I bought this photograph on eBay a few years ago. I paid more for it than I like to do but it is quite a rare photograph of the old Platt Chapel in Rusholme, south Manchester. I bought it along with a picture of the ‘Scotch Presbyterian Church, Grosvenor Square’ also in Manchester to which I will return in the next post.
The photograph of Platt Chapel is interesting because it appears to have been taken by a professional. In a similar way to the Grosvenor Square photograph it is mounted on a card with its title printed below along with a reference number. It is probably some kind of photographer’s sample, perhaps one of a set of images available for use by purchasers for use on a cabinet card or carte de visite. Often these types of cards carried portraits of individuals or family groups, but other views, including views of churches, were also popular.
What is particularly interesting about this picture is that it shows the chapel of 1791 which was substantially rebuilt in 1874-76. This dates the photograph to before 1876, probably to before 1874 in fact. A big help towards an accurate dating might be the poster pasted up on the chapel wall. Victorians could be no respecters of property when it came to fly-posting and this one has been stuck up on a corner of the wall where the remnants of other posters can be detected. If it were an advertisement for a show or some other event then it might be very useful to us for dating the picture but, alas, it doesn’t give that much information. It appears to be a notice from a grocer or some other supplier. The largest word that can be made out is ‘sugar’, a bit above that is the word ‘reduction’ but nothing else is really visible.
The poster on the wall of the chapel
The congregation had its roots in a nearby chapel of ease which they managed to hold on to after 1662 under the patronage of the Birch family until 1697. Two years later they acquired the site at Platt and built a chapel in the same year. A second chapel was built in 1790-1 which is the building as shown in the photograph. The modern building is substantially the same but was extensively re-modelled over two years between 1874 and 1876. It was given a red brick exterior, the doors and windows were changed, an apse was added and a much steeper slate roof replaced the old one. Edwin Swindells in The History of Platt Chapel (1949) describes this period of rebuilding like this:
At the commencement of his long and faithful service, Mr. Poynting was faced with a trying difficulty. The Chapel building, although not very old, had got into a very bad state of repair, and it was found that considerable reconstruction would have to be carried out. This meant that for about two years the chapel was not available for services, and these had to be held in the newly erected school at Portland Grove, Fallowfield. The alterations which were completed in 1876, included the removal of the vestry from the north end to its present position, and the building of the small apse in its place. The chapel was re-roofed and the old oak straight backed pews replaced by the present pews, while a new pulpit was also provided. The original doors faced Wilmslow Road, and these were built up and the present South entrance substituted, with the provision of the vestibule screen as it is now. The heating arrangements were also brought up to date about this time. In spite of such an inconvenient disturbance, Mr. Poynting quickly settled down to a life devoted to the service of his congregation and the wider church, ably supported by his young wife whom he married in 1872, and who proved an ideal helpmeet in all respects. In those days Rusholme and Fallowfield still included large areas which were decidedly rural, and the work entailed in the mixed community presented its own peculiar problems. The project so dear to his heart of establishing a flourishing Sunday School, did not prove easy of attainment at first, and the first attempt was not a great success. However, Mr. Poynting was not the man to be easily discouraged, and a little later a fresh beginning was made and carried through to fruition. His interest in the young people was not confined to his own chapel, and he took a great interest always in the district Sunday school federation. Mr. Poynting was never a preacher of extreme views in theology, his knowledge of, and love for the New Testament was deep and sincere. On its teaching he founded the message he felt given to preach. It followed that his Unitarianism was neither negative nor aggressive, and the present writer well remembers how his name was respected among members of other denominations in Rusholme in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
A brick bell cote was constructed to house the bell which dated back to 1718. In the 2016 issue of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society Len Smith traces the history of the Platt Chapel bell cast by Abraham Rudhall I of Gloucester and inscribed with ‘Come away make no delay’, the same phrase found on the bell in Gateacre Chapel which was made by his son Abraham Rudhall II. Len also records:
The clapper fell to the ground c.1959/60 while the bell was being rung for an evening service, narrowly missing worshippers approaching the chapel door.
The congregation was fortunate to be supported by the Worsley family in nearby Platt Hall who gave the land on which the chapel was built. Of puritan and Parliamentarian stock from the era of Cromwell they continued to support the chapel until 1830 when Thomas Carrill Worsley joined the Church of England and later built Holy Trinity, Platt.
All this can be read in Edwin Swindells’ excellent, although probably long-forgotten, little history of the chapel. He also details the contributions of a succession of ministers in the nineteenth century – Rev William Whitelegge, Rev Samuel Alfred Steinthal and Rev Charles Thomas Poynting – who created a very effective and flourishing ‘institutional church’ with day schools, Sunday schools, Dorcas society, Temperance Guild, social evenings, lantern lectures, debates etc., as well as a “Goose Club” which had a turnover of £100 per year in the late nineteenth century. Was this to enable members to buy a goose for Christmas I wonder? S.A. Stenthal and the chapel also played a part in the extension of the franchise to women. In The History of Platt Chapel it says:
Anti-slavery found in him a warm advocate, and he was also one of the very early pioneers of Women’s Suffrage. It was during his years as minister at Platt Chapel that this truly remarkable man carried out some of his most valuable work, in these and other directions. In conjunction with John Stuart Mill, Cobden, Jacob Bright and others, what was probably the earliest society with the object of securing votes for women, was formed at a meeting held at Mr. Steinthal’s house. A story is told of the way in which he and Miss Becker were indirectly responsible for an amendment in the House of Commons, which secured the municipal franchise for women. In 1869, during the passage of a private bill through the House, Mr. Steinthal scribbled an amendment on the back of an envelope, and sent it in to Mr. Jacob Bright. The object was simply to raise a discussion on the disabilities of women ratepayers in corporate boroughs, but to the surprise of everybody the amendment was carried with very little opposition, in the small hours of the morning. A National Association for the Promotion of Social Science was launched in 1857, and for many years Mr. Steinthal sat on its Council. The cause of Temperance was yet another sphere which enlisted his very active sympathy, and he was for many years a member of the executive of the United Kingdom Alliance, and during his time at Platt Chapel he joined the board of management of the Manchester Children’s Hospital and served until 1898.
The twentieth century eventually brought social and demographic change which the chapel couldn’t keep up with and it closed in 1973. For many years it was the home of a photography club which was the case on the one occasion I was inside the building. By then there was nothing to identify the interior as that of a religious place of worship and no sign of the monuments listed in Christopher Stell’s Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England. I also can’t help but wonder what happened to the silver communion plate which included a two-handled chalice dating from as long ago as 1641. These were sold in 1874 but restored to the trustees in 1895:
on the one condition [wrote G.E. Evans] that they are to remain the property of the Trustees, who receive them on the understanding that they are never to be again alienated by sale or otherwise.
George Eyre Evans was very impressed by this chalice and included an illustration in Vestiges of Protestant Dissent:
Chalice, silver, porringer shape 2 3/8 inches tall, 4 1/2 inches diameter, bold ornamentation, G.E. Evans
More recently the chapel has been on the market as a potential dwelling house with an asking price of £350,000. Google Street View provides a sorry picture of how it looks today:
Google Street View
The original photograph on its card
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