Churches Together02

St_Mary_s_2The Story of
St Mary’s

For more than 500 years a church has stood on the site of St. Mary's at  the head of the Calder Valley, making it the oldest centre of Christian worship  in Todmorden. For many years it was the last outpost of the west Pennine  Bishops, having begun life as part of the vast ancient Diocese of Lichfield,  which was founded by St. Chad in the year 669. It passed into Chester in 1541,  Manchester in 1847, and only became part of the Yorkshire Diocese of Wakefield  in 1928 after the formation of the Diocese of Blackburn. From about 1536 the  Yorkshire part of the town was served by a chapel at Cross Stone only about a  mile away but 300 feet higher up the valley side. Until fairly recently, the  valley between the two was often flooded and always marshy. Towards Burnley, the  chapel at Holme in Cliviger is known to have existed in 1552. In the Rochdale  direction, Littleborough chapel is thought to have begun life about 1470, Most  of these neighbouring foundations have been completely rebuilt at various times  over the years: not so with St. Mary's Todmorden.

A nervous passenger, travelling on a rather old looking Dakota, asked  the pilot how old the plane was. The pilot replied, "It all depends which part  of the plane you are touching . . . . this isn't just one plane; it's made up of  parts from dozens of planes".  You would get a similar sort of answer if you  asked the age of the present fabric of St. Mary's: it all depends where you are  standing at the time.


The base of the square tower is certainly the oldest part, as the well  worn spiral steps testify; and note too the carved faces outside on either side  of the west window. A study of the exterior stone work shows clearly that the  top of the tower is newer: it was raised in 1860 when a new clock was installed  and the bell of 1603 recast. A fine weathercock is the crowning  touch.


When the church first began it is hard to tell. Very few records were  kept in the old days and important papers have a habit of being lost or  destroyed, not always accidentally, so that we are not sure when St. Mary's was  founded. But it would seem to have grown up between 1400 and 1476.

Dr. Drake, Vicar of Rochdale from 1790, thought that there would have  been a chantry or "field kirk" as early as 1400. This small chapel would have  had no boundary wall and would not have been used regularly for all the  sacraments of the Church; but by the 1470's there would be the nucleus of the  present church and our tower dates from then. John Travis in his "Notes etc. on  Todmorden District" (1892) includes a quotation referring to 1476 but does not  state its source.

By the Royal Injunction of Henry VIII in 1538 (which also commanded the  setting up of Grafton's Great Bible in English in all Churches and chapels for  the regular instruction of the people in the Scriptures and for the checking of  certain superstitions) the clergy were ordered to keep a register of all  marriages, births and funerals and to store it in the parish chest. Whether this  decree was obeyed in Todmorden we do not know as no records survive from that  period. The registers of the Parish Church at Rochdale date from 1582 and our  local ones from the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy and the English  Church after the death of Oliver Cromwell.

When Canon H. W. Hodgson was Vicar of Cross Stone he was given a  parchment by the then town clerk, Mr. Herbert Garrett, which Mr. Garrett had  found among some old documents he had been asked to classify and record. It was  nothing less than the original faculty granted by Archbishop Sterne in 1697 to  the Church of Cross Stone giving them the right to Baptise and to bury and so  avoid the long trek to Heptonstall (a much earlier foundation of about 1260 A.D.  on a high spur above Hebden Bridge) which journey, says the faculty, was  hazardous and often impossible in winter. Some such faculty must have been  issued to St. Mary's by a Bishop of Lichfield to avoid the necessity of going to  St. Chad's at Rochdale in whose parish the Todmorden chapel stood; but no one  knows where it is now. The earliest reference to a priest in connection with  Todmorden is in 1445 when, on September 4th, Thomas Marshall, "chaplain", became  possessed of certain lands here. But there is no other evidence that he was in  charge of St. Mary's.

In 1489 it is recorded that Sir Edmund Howarth was definitely "chaplain  of Todmerdine". ("Sir" was a common mediaeval title for priests and does not  mean that he was a knight of the realm.) From this date a full list of curates  has been worked out. Most likely, until a priest's house was built near the  church and regular services were established, a minister would travel the nine  miles from Rochdale at certain times of the year.

There were a number galleries in the 18th century building. The parish  records include a list of pew sitting in 1778 which states a total of 694 seats  for "upgrown persons" with over 300 of them being in various "lofts" (including  27 in the west end reserved "for the use of the singers only"). The pulpit used  to stand in the centre of the south side and there were galleries all round the  other three sides. The pulpit was a three decker, the parson read the service from  the middle desk and preached from the upper most; the clerk sat at the lowest  one and there gave out the hymns and notices and led the responses. In 1800 an  official document described the church as having no chancel but a threelight  east window and a marble topped communion table on a semicircular raised  enclosure one step above the church floor. In 1805 the first organ was installed  in the south west gallery. In the same year it was agreed to build a vestry at  the north east corner. There were other ambitious schemes about this time to  build a new tower with a peal of bells but they were never implemented. In 1813  the galleries were altered and it was said that 743 persons could be  accommodated.

With the opening of Christ Church in 1832, St. Mary's became redundant  and the organ and pews were moved to the new church. They were later replaced  but a relic of the old furniture existed until the closure of Christ Church in  1992 in the form of a panel from the end of one of the old pews, inscribed "This  pue belongeth to John and Anthony Crossley at Skaitclif 1724". There was quite a  bit of local feeling against closing the old church. Something had to be done,  however, as the old church must have been very dark and crowded. Various  suggestions were put forward including the rebuilding of St. Mary's as close as  possible to the old site but eventually it was decided, though by no means  unanimously, to build a new church in the new grave yard where the sacristy  Sunday school had been since 1819. Government grants were available at this time  towards the cost of new churches in growing areas. Joseph Cowell was the Priest  and he transferred his ministrations to the new building. There was a tablet to  his memory at Christ Church and a small plate, now on a pew end at St. Mary's to  a child of his who died in 1823. The old church was then used only for  occasional funerals in the old graveyard (which was itself closed in 1857) and  for storing equipment for the market.

In 1847 St. Peter's Church was built at Walsden to serve that part of  the Todmorden Chapelry. This removed about half the population that was formerly  catered for by the Curate of Todmorden. Nevertheless, local agitators succeeded  in enlisting the support of the Archdeacon and the Bishop of Manchester (James  Prince Lee) having promised money for the renovation of St. Mary's and the  stipend of a minister. The Diocese of Manchester had only just been created and  one wonders if a bit of Empire building was going on.

In 1853 the Bishop claimed to have discovered a fault in the legal  documents concerning the consecration of Christ Church (by the former Bishop of  Chester who was by this time Archbishop of Canterbury). This resulted in poor  John Edwards curate since 1846 being informed that he was not legally incumbent of the chapelry but only Christ Church, that the ancient  endowments and privileges of St. Mary's had never been properly transferred to  the new church, that the right of nominating a minister to the old had lapsed to  the Crown, and, furthermore, that all the weddings performed in the new church  were not properly valid and would require an Act of Parliament to set them  right. All this despite what was obvious and well-known intention at the time of  consecration that Christ Church should replace St. Mary's. Dr. Molesworth who  was Vicar of Rochdale, Patron of Todmorden, and father-in-law to Mr. Edwards, had  a pamphlet published in which he laid out the case and suggested that the Bishop  must have a personal grudge against him and his family in refusing to set right  the other matters. Copies of all the documents relating to this controversy are  preserved in the Todmorden Parish records. Having had their own churchwardens  accepted by the Archdeacon, the local party reopened St. Mary's, altered the  tower, and conducted their own services and Sunday school. They could find no  clergy willing to assist them except a Moravian minister from Rochdale and the  rather eccentric Vicar of All Saints Habergham, Burnley.

ThisSt_Mary_s_old_knave situation came to an end in 1866 with the passing of the Rochdale  Vicarage Act when the legal anomalies were swept away and the last Curate, the  Rev. Anthony John Plow, was left with St. Mary's as a chapel within the newly  constituted Parish of Todmorden and with Christ Church as the Parish Church. Mr.  Plow was murdered in 1868. A booklet "Murder at the Vicarage" telling the story  of this episode has been published, Miles Wetherill was hung in Manchester for  his sins.

Since this time the old church was in regular use until 1988 despite  being so close to the Parish Church. Having two churches in such a position in  one parish did cause problems but over the years clergy and people learned to  live with the peculiar arrangement and even, at times, to see the funny side of  it. Though the question of whether we were making the best use of our resources  in keeping two buildings going was a serious one. They were used alternately for  Sunday worship.

In 1987 history was repeated when both churches were in need of  extensive repairs “ it became impossible to keep two churches going. The  decision had to be taken to close one and renovate the other - but which  one?

The vote was very close close “ St Mary's won the day by by just a few  votes. It was a heart-rending decision to make - losing your church is indeed a  great loss.

St Mary's was stripped to its shell, the original oak beams were treated  and re-used but the interior furnishings are new.

The church was re-dedicated on 7th September 1992 and Christ Church was  closed.

 We now have an up-to-date warm and welcoming well used church and  hardly a day goes by when there isn't something happening here.

I find it amazing where all the money came from to do the work - the  total cost of the renovation amounted to 400,000 a credit to the church  officials and members.

Looking back I think we made the right decision.

The building that used to be Barclays Bank has now been demolished and  work has now on landscaping the site. This will greatly improve the church  surroundings and its outlook.

We are very grateful to the benefactor who bought that ugly building and  gave the land to the church

int_1 Int2

ST MARY’S TODAY: Left: Looking back showing the one remaining gallery (note the roof beams)

Right: Looking forward, showing the wooden memorial which now surrounds the Lady Chapel

© G. Lambert 2001

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