Todmorde Antiquarian Society: The rise and fall of chapel life - and those which have survived

Shore Baptist Chapel, high on the hill above Cornholme
Shore Baptist Chapel, high on the hill above Cornholme

Amy Binns, a former Todmorden News reporter now lecturing at Central Lancashire University, visited Todmorden Antiquarians to recount her exploration towards compiling her book “Valley of 100 Chapels”.

Her fascination was sparked whilst helping to prepare for Heptonstall’s Methodist Chapel recently celebrated 250th anniversary, together with exploring online maps showing the Upper Calder Valley back to 1840.

On Easter Sunday in 1720 only nine per cent of local folk attended Church services, mostly due to the long strenuous walks involved to reach Cross Stone, Heptonstall or Halifax. Itinerant personable preachers would address small communities in private homes. There were smaller divisions in doctrine between those early Quaker, Baptist and Methodist travelling preachers, but all encouraged independence.

The first purpose built chapel in Todmorden was at Rodwell Head. Amy explained that many early chapels have since been converted to homes.

Chapel life became very popular. The non-conformists provided the only education then available for poorer families, were politically active and became great social centres.

Amy described how many chapels were funded. Often wealthy mill owners would donate generously. Fund-raising gave chapel life impetus for many social activities such as plays, pantomines, teas, choirs and missionaries tales. Folk became more politically aware through literary education giving wider world perspectives.

Some chapels had been planned with pride and ambition, but proved too large.

Bridge Street Methodist Chapel, known as the ‘Cathedral of Methodism’ closed after only 70 years. Our thriving Central Methodist Church in Bramsche Square was once a huge Sunday School! Amy explained the decline of chapel life in the 20th century.

The legal requirement for State education replaced the force behind Sunday Schooling. Cinemas and television provided home entertainment. Some chapels suffered from dry rot, as when the roof collapsed at Shore Chapel in Cornholme.

In conclusion, Amy showed pictures of forgotten chapels within Todmorden Borough and told how gravestones, isolated pillars or railings had often led her discoveries of the 100 Chapels in her book.