Canon Robert Chapman 1815-1882


Robert Chapman was born in Cardiff in 1815 and was educated for the priesthood at Prior Park Independent Catholic School in Bath and at the English College in Rome under Cardinal Wiseman.

He entered into duties in Birkenhead in October 1857 and remained there for the rest of his life; his arrival coincided with the great increase in the catholic population in Birkenhead brought about by the mass arrival of manual labour from Ireland as Birkenhead again became a town of rapid growth, with the construction of the docks, the growth of shipbuilding and the expansion of other utility and manufacturing works.

It was around 1859 that the need for a town cemetery again became important and being one of the town’s commissioners, Chapman naturally took great interest in the matter. When the need for a town cemetery had first been identified some 15-20 years earlier, there was no catholic section planned within the site, but it was now deemed vital that provision be included within any new plans.

The original site, some 6 acres with eventual expansion to 14, was clearly now inadequate and when the plan was at last agreed the site, now including a catholic section with its own separate entrance and chapel, was to cover over 16 acres.

Canon Chapman, known locally amongst his flock as ‘The King of Birkenhead’ worked tirelessly to suppress riots in the town in 1859 and 1862; being a natural leader and with the assistance of two other clergy, Rev G Clegg and Rev J Dally, he was able to prevent violence starting on many occasions although there were instances of rioting recorded in and around the Cammell Laird shipyard.

It is beyond doubt that the work of Canon Chapman was the single most important factor in Catholic rights in Birkenhead being fully acknowledged and granted; his death, just as his silver jubilee was about to be celebrated, was a massive blow to the town’s Catholic population.

His body lay in state the day before a requiem mass was held at St Werburgh’s Church at 11 am on Saturday 15th July 1882. A large body of the clergy from the Shrewsbury diocese, of which the canon was a member, was in attendance along with thousands of his devoted flock in and around the church.

Canon Chapman’s body, together with that of Thomas Danson, a clerk to holy orders, was eventually removed from the vault at Flaybrick for security and safety reasons.