A story of a hundred chapels - and one of thousands of lives

A hillside baptism in the Calder Valley
A hillside baptism in the Calder Valley

Once it seemed like one stood on every street corner or towered above every hillside.

But although many of them are still used, often as private homes, the Calder Valley’s non-conformist chapels are not the centres of religion and learning they once were.

Amy Binns’s new book Valley Of A Hundred Chapels (Grace Judson Press, Heptonstall, £12.95) not only details the imposing and impressive architectural details of these places of community and worship but also tells the story of the thousands of people who populated them.

Amy makes the point that while the temperance movement of the late 19th century could and can seem to portray the religions as somewhat “wet blanket” associations, albeit unfairly, this is far from the firebrand beginnings of these churches and the lively, bustling and joyful communities they created.

As the story unfolds, Amy describes how communities which hadn’t really existed before, and were often considered wild places, came to life.

They became places of self-improvement and learning, for girls and women perhaps the best chance they would have, of political debate with links to great movements like Chartism and the Suffragettes. On a more homely level they staged sumptuous teas for their communities, organised outings, staged plays and hosted bazaars. When appropriate, they also publicised themselves, as a piece on Vale Baptist Church bazaar shows, or the minister cannily suggesting suitable donations at an Old Town anniversary sermon.

It’s a story of great names, such as John and Charles Wesley, large than life characters, like the Rev William Grimshaw, of Todmorden and later of Haworth, and also the lives of many ordinary people.

Amy also points out their success played a part in their decline, rapid as the 20th century drew to a close, as the aims they strove to achieve were fulfilled and became normal in life.

Lavishly illustrated, in part thanks to the archives of Jack Uttley and Roger Birch, thanks to their families, and also building on work by Rodney Collinge and Ann Kilbey, the author has left no stone unturned to tell the story, ultimately as much of people as the buildings (the latter are all listed in a handy section at the back, and you can still see them).

- The original hard-hitting preachers didn’t mince their words.

William Grimshaw wrote of: “venturing by divine assistance in a wild, unchristian place called Midgley” while John Wesley, revisiting Todmorden 40 years after first preaching there said: “How changed are both the place and the people since I saw them first! ‘Lo, the smiling fields are glad; and the human savages are tame!’”

- Valley Of A Hundred Chapels by Amy Binns is available at Todmorden at Border Books, Todmorden Information Centre, Todmorden News Centre, Gordon Rigg’s and the card and gift shop opposite Lidl; in Hebden Bridge at Oasis News, The Bookcase and Hebden Bridge Visitor Centre; in Halifax from WH Smith, Bankfield Museum and Shibden Hall, and online from Amazon.