When chapel was at heart of community

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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, writes Sheila Graham.

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.

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. 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.

The next meeting of the Hebden Bridge Local History Society at 7.30pm on Wednesday, October 8, will hear about the listed buildings of Hebden Bridge from expert Peter Thornborrow. Details on the website www.hebdenbridgehistory.org