In an isolated spot on the moors above Hawkshaw is a small walled-off plot of land, in the centre of which lies Roger Worthington’s grave and memorial. Today, walkers can sit and rest in this peaceful place and perhaps they ask themselves the following questions: Who was Roger Worthington? Why was he buried here in this remote place and not in a churchyard or cemetery?
The original gravestone is in several fragments, but has been repaired. The inscription reads: Here lies the body of Roger Worthington who departed this life the 9th day of July 1709 about his 50th year of his age. They that serve in faith and love shall ever reign with him above. A second more recent stone sits alongside it, which we will return to later.
By late Victorian times, the story that had grown up around Roger Worthington’s life had a number of elements. He had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and, in doing so, had alienated his parents, who disinherited him. Unmarried and childless, he ministered to his rural moorland congregation. They would worship at Holcombe Hey Fold, where he lived, and would be baptised in a pool in his front garden. On his death he had left instruction that he wanted to be buried on a small plot of land, near the farm, a favourite place of his.
Debate has continued over the years up until the present day about the facts of Worthington’s life, and how much of the above story is true and how much is local folklore. Research has shown that some parts of the above description may well be true, but other parts are demonstrably false.
Roger lived through turbulent times. He was born in 1659, a year after the death of Oliver Cromwell. The very earliest years of his childhood saw successive acts being passed by Parliament to persecute people of non-conformist Protestant persuasion, such as Baptists and Presbyterians.
However, the 1688 Toleration Act allowed non-conformists to have their own places of worship. This law was passed when Roger was 29 years old. By 1694, he seems to have been associated with the United Brethren (an association of Presbyterian and Independent ministers) in Manchester. Two years later, he was named as an associate of the Presbyterian John Chorlton who set up the non-conformist ‘northern academy’ in Manchester.
Records show that, in 1706, Roger Worthington’s house in Salford was licenced at the County Quarter Sessions of the Peace to be a Dissenters’ Meeting House. However, no research to date has shown that his home at Holcombe Hey Fold was similarly licenced. We do know that he was living there at the time of his death three years later, in 1709. His demise is recorded in the Bury Parish register, which described him as a ‘dipper’ (i.e. a Baptist).
Before his death, Roger had arranged for one Robert Walker to perform a ‘bargain’. This term is thought to refer to money he left for a plot of land in a field close to Holcombe Hey Fold. It was here that he was buried and a wall erected around the grave to form a small enclosure.
His widow Martha, daughter Mary and son John sold their interest in Holcombe Hey Fold in 1720. Martha and Mary were by then living in Nantwich. Mary is recorded as having married a Baptist, James Maddon. The last we hear of Roger’s son John is when he is described as a gentleman (i.e. a person of some wealth) living in Shrewsbury.
During the late Victorian times, various local authors wrote about Roger Worthington’s life and this is when fact and myth began to mingle. Reverend W. Hume Elliot in his book The Country and Church of the Cheeryble Brothers described Roger as a lone preacher, ministering in his house at Holcombe Hey Fold. Reverend Henry Dowsett, a vicar of Holcombe, wrote that he was “a substantial yeoman living in his own good house and farming his own land”. A number of articles appeared in the Bury Times recounting parts of Roger’s life. However, when local author Reverend J. Marshall Mather looked into the story and spoke to locals, although he heard details such as Roger’s conversion and disinheritance from them, he was unable to verify these as facts.
In 1896, during a visit to the site, Reverend Dowsett was given an explanation of why the gravestone was broken. This arose during his conversation with farmer Henry Longworth who lived at Higher Grainings, a little further up the lane from the site. Henry gave the vicar an eyewitness testimony as to how the damage had occurred. He stated that fifty years earlier (in the 1840s) ploughing would occur right up to the grave. Henry related that the ploughman, on spying the grave, called to his master to ask how far he could go. The master, who was at the other end of of the field, called back that he should go as far as he could. At that moment the ploughshare struck the hidden foundation wall around the gravestone. The horse which was now on top of the gravestone was jerked to a sudden halt. Its feet not being able to gain any purchase, it fell down upon the stone, breaking it. Dowsett noted that the gravestone was of a poor material and thinner than normal – his occupation presumably made him somewhat of an expert on these matters.
In 1935, a service was held at the graveside after full renovations of the plot had taken place, overseen by a local committee. The original gravestone was cleaned and repaired, and a recently carved memorial companion was laid next to it, both resting on a new bed of concrete. The newer slab states “This stone commemorates the death and burial of Roger Worthington, a Baptist preacher, who ministered in this neighbourhood for many years. The old tombstone (originally placed here in 1709) was renovated and this stone provided in July, 1935”. There then follows a repetition of the words from the original gravestone. The inscription ends with “This plot of land given by Godfrey Ramsbotham Esquire of Levin New Zealand”
A stone wall was constructed around the land to replace the one that was lost, clearly demarcating the plot from its surroundings. Two hundred people attended the graveside service, including a large amount of children from the Edgworth Homes along with Sir Thomas Barlow, the founder of the institution. Various committee members, councillors and three vicars were also present.
Visiting Roger Worthington’s Grave Today
The site is in good repair at present, having been cleaned up and kept tidy by Bury Voluntary Ranger Service, amongst others. It’s a quiet spot and when we visited a local walker was sitting on a bench within the enclosure, taking a break. It’s a sheltered place because of the trees that have grown up around it, but if you step outside and look out at the view facing away from Lower Grainings, you can see why Roger chose this place.
A last thought could go to John Fawcett Skelton, author of a well known local book of poetry entitled Hawkshaw Lane and Other Poems. He finishes his verse on Roger Worthington as follows: “Ye antiquarians, hold his memory dear; Find out and tell why he was buried here”. All these many years on, local people are still interested in and continue to investigate the man. Although there is not yet complete agreement about all the details of his life, many of the pieces of the puzzle are now on the table, and only further research will complete the picture.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to members of Holcombe Moor Heritage Group for providing me with a collection of relevant articles and a timeline about Roger Worthington. All interpretation of these sources are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the group or its individual members.
Site visited by A. and R. Bowden 2020
Park on Hawkshaw Lane, or on one of the side roads running off it. Walk up Hawkshaw Lane. At the top when you meet the T junction, turn left. Roger Worthington’s Grave is situated within a low walled enclosure, just before Lower Grainings Farm.
The following were supplied by Holcombe Moor Heritage Group in the form of photocopies of newspaper articles, book chapter excerpts, and written notes:
Bury Times 22nd April 1893
Bury Times 20th July 1935
Notes on Holcombe, Rev H. Dowsett (1902)
The Story of My Life, Ralph Rooney (1947)
The Country and Church of the Cheeryble Brothers, Rev. William Hume Elliot (1893)
Roger Worthington Timeline produced by a HMHG member
On site interpretation board