Some more thoughts on Croft

Both The Unitarian Heritage and Ian Sellers’ article The Risley Case suggest that Croft Unitarian Chapel closed in 1959. This seems clear. However, the story does not end there. Neville Kenyon has been in touch and has sent this interesting cutting from the Manchester Evening News dated 23rd October 1964. It shows that the very active local branch of the Unitarian Young People’s League had gone into the Chapel to try and restore it and clean it up following vandalism. They organised working parties and went to the trouble of staying locally as they tried to fix the place up. It’s clear from the cutting that they hoped to see the Chapel open once again, especially since the area was earmarked for development as part of the new town. Although they must have done a lot of work and the cutting seems quite optimistic Neville doesn’t think the Chapel was ever able to open again. We know that the next step was demolition unfortunately.

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Manchester Evening News 23rd October 1964

The original Chapel from which the Unitarians were expelled in the 1830s was demolished because of the construction of the M62 motorway, although, Ian Sellers says, this “was, not, strictly speaking, necessary.” Dr Sellers suggests this was done “with an eye to the future, but a lack of interest in the past”. However, in this sense it eventually proved a successful move – the new Presbyterian/URC Chapel built in the mid-1970s was right in the middle of new housing and able to grow because of that. The old graveyard still survives and was still used by the Unitarian congregation even after their new Chapel was built. Ian Sellers mentions a number of burials recorded in the Risley register of people described as “was a Unitarian” or “was a Socinian”.

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But thinking again of the grave of the Rev Peter Holt at Croft it should really be a place of Unitarian pilgrimage. His son, the Rev Raymond V. Holt, was enormously influential, I have known many ministers who had him as a tutor and count him as an important figure in their development. Among other things he was the author of The Unitarian Contribution to Social Progress. His other son, the Rev Felix Holt, the minister at Ballymoney for over 40 years, was also a scholar but rather less well-known. As a side line to his ministry he taught classical languages to local boys in county Antrim. The late Rev Alick Cromie, a very senior and gracious minister in the Presbyterian Church, who died just a few years ago at an advanced age, told me that he had taught him Latin when he was a boy. As a joke one day he and the other scholars decided to lead a donkey up the steps into the vestibule of the Non-Subscribing manse. Apparently a donkey can be lead upstairs relatively easily but they do not like going down. The boys ran away and left their tutor to deal with the surprising presence of a large donkey in his house as best he could. Mr Holt’s response to this problem was not recorded.

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Croft Unitarian Chapel

It’s many years since I last visited the graveyard of the Unitarian Chapel at Croft. The Chapel was demolished long ago and the graveyard is not easy to find but I was encouraged to re-visit it by the purchase of a rare post card of the Chapel on eBay.

That invaluable book, The Unitarian Heritage, doesn’t have a picture of the Chapel but it does carry all the main points of its history:

Croft, Lady Lane. Lancashire. 1839. Originated at Risley in 1707 from which Unitarians were expelled (Chapel there demolished 1971 – in path of M62 motorway). Closed 1959 and demolished, though graveyard survives, neatly maintained by Warrington Corporation.

But there is a rather more poignant tale to its story, well-told by the late Rev Dr Ian Sellers in the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society of 1978. He outlines the history of the Risley Chapel, seized through the courts by the Presbyterian Church in England who expelled the Unitarian congregation (or most of them), and who kept it until the M62 brought about its destruction in the early 1970s.

In 1839 the dispossessed Unitarians had built a new chapel at Croft, a remote rural area near Warrington. Much of the energy for the creation of the congregation came from the labours of one woman – Ellen Yates – a woman who organised a public demonstration against the loss of the Chapel in the village square at Risley. In the autumn of 1838 she opened her house for worship and in the company of her husband travelled the north-west on foot raising money for the new Chapel. She raised £500 in the end which was used to secure the plot, establish an endowment for the preachers, and build the Chapel, with most of the labour provided by the members. All was ready by September 1839 and on 27th of that month opening services were held with the special preachers being Rev James Martineau and Rev John Hamilton Thom.

It’s hard to date the old post card, although sometime at the start of the twentieth century would be a very reasonable guess. Most of the graves date from the nineteenth century and many of them can be seen and compared on both photographs.

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The Chapel c.1910

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The site in 2016

The Chapel was demolished in 1959 and Ian Sellers states that the site of the Chapel was sold for building. A major difference with the old photograph is that the site is now surrounded with modern housing but it may be that the Chapel site itself was either not sold or only part of it was disposed of. There is quite a large secluded area at the back of the graveyard which must have been part of the Chapel and the old photograph appears to show the Chapel very near to the graves.

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The back of the site

The graves themselves are worth looking at. They include two with inscriptions for soldiers killed in the First World War. One is for Rifleman Harold Houghton, who died from wounds received at the battle of Neuve Chappelle, 24th March 1915 aged 24. The other commemorates Corporal William Whittle of the 1st Battalion the Royal Fusiliers who died on 14th June 1918 in Aubergue Hospital aged 29.

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Whittle family grave

I remembered from my first visit the grave of the Rev Peter Holt. Most of the graves are in very good condition although this one seems to be starting to split which is a shame. Peter Holt was the first full-time minister at Croft, from 1880 to 1889, also serving as minister at Leigh (1889-1894) and Astley (1889-1927). He was the father to two other ministers – the Rev Raymond V. Holt, distinguished scholar, tutor at Manchester College, Oxford and principal of the Unitarian College, Manchester, and the Rev Felix Holt minister of Ballymoney in county Antrim.

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Grave of the Rev Peter Holt

At the time of closure the graveyard was transferred to the care of the local council. Originally in Lancashire it is now located in Cheshire. As Ian Sellers says of it (and the graveyard of Risley itself which also still survives) it is somewhere that “only the most insensitive would find unworthy of remembrance”.

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Treasure Hunt and Afternoon Tea, Lakeside Inn, Ballydugan

In July Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough churches held an excellent, hugely successful afternoon tea at the Lakeside Inn, Ballydugan. Blessed with wonderful weather everyone there, young and old, had a wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable afternoon.

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Tea in the marquee

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Preparing the cakes

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Afternoon tea

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The servers enjoy their tea

 

Towards the end of the month Downpatrick also had another excellent Treasure Hunt based at the Lakeside Inn. There was great support for the event with around 140 people taking part and following the fiendish clues around the countryside and coming back to the Lakeside for a hog roast with entertainment as well as games for the children. The weather was great but the marquee provided a comfortable spot for people to relax in. It was another great night and also raised over £1,000 for church funds.

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Setting off

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Queuing for the hog roast

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Enjoying the hog roast

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Inside the marquee

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Announcing the winners