The building of Chowbent Chapel in 1722 speaks volumes for the determination of Lancastrian dissent in the early eighteenth century. Having retained possession of the chapel of ease after the ejections of 1662 it wasn’t until the 1720s that the local landlord managed to expel dissenters from the essentially Anglican chapel, allegedly because of the part played by the minister ‘General’ James Wood and his congregation in suppressing the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.
The new chapel was built on land owned by the Mort family who appear to have been generous supporters and benefactors and who had a great importance in Lancashire non-conformity in general. But the chapel, to me at least, always has something of the sense of a fortress about it – the solid, square walls, the ancient oak pillars, the studded door into the church, the large memorial to ‘General’ Wood above the pulpit.
But it is also full of interesting details that would be easy to miss. There is a large amount of stained glass but I had forgotten about the appearance of an image of the chapel itself in the window depicting Jesus and the children. The three decker pulpit is incredibly impressive and with the traditional pulpit cushions very much looks the part still. You can’t miss the pulpits and reading desk but you might miss the small section of panel cut out from behind the top pulpit. Here it was said they had to make space for the door to open wider in order to admit the well-fed frame of the Rev Thomas Belsham when he visited in the nineteenth century!
It has been some years since I was last at the chapel and I had a recollection of seeing the grave of the Rev John Taylor laid flat in the grounds of the chapel. John Taylor being the first Tutor in Divinity at the Warrington Academy. But this is not the case – John Taylor is certainly buried there but his gravestone was removed when the front of the church was extended to make way for the organ and vestibule in 1901. There is however, a touching memorial to him and his wife.
The reason for my visit in January was to be part of the congregation to celebrate 25 years of ministry by the Rev Brenda Catherall and I was delighted to play a small part in that special service. Brenda has been minister there since 2007 following ministries in Bank Street, Bolton and Monton and has given 25 years of devoted service to the Unitarian ministry and touched the lives of a great many people through her outstanding work. There is something so appropriate about her ministry in the congregation in which she grew up and which has always had a special place in her affections.
The chapel encapsulates the proud tradition of dissent and non-conformity in the town and it is so encouraging to see the congregation in such good heart and in such good hands.