Magazine article History Today

Prayers for Preservation

Magazine article History Today

Prayers for Preservation

Article excerpt

* What is the link between the Farfield Meeting House and Todmorden Unitarian Chapel in Yorkshire, Walpole in Suffolk and the Baptist church at Cote in Oxfordshire? They are all no longer in regular use as places of worship; are all Grade I or Grade II listed buildings; and all may now be free of the threat of decay and dereliction thanks to the recently founded Historic Chapels Trust, which has, in principle, reached agreement with their owners to acquire and care for them.

The Trust, which was launched last summer with a supportive speech and a 20,000 [pounds] grant from Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke, aims to do for redundant non-Anglican places of worship what the longer established Redundant Churches Fund does for out-of-use Church of England churches. The Trust director, Jennifer Freeman, believes that the numbers of deserving cases (which could include synagogues or, for that matter, mosques or temples if any were of Grade I and II quality) is of the same order as the 300 churches the RCF now cares for.

Of these early acquisitions, the Unitarian Chapel at Todmorden (pronounced Todmuddun) in West Yorkshire is one of three stately edifices that dominate the little town, along with the high-arched railway viaduct that strides across the valley, and the unexpectedly grand neoclassical town hall.

Designed by John Gibson and completed in 1869, the chapel -- a word which scarcely seems adequate to describe this generously proportioned Victorian gothic building (which seats 450) -- is decorated with a formality that looks more high Anglican than Nonconformist. A no-expense spared statement of commercial and religious independence, the chapel is, in some sense, a memorial to Todmorden's most illustrious millowner, John Fielden, post-Reform Act MP for Oldham and sponsor of the Ten Hour Bill, the first effective attempt to control hours and conditions in the textile industry.

From a lodge at the foot of the hill, a carriage drive winds up the hill between lawns and shrubberies to the north door, beyond which stretches an impressive nave with lofty oak hammer-beam roof supported by columns of polished marble. The spire, set to one side of the chancel, includes a porte cochere (carriage entrance) for funerals. The great organ used to be water-powered: a sluice at a Fielden mill a mile away had to be opened to give it tongue. …

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