This blog post is a little bit different, rather than exploring the history of a building that is still in physical existence (my ‘Hidden Histories’ post) these ‘Long Lost Histories’ will explore the history of buildings that unfortunately, for one reason or another, are no longer with us.
This first ‘Long Lost History’ is about St. Stephen’s Church in Astley. Astley is a small village located some 10 miles outside of Manchester, England. If you ever visit there today and walk down Church Road, you’ll come across a rather eerie and random graveyard, nestled in between houses. Just a few headstones scattered around trees and foliage are all that remains (see image below). However this patch of grass has quite an interesting history.
St. Stephen’s Chapel
For over 300 years the site was home to St. Stephen’s Chapel, which now explains the adjoining graveyard. The first chapel was built in 1631 and pulled down in 1760 when it was replaced with a larger and grander Church. This second St. Stephen’s was a place of worship for the people of Astley for 201 years until a fateful summer night in 1961. Therefore the destruction of the Church was both a physical and emotional loss to the people of Astley.
The old postcard below shows St. Stephen’s Church. The gates on the left of the photo are the entrance to the Vicarage (the Vicar’s House). If you look closely at the right of the photograph, you can see the gateposts and the Hewlett memorial stone shown in the photo at the top of this blog post.
Both Churches were built as a result of the philanthropic and charitable efforts of the Lord of the Manor of Astley, the Mort family. Adam Mort purchased the Manorial Right’s in 1606 and began building his manor house, Damhouse. Around 1630 he donated the land opposite the entrance of his estate for the construction of a Chapel and a school (Mort’s Grammar School). His will reveals why he felt so passionately about building the first place of worship ever in the history of Astley:
“I have my abode, it being a place far remote from any church and the most part of ye inhabitants [are] very rude and ignorant in good things.”
Mort’s Chapel was consecrated after his death in 1631 by the Bishop of Chester and it stood until 1760 when it was in such a dilapidated condition it was pulled down and a new Church was built by Thomas Sutton, a descendant of Adam.
By 1832 this Church too had been left in a ruinous condition, largely due to a court decision ten years earlier that gave the power of nominating a new Vicar of Astley to the Parish Vicar of Leigh. The people of Astley were furious, several of the wealthier residents of Astley sent a letter and petition to Rev. Joseph Hodgkinson of Leigh but to no avail. When Rev. Birkett attempted to enter his Church in July 1822 there was a crowd of several hundred people waiting outside who torn his gown to shreds.
He eventually got access with the military protection but only stayed four years. Mrs Ann Tonge (1800-1884) later recalled the event at an ‘old folks tea party’ held in 1882. She said Rev. Birkett arrived at the Church that day with a piece of text which read “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course“. She also said his brother, James Birkett subsequently preached at St. Stephen’s only twice and died not long after, supposedly of a broken heart. After this the Church fell into disrepair and it was described in 1832 as being damp, dirty and smelly. The front door was broken, the floor covered in green mould and stray dogs were running around inside.
The arrival of Reverend Alfred Hewlett in 1831 calmed the stormy relationship between the villagers and their Church and the building was restored and enlarged. Mrs. Ann Tonge remembered he was received coolly by the villagers at first. When he first arrived in 1831, the Vicarage was also poor state of repair and Hewlett was forced to spend the night at the Bull’s Head Inn. He noted the village was “very bleak, dirty and desolate”. At the Bull’s Head the landlady told him “you are come to a very poor place” to which he replied “I do not mind that, I do not come for the money”.
Over his 54 years as Vicar of Astley, Hewlett grew to be popular and well-respected. In 1841 he was fundamental in setting up St. Stephen’s School in the village despite clashing with Captain John Adam Durie, who was then Lord of the Manor. Captain Durie’s eldest son John (1816-1886) had learning difficulties (in the language of the era he was referred to as an “idiot”) and its documented when he became bored during sermons, he would use his pea-shooter to target members of the congregation and event Rev. Hewlett himself!
Hewlett also visited his parishioners daily and developed a personal relationship with them. In fact at the old folks tea party in 1882, the 97 pensioners lamented “that old age seemed to be telling on the vicar, who they hoped would be spared for a time longer”. His popularity explains why the Hewlett family memorial was erected at the entrance to the Church gates.
St. Stephen’s Church continued to play a central role in village life well into the twentieth century. After the sale of the manorial estate in 1889 and the conversion of Damhouse into a sanatorium for infectious diseases, the Church became the new historical heart of the community. In 1931, a group of villagers even dressed up to celebrate the tercentenary since the establishing of the original Chapel.
18th June 1961
The villagers of Astley had spent the day within the parish celebrating ‘Walking Day’. Hours later at 11pm, Reverend William King was woken by a young man at his door claiming the Church was on fire. Over 50 firemen from six different towns struggled to battle the flames as the people of Astley gathered to watch their historic church reduced to a shell.
Everything was lost to the flames; the historic pews, the font, the manorial family tablets, the memorials of both the First and Second World Wars, the 18th century library belonging to Thomas Mort. The bell in the tower managed to survive the fire but broke during a recovery operation, these parts were then stolen by thieves. The repairs were estimated to cost £100,000 and it was decided that the remains of the Church should be pulled down instead.
The population of Astley was even more incensed when it was established that the cause of the fire was an arson attack. Who was the arsonist? The young man who woke Reverend King to tell him the Church was on fire. He was only discovered over a week later when a similar fire was discovered in St. George’s Church in nearby Tyldesley, thankfully before any destruction took place. In the weeks before the St. Stephen’s fire he had also set fire to a garage with a car inside and also to hay in a farmer’s field.
A new St. Stephen’s Church was built in the 1968, a few hundred yards away from the original site, which was left as it is today a secluded peaceful spot. The arsonist not only destroyed a local landmark building when he started a fire under the alter in 1961, he also destroyed an intangible historic link to the past. The best way to describe the emotion of the loss of St. Stephen’s is in the words of former local resident and historian John Lunn, who wrote describing the event as:
” The shabbiest act of destruction the ancient township had ever seen. The act shamed the entire range of society, who saw a defenceless building – the treasure house of a parish, the shrine of a great ministration, the silent and eloquent tribute to faith of the past – done to death as its patron saint had been.”
– Adam Mort’s Will, March 1630 , Dootson Collection, Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies
– Leigh Journal, 14 December 1882
– Archives at Damhouse, Mort’s Astley Heritage Trust
– Leigh Chronicle, Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies
– Leigh Journal, Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies
– William Farrer and J. Brownbill (eds.), The Victoria History of the counties of England, (London: Archibald Constable and Co. Limited, 1907)
– John Lunn, A short history of the township of Astley; arranged in chronological sub-titles, (Manchester: Co-operative Wholesale Society Limited, 1968)
– John Lunn, Shade and Shadow, (Bolton: Tillo & Sons LTD, 1950)