St. John the Baptist’s Church (also known as Atherton’s parish church) is a landmark feature of Atherton. The impressive structure towers above the town and it can be seen for miles around. However, this is in fact the third church-building to stand on this site. 30 years ago this year, it was very nearly destroyed. This is the hidden history of the church.

Image Above: Atherton Parish Church. The obelisk was built by Robert Vernon Atherton in 1781 (his father has erected one in Leigh in 1761). It was constructed by the mason John Anderton. It was rebuilt in 1867 by William Tomlin and restored in 1960. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

The Early Church

A church or chapel has existed on the site of the current St. John the Baptist’s Church at Market Place in Atherton for several centuries. However, it seems the foundations on this spot go back even further. In the 1990s workmen at the church discovered much older foundation and a survey was subsequently carried out by English Heritage. Thomas Jackson has kindly shared their findings with me and these foundations are thought to date from the Saxon period (c.410-1066) and could possibly have been for a hall or a chapel building.

The first purpose-built chapel which we definitely know existed on the site and for which we have archival material was a small brick building built in 1645. Atherton was under the Parish of Leigh at this time and the chapel was built as a chapel of ease, so that local people did not have to always have to travel to church of St. Mary the Virgin at Leigh for sermon and prayer services. They still had to go to Leigh for significant life occasions such as baptisms, marriages and burials. However, during the period known as the Commonwealth (1649-1660) which followed the Civil War (1642-1651), there was much social change. The monarchy had been abolished. In Atherton, as Dr John Lunn noted, ‘there was a breakaway from the traditional usage of the church and marriages were performed before magistrates or in public houses and baptisms and funerals took place at the chapels of Atherton and Astley in derogation of the rights of the mother church at Leigh.

The first chapel at Atherton was shared by the Parish of Leigh (Church of England) and dissenters (those who did not follow the Church of England; in this case, Presbyterians). In 1721 Lord of the Manor, Richard Atherton, expelled the dissenters from the chapel. He had been placed under pressure by the Vicar of Leigh, George Ward and the Bishop of Chester to reign in control of the two chapel of eases, the one at Atherton and another at Astley (later to become St. Stephen’s). Ward added to the drama in 1717 when he told the Bishop that the chapel at Atherton had never been consecrated. The ‘dissenting’ congregation, who were legally allowed to worship there following a licence granted in 1689, were ejected from the chapel and forbidden to worship there. This community founded their own place of worship not far away. This building, built in 1721, still stands and it celebrates its tercentenary this year (2021). It is now known as Chowbent Chapel and it serves the local Unitarian community.

Image Above: Chowbent Chapel, built 1721 by the dissenting community after they were ejected from the other chapel. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

The 1645 chapel was eventually consecrated as St. John’s in 1723 and burials could take place there. It stood for around 165 years and it was pulled down in 1810 and replaced by the second chapel, which was completed in 1811 and consecrated in 1814. This chapel was built on the site of the former chapel but further away from the road. It was made of 210,000 bricks, 104 loads of sand, 2000 feet of oak and 400 feet of lime. It cost £2575/5s./8d. (around £184,000 in modern terms). It had two galleries, seats for 823 persons and a church tower. Some box pews from the first chapel, which were used again in the second chapel, still survive as panelling in the current church.

Replacing the Old with the New

This second chapel served the population of Atherton for six decades. The question of a new church was raised in 1874 but the chapel was not demolished until August 1877 owing to land disputes. One reason for the demolition of the second chapel was that the population of Atherton had grown exponentially in the nineteenth century and it was still continuing to rise in the 1870s. In 1801 the population stood at 3,209 persons and in 1881 it was 12,602 persons; a four-fold increase in a single lifetime. Also, the community needed a new church to befit their status as a parish independent of Leigh. In 1859 Atherton became its own Parish, later incorporating Howe Bridge in 1878 and Hindsford in 1884.

The demolition of the old chapel tower in August 1877 drew large crowds. Many were happy with the progress, Other lamented the loss. Rev. Nuttall wrote:

I know that the pulling down of the old church will be a matter of regret to many in the parish. It is impossible that it should be otherwise. When they themselves have been baptised, married, and their children aftert them have been baptised there, and many of their dead rest within its walls. It would be strange is a strong attachment was not felt for the place.’

Image Above: An amazing photograph of the second chapel, built 1810 and demolished 1877. The current church covers the site of this chapel and the graveyard and also the cottages on the left. The ghostly figures of two men on the edge of the pavement and a woman in front of the gates are because they moved before the full exposure of the photograph had taken place. The men leaning against the wall were stationary for the right amount of time. (Source: Private Collection)

The architectural firm of Paley and Austin designed the new parish church and it was built by William Winnard of Wigan. They had already designed St. Michael’s in Howe Bridge and re-built Leigh Parish Church. Architectural historians Nikolaus Pevsner and Richard Pollard describe St. John’s as ‘one of Paley and Austin’s best‘ and the tower as ‘magnificently mighty’. The nave of St. John’s was built between 1878-9 in a neo-gothic style. The foundation stone was supposed to be laid by Lord Lilford but he was ill at the time. Therefore, it was laid by a prominent local citizen, cotton manufacturer and resident of Alder House, Thomas Lee (1819-1895). Construction and progress on the church was slow and it was consecrated in 1879 even though it had not been fully completed. Originally a turret was planned to finish the church but this idea was scrapped in favour of a tower. The tower, which is the main feature of the church today, was only added much later. Lord Lilford laid its cornerstone in 1891 and construction started in 1892 after funds had been raised by the local population. In 1896 the tower was completed and the clock faces were added. They were paid for by Mrs Mary Lee of Alder House in memory of her husband, Thomas, who had died the year before. The cost of the new church was estimated at £15,000 (£1.4 million in modern terms) but it eventually cost over £24,000 upon completion (£2.7 million). The altar was replaced in 1923 and the cost covered by the Fletcher family. The original altar was given to Daisy Hill church.

Image Above: Interior of the current St. John’s Church, showing Paley and Austin’s wonderful architecture. The pews are roped off due to Covid-restrictions. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

The footprint of the new church was much larger than its predecessors and as such, it consumed much of the former graveyard which surrounded the old chapel, which was visible in the black and white photograph above. There had been burials around the chapel since the late-eighteenth century. However, upon the passing of the Burials Act (1855) and the opening of Atherton cemetery in 1857, there were to be no more burials in the congested graveyard. The last burial at St John’s was that of five year old Mary Prestwich on 8th February 1857.

Image Above: Flat stones facing the site of the former market (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

What happened to the bodies? Well, Ordnance Survey maps of Atherton up until the 1950s record a graveyard around the back, front and side of the church. This would suggest that grave stones were still visible in these places, even if the bodies had been removed. Indeed, around the back of the church today there are some flat gravestones dating from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, these are somewhat displaced and because they are flat, they are very weathered. Peter Wood transcribed the stones in 2005 and a link to his website is recorded in the sources section at the end of this article. It is entirely likely that the graves were removed, either during the construction of the new church or after, and reinterred in the cemetery and the stones left behind. This happened with the burials around Leigh’s parish church and also with the graves which surrounded the Baptist Chapel in Dan Lane/Tyldesley Road, when the old chapel was demolished and replaced by a new church in 1904 (itself demolished in the 1980s). Unfortunately, I cannot give a definite answer here, when the archives re-open I can do more digging. If you know any further information, please leave a comment!

The Leaning Tower of Atherton

In March 1899 the tower, which is 120 feet high, started to lean. The subsidence was caused by mining, which was one of the staple industries in the town at the time. At first the tower sank a few inches over the course of a week, which might not seem like a lot but it was enough to cause two stained glass windows to give way and to cause a considerable amount of panic in the town.

Over the following months the weight of the sinking tower created cracks in the church walls and paving stones to be displaced on nearby St. John Street. Eventually, much to the relief of the local population, the tower settled. The architectural firm Paley and Austin returned to Atherton and set about repairing the damage. The tower itself was severed from the main body of the church and a fillet was added between the two. This meant that if the tower would sink any further, it would not pull the whole church down with it. The tower still has a noticeable lean today and for this reason bells were never placed inside it, as the weight would have caused further subsidence and potential collapse. The chimes we hear today are a recording!

Image Above: The lean of the tower is visible from a distance. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

August 1991

In May 1990 it was discovered that the roof beams were suffering from both dry and wet rot. A very obvious example of this was when one of the timbers fell from the roof shortly before a service was due to start. An extensive renovation was undertaken to repair the structure. In August 1991 the work was around a week away from completion and the church was due to re-open.

Unfortunately, one night three boys climbed up the scaffolding and broke into the organ loft, where a fire was started. The organ loft, chancel, sanctuary and Lady Chapel were engulfed by flames. The fire destroyed part of the roof and the intense heat cracked the stone work. The rest of the church was smoke damaged. Quick action by the Fire Brigade meant the severity of the blaze was contained to the east-end of the church and this prevented the total destruction of the building. However, there were some survivals; the box pew panels, the chancel screen and the wonderful stained glass in the east window. Apparently only seven pieces of glass needed to be replaced.

Image Above: Damaged stonework from the heat of the fire in 1991. The stone should be smooth and clear as can be seen in the photo with the pews. This part was left exposed as it marks another chapter in the church’s history. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

In a way the fire marked the re-birth of the church and this seems to be the general consensus if you speak to any parishioner who remembers this time. The restoration of the church was carried out by the architect Peter Skinner between 1996-7. The interior of the church was cleaned, not only removing smoke damage but also decades of grime from industrial pollution (it had only been cleaned once in 1973). The altar was moved forward so that a parish hall could be created in the chancel behind. There had never been a parish hall in connection with the church. The closest it had was a church house on Dan Lane/Tyldesley Road. In 1898 a warehouse there was converted into a ‘church house’ which operated as a public venue with gymnasium etc. but this space was originally reserved only for young men connected to the church.

Images Above: Two former box-pew doors, now used as panelling. They have the dates 1726 and 1728 carved into them, along with the initials of the individuals who rented those pews. These are survivors from the very first chapel. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2020)

More recently a local fundraising campaign was able to pay for a new heating system at the church. The parish church in the 21st Century will mean something very different to the people of Atherton than it did in the 19th century, especially with congregation figures declining throughout the 20th century. However, in many ways the building still conveys a lot of the same principles: it is spiritual hub but, 300 years after the dissenting community were ejected from the first chapel, there is no longer any discrimination against spiritual beliefs. It also operates in ways the Victorian residents of Atherton could never have imagined. There are now women on the ministry team: Rev. Tracy Marshall and Mrs Cath Baines and the church operates as a community hub with events and groups for people of all ages. Most notably in recent years the Food Bank runs from the church. Finally, whether the residents of Atherton use the church or not, it continues to act as a landmark feature of Atherton’s history and heritage.

Image Above: This former vicarage on Bee Fold Lane. Historically it was also known as the parsonage. It was built before 1841 and it is now a residential home. (Source; Thomas McGrath, 2021)

Researched and Written by Thomas McGrath

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Sources:

  • I am indebted to a volunteer at St. John’s who took her time to tell me what she knew about the church and its history and letting me take photographs. I didn’t catch her name but she was very generous with her time and memories.
  • Photographer Dylan Robinson’s Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/dylanrobo/?hl=en
  • John Lunn, Atherton: A manorial, social and industrial history, (Atherton: Atherton Urban District Council, 1971)
  • Richard Pollard and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)
  • The Story of Atherton Parish Church (1980)
  • Leigh Journal, 27 December 1879, p.5
  • Leigh Chronicle, 1 January 1892, p.8
  • Leigh Chronicle, 3 January 1896, p.6
  • Leigh Chronicle, 7 January 1898, p.1
  • Leigh Chronicle, 3 March 1899, p.4
  • Leigh Chronicle, 7 March 1899, p.5
  • https://www.athertonparish.co.uk/ministry-team/
  • http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/Atherton/stjohn/index.html