered to 125.  This was the highest figure since the outbreak of war, and also one which subsequently was never exceeded. 

The painting of St John Bosco, by Tilden, the architect of the church


After twenty-five years the nature and texture of life at Shrigley were still firmly rooted in the regime established by Ciantar and Franco at its foundation.  Each and every day was comprised of a closely timetabled combination of worship, school, manual work, recreation and sport.  The boys saw very little of life beyond the College and returned to their families for only six summer weeks each year.  There was, however, one very significant educational change towards the close of this decade.  In the early years under Ciantar and Franco the school at Shrigley did not pursue formal qualifications for its pupils:  indeed, such qualifications were only introduced nationally, and sporadically, after the First World War.  From 1936 the second Rector, Fr. Hall, changed this, began entering pupils for the Oxford Leaving Certificate, and encouraged young Salesians to enrol for degrees by correspondence course.  Both policies were also promoted by Tozzi’s successor as Provincial 1940-52, Fr. Frederick Couche.  Unsurprisingly, then, when the G.C.E. O’ and A’ level system was introduced in the early 1950s Shrigley was quick to join it.  And yet for some years thereafter Shrigley boys took their O’ levels after only four years of study instead of the standard five, and then proceeded to A’ levels two years later.  By the later 1950s it was clear that this was too taxing a regime for many pupils and the College adopted the 5 plus 2 year regime which was the pattern nationally, although, as elsewhere, there were exceptions in particular cases.  Formal academic qualifications were the route to public respectability for English-speaking Salesians and for many of their pupils too.


The following two decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s saw further and much more widespread changes in the College’s regime as Shrigley, like junior seminaries elsewhere, encountered the ubiquitous social and cultural developments of the modern era.  The more positive of these were promoted by the Catholic Church itself in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.  Soon the liturgy was delivered in the vernacular and, though still solemn and often elaborate, orders of service became more informal, more centred on the congregation, and generally more accessible.  As a devotee of the mystical and the mysterious, Tilden, who had died in 1956, would not have welcomed these changes. Nevertheless, his church was more accommodating of them than many contemporary places of worship.  It also welcomed visitors more regularly than in the past as the College as a whole was deliberately made more open to external influences.  The boys became involved in social work in local parishes and communities and engaged with a growing variety of other schools in musical, sporting and other activities.  Their families visited Shrigley more regularly and welcomed them home at several points in the year.


More negative in its impact was the steady decline, worldwide, in religious belief and practice.  Even amongst committed Catholics boys and young men were increasingly reluctant to offer themselves for training for the priesthood and religious life.  By the academic year 1965-66 enrolments at Shrigley had fallen back to 98.  There was no recovery.  The figure for 1973-73 was 79, and for 1980-81 64.  Like other Orders, the Salesians themselves were losing manpower.  In the mid-1970s a number of lay people (including women) were being employed at Shrigley to teach specialist subjects.  It eventually proved impracticable to offer studies beyond O’ level and for several years sixth-formers were taught at a day school in Manchester.  Ultimately, as the core business declined the costs of maintaining substantial buildings and grounds, together with lay staff, could not be sustained.  The fundamental issue of future viability arose in advance of the College’s 50th anniversary in 1979 (and its second visit from a Rector Major, Don Vigano), and problems became steadily more intractable thereafter. 


Shrigley admitted its last cohort of boys in the academic year 1981-82.  Consideration was given to consolidating a number of other activities on site which were currently pursued elsewhere, but the size of the establishment and its rural location argued against such a development.  In June 1983 formal permission was sought from Salesian headquarters to close the House.  A Salesian presence was maintained for some time thereafter, but the House and estate were finally sold on 10 January 1986, and the last Salesian, Fr. J. Docherty, left on 20 January, 57 years almost to the day since Provincial Tozzi had struck the deal for its purchase.