The church we see today at Broughton stands on the site of two previous ones. The first was probably a wooden building, constructed in the 1100s. Two hundred years later, this was replaced by a stone one. These early churches were probably private and for the use of one local family, in the latter case the Singletons. Nothing of these early buildings now remains.
The oldest part of the church that we see today is the tower and this dates from 1533. Built of millstone grit in the Perpendicular style, it is supported by diagonal buttresses. On the north west buttress are the initials ‘TB’, along with the Barton family motif of three boars’ heads on a shield. On the south west buttress are carved the arms of the Singleton and Barton families, who would both have had chapels in the church. The only other remnant from this era is the cross base in the churchyard, which now has a sundial on top and the old stocks which now sit at the front of the church by the tower.
The Reformation and Catholic Dissent
The Singletons were a Catholic family and paid fines for not attending church. However, they contributed money towards the wages of the curates at Broughton (this may have been a cover as they also hid Catholic priests at their tower). For more on Broughton Tower see our page here.
Evan Banester was a vicar at Broughton during the 1550s, but by 1568 he was a wanted Catholic Priest. Two years later, he was operating in the Mitton area near Clitheroe, and a year after that in the Amounderness (Fylde and Wyre) region. In 1585, the authorities finally caught him. He was accused of saying mass, found guilty and exiled.
In 1590, at the home of Widow Dilworth, a priest named Edmond Haworth was seen saying mass at a service attended by the widow with her sons, daughters and some neighbours. William Cowell, who had witnessed this happening, was bribed not to say anything, but instead he reported the matter to the mayor of Preston.
A report a year later on Lancashire churches complained of vicars having been trained by Catholics, and not having taken the Protestant oath of obedience.
Even church bells were a matter of contention. Religious laws introduced by King Edward VI (Henry VIII’s son and successor) outlawed bells and ordered churches to get rid of them. His Catholic sister, Queen Mary I, had them reinstated, but at Broughton they had never been handed over to the authorities, showing an outright defiance of the Protestant changes.
One of the bells from this time still exists within the church today. It is a treble bell and has “Sce petre o p n” inscribed in abbreviated Latin. This translates as “Saint Peter pray for us” and was cast in Leicester, appropriately by Thomas Bell’s foundary.
There were rules for how many times the bells tolled at a funeral and social status had a place, even in death. A child or poor person was to have no more than three bells. Other people could have four, and a “Gentlemen, yeoman or honest householder” had five bells. Before the sermon the great bell was to be rung, and it was also rung for anyone who was severely ill.
The 1600s and 1700s
In 1676, the Compton Survey, set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, found that of the local population of 636, some 192 were identified as Catholic recusants (refusing to attend Protestant services) although some estimates would have put the figure at closer to 300.
Burial records from the 1600s give a snapshot of poverty with entries in 1678 including “a wandering beggar’s child”, “Grace Singleton a wandering beggar” and also a “poor beggar man”.
In the early 1700s, a Select Vestry of twenty four men was set up. They were responsible for a range of jobs including improvements to the church, checking the churchwarden accounts and setting the local poor rate. In 1733, they asked the churchwardens for a clock for the church and for trees to be planted in the churchyard. Three decades later, they ruled that the bell ringers were to be paid five shillings a year and not provided with any free drink.
In 1761, vicar Joseph Cowper wrote to the Bishop of Chester to complain about his poor accommodation and “as I advance in years I have infirmities upon me such as hoarse colds, which render the execution of my office more precarious”. He suggested that the local Broughton schoolmaster Robert Cragg could be ordained and paid to assist him as a curate in services, and this was duly done.
Early in the 1700s, we know that the churchyard contained a charnel house. This would have stored bones that were dug up in the graveyard when new graves were created. Eventually when the building was full, a large pit would be dug and the bones reburied. The structure has since disappeared but it is thought that it was between the south side of the church and the brook.
In 1814, the singing master James Molyneux was raising money for new musical instruments to accompany the hymns in the church. These included a violin, violin cello, bass viol, clarinet and bassoon. Other money raising ventures were carried out by the church wardens, who sold ale to help with building repairs. This would be brewed by themselves and sold during festivities.
By 1822, local historian Dr Whitaker described the church as having “such an appearance of squalid neglect and decay as he had seldom beheld…A few remnants of a more ancient fabric appear in the walls of the present fabric, which is evidently a work of the time of Henry VIII”.
Restoration began the next year by Preston architect Robert Roper and took three years to complete. The tower and west window were left alone, but much of the rest of what we see today dates from the restoration. New pews were rented out, those nearest the front costing twice as much as those at the back. Five years later in 1831, another auction was carried out by the Broughton School master, who was also jointly the landlord of Church House Inn (found in Church Cottage-see our page on this fascinating old Tudor building here).
A snapshot of church services in 1872 by local writer ‘Atticus’ recorded that there were a mere 85 adults and 43 children, although the capacity of the church was some 520. He commented “matured parties as well as juveniles can get through ever so much sleep during the services at this church. In one pew we observed four healthy looking subjects and three of them slept most peaceably during the sermon, while the fourth had his hands full trying to keep himself awake”.
In 1887, the Saxon font that had stood for so many years in the church was restored. It was rescued from the garden of the Cross family in Barton by Reverend Collinson, where it had stood for 60 years as a flower trough. Carved from sandstone using hatchet work (before a chisel was invented), two holes on top show that it once had a cover attached to prevent the holy water being stolen. In the early 1700s the font would overflow. This was seen as some kind of miracle and children would be brought to be dipped in it as a cure for scrofula. It is now thought that the overflowing was caused by it being connected via a pipe in its base to the Blundell Brook, which when it flooded would send water back up into the font.
In 1904, the famous Lancaster architects Austin and Paley built a new chancel. They added the reredos (screen behind the altar) of their own design featuring a host of saints, many with a northern connection. Today the church remains full of fascinating history for the visitor to enjoy, and coupled with a visit to the Tudor Church Cottage next door makes for a very interesting destination.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018.
The church is open at the weekend. There is a large new car park next to it.
The church website is here.
On the same site Church Cottage Museum
A short drive away Broughton Tower.
A History of St John Baptist Church Broughton, Brendan Hurley (2012) Fast Print Publishing. Avaiable to buy within the church.
A Short History of Broughton Parish Church, Broughton-in-Amounderness F. Eden Wilson & Roger D. Houghton (1971).
Welcome to Broughton St. John Baptist current leaflet (undated) available within the church.