Valley of a Hundred Chapels by Amy Binns
Monday, 29 September 2014
Searching online maps was the starting point for Amy Binns' fascination with chapels, as she told a packed meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society. And when she discovered there really were a hundred chapels scattered in every small community in the Upper Calder Valley a hundred years ago, she was hooked. Evidence of the lost chapels can still to be found – perhaps in an elaborate gate post, railings or a yard of gravestones.
Why were there so many in this valley? One explanation lies in the geography and the vast size of the parish of Halifax. The upper valley was far from the mother church and served by chapels of ease in Heptonstall and Cross Stone. In a 1720 count only 9% of the population in this area attended church on Easter Day. This was a gap that began to be filled by non-conformist travelling preachers addressing meetings in private houses. Gradually communities started building their own chapels, modestly at first but eventually gaining confidence and producing grand edifices.
The architecture of the buildings made clear the difference between Church and Chapel. For the established church the focus was on ritual, for the non-conformists the important thing was the preacher and the word of the Bible. Typically, chapels were built symmetrically, with two long windows lighting the pulpit. Heptonstall famously used an octagon, with balconies and seating that again focused on the preacher and his stirring message.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw a massive increase in chapel building, with communities and local mill-owners becoming more competitive and establishing huge buildings like the 'Methodist Cathedral' in Todmorden (the current Central Methodist Hall was originally just the Sunday School) and the classically inspired Hope Baptist chapel in Hebden Bridge. When there was no financial benefactor, communities would undertake much of the work themselves and raised money at stone laying ceremonies such as the one at Foster Lane (pictured).
The success of the chapels lay in their integration in the community, with tea parties, picnics and entertainments. The Sunday Schools provided education for large numbers of children and adults, with literacy classes but also skills such as reciting and speech making that gave people a way into political life.
Perhaps some of the chapel builders over-reached themselves and the decline was inevitable. Universal state education took over some of the role of the Sunday Schools, other forms of entertainment displaced the glee clubs and teas of the chapel and the large buildings became too costly to maintain. The end was often the discovery of dry rot, when the depleted chapels were not able to meet such major expenditure.
Much remains of the chapels, both in the memories of local people and in the wonderful photographs and collections of flyers and programmes of events that people have saved. Amy's book 'Valley of a Hundred Chapels' sheds a fascinating light on the hey day of chapel life, and the website www.chapelvalley.org.uk is full of even more detail. Even better, search out the chapel remains in the hill top hamlets where they once prospered.
The next meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society at 7. 30 on Wednesday 8th October will hear about the listed buildings of Hebden Bridge from expert Peter Thornborrow. All are welcome to the fortnightly talks at Hebden Bridge Methodist Church - further details on the Local History website and the HebWeb "What's on" section
With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report
Previously, on the HebWeb
History Group Study Day report: Power and Potability (11 Sept 2014)
Whose land is it anyway? How parliamentary enclosure shaped the landscape of the Calder Valley: speaker, Sheila Graham. Read more (6 April 2014)
Calder Valley Buildings of the Seventeenth Century: the craftsmen and their patrons Read more (27 Jan)See Small Ads (12 March)
Some thoughts on historic buildings and their repairs by Alan Gardner
Local History talk on Witchcraft in the Upper Calder Valley: As make-believe witches come knocking on our doors John Billingsley, folklorist and author of many books on the subject, told members of the Local History Society that to our ancestors witchcraft was very real indeed. More info (27 Oct)
Local History talk on Mytholmroyd's Moderna: Joan Laprell spoke to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society where she recalled the village within a village that was the Moderna Blanket Factory in Mytholmroyd, where she worked for ten years. More info (12 Oct)
Local History talk on maps: The first meeting of the new season of lectures for the Hebden Bridge Local History Society was launched by Tony Morris speaking about the history of maps and map-making as well as cartographic crime. More info (30 Sept)
Bridge Mill: History on our doorstep. Justine Wyatt, with the support of the mill's current owner David Fletcher, has uncovered more of the story of the building, and gave a fascinating talk to the Hebden Bridge Local History Society. Read more (3 April)
Working from home in 1825; Working from home is not a new concept, Malcolm Heywood told members of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society. William Greenwood's described his several different occupations. Read more (20 March)
The Grave of Robin Hood: mysterious goings-on in Calderdale. Kai Roberts told the local history society about Robin Hood in Calderdale and especially the monument known as Robin Hood’s Grave. Read more (11 March)
Todmorden Weavers and the Great War. Alan Fowler, former lecturer in Economic and Social History, told a meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society that the local Weavers’ Association had 4000 members at its peak. Read more (19 Feb)
Untold Stories: A glimpse into the lives of local people - Tony Wright has for the past ten years been collecting personal life stories on film and audio tape. Read more (18 Jan)
City in the Hills - Corinne McDonald and Ann Kilbey told a meeting of the Local History Society of Dawson City, the building of the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs and the publication of a new book. Read more (16 Dec)
Clubhouses: self help and co-operation - A small row of houses in Old Town, called Clubhouses, encapsulates some of the history and spirit of the Calder Valley explains Julie Cockburn. (30 October 2012)
Small Town Saturday Night - The story of a love affair with rock 'n roll at its peak in the 1950s and 60s from speaker Trevor Simpson.
The world of Cornelius Ashworth, speaker Alan Petford, Local History talk of 10 October 2012