Today the churchyard of the Georgian church of St Stephen’s Astley is a calm, quiet space. Graves and memorials dating from the Stuart to Victorian times are arranged around the place where the church once stood. The absence of an actual church is testament to a summer’s night in 1961 when the building met a terrible fate.
The first church in Astley named after St Stephen was founded in 1631 with money and land left in the will of Adam Mort, Lord of the Manor of nearby Damhouse. The Reverend Thomas Crompton became its first curate and the building was consecrated by the Bishop of Chester five months after Adam’s death.
Adam Mort had wanted his heirs to have the right to appoint the church’s minister. He set out in detail how this was to be done in his will, but his son is thought to have relinquished this right to the Bishop Chester, soon after his father’s death. It’s unclear why his son did this, but the decision was to lead to confusion and confrontations almost two hundred years later.
By 1760, the original Stuart church was in a bad state, desperately in need of repair. It was replaced by a larger, brick-built church on the same site. The construction was funded by Thomas Sutton, lord of the manor and a descendant of Adam Mort. The church was a simple structure, consisting of a nave with seating for 170 worshippers and a small chancel. For 54 years Robert Barker ministered over his congregation, but trouble started after his death in 1822.
Joseph Hodkinson, the vicar of Leigh, claimed it was his right to nominate the next incumbent. He chose the Reverend Thomas Birkett to be the next minister. The local parishioners did not agree with his choice and petitioned Hodkinson, saying he did not have the authority to make the selection. The dispute seems to have originated in the controversy over who was allowed to appoint ministers, stemming back to Adam Mort’s original will and the confusion over the change implemented by his son. The Bishop of Chester weighed in on the argument, and he also supported Reverend Birkett. In July 1822, Reverend Birkett was met by an angry crowd of several hundred people, who tried to prevent him from entering the church. In the process, it is said that his gown was torn to shreds.
His next attempt was met with a crowd of a few thousand, blocking his way. This time, Reverend Birkett had brought support in the form of twenty dragoons. When the crowd threw stones at them, they drew their sabres in response.
In 1824,the matter reached the Court of King’s Bench, which dealt with civil legal cases. It found in favour of the Bishop of Chester, and Reverend Birkett’s appointment was secured. Perhaps not surprisingly given the strength of anomosity towards him, he decided to leave St Stephen’s two years later.
By 1832, the church building was reportedly in a bad state, suffering from neglect. It was described as dirty, damp and foul-smelling with mouldering floors. The front door was broken and the inside was a “playground for dogs”. The church and parishioners were sorely in need of a transformational figure to rectify matters.
Reverend Alfred Hewlett
Such a person was the Reverend Alfred Hewlett. He arrived in January 1832, and his first service saw a congregation of a mere twelve parishioners. At first he was shunned by most of the village. At 26 years old, and only recently married, he devoted his time to building close personal relationships with the locals, by visiting homes every day of the week. This approach paid off, and just two years later the church was so full that plans were put in place to extend it with a gallery. However, Reverend Hewlett had never planned to stay long term, and left in 1838.
Two years later he returned, and stayed permanently in Astley until his death in 1855. Always popular with his congregation, he saw further expansion of the church building, including adding a bell tower, along with being instrumental in setting up St Stephen’s School. The memorial to him and his family still stands in the churchyard of St Stephen’s today.
In 1956, under the stewardship of Reverend William King, major repairs and refurbishments were needed. Accordingly, the church architect George Pale was commissioned. The roof timbers, which had been suffering from dry rot and death watch beetle, were replaced. Many of the box pews were removed, giving clearer views of the service for the attending parishioners. A new black and white tiled floor was laid. When the Bishop of Hulme rededicated the church, there was still more work being planned for. This including decorating the interior in white and gold, and adding oak panelling to the walls. However, all the hard work of restoration was soon to be undone.
On 18th June 1961, the parishioners had celebrated their annual ‘Walking Day’. At 11pm that night, Reverend King was woken by someone knocking at the vicarage. When he opened the door, a man informed him that his church was on fire. Fifty firemen from the towns of Atherton, Hindley, Leigh, Farnworth, Eccles and Agecroft turned out to tackle the blaze, but due to lack of water supplies they were fighting a lost cause. The assembled Astley community watched the dreadful scene, with the flames rising 50 feet above the church. After five hours, the building had been reduced to a burnt shell.
The altar, war memorials, Thomas Mort’s valuable 18th century library, pews and organ were all destroyed. The font survived but was cracked and black from burning,
The man who raised the alarm on that night by knocking on the vicar’s door was the arsonist himself. A week before, he had set fire to a garage at a house in Tyldesley and a haystack in a farmer’s fields in Boothstown. The week after his attack on St Stephen’s, he tried to set fire to St George’s in Tyldesley. When the vicar opened the church up, he found that a fire had been started at the altar. Fortunately, it had not spread to the rest of the church and there was no great damage done. The culprit, described as a young mill worker, was apprehended soon after this attack.
Rebuild or Demolish?
After the fire, the worshippers moved temporarily to St Stephen’s Junior school. With George Pace engaged on other projects, W. Cecil Young was commissioned to assess the remaining structure. He concluded that the outer walls of the church were still in good enough condition for the church to be repaired, and put forward a plan. However once the building work had begun, the foundations were revealed to be more seriously damaged than previously thought. The cost of repair would have been £100,000 – too much for the parish to bear. Reluctantly, the decision was made to demolish the church.
A new church was still needed for the congregation, and a site a few hundred yards away was chosen. The third church to bear the name of St Stephen was completed in 1968. It is a very ‘modernist’ design, in keeping with the fashions of that time.
Visiting St Stephen’s Churchyard Today
Local volunteers have laid an outline of the lost church using bricks, with an interior of mown grass. Many of the original graves and memorials are set out around the outline. The grave of the first curate of the first St Stephen’s, the Reverend Thomas Crompton, can be seen (its location is shown on an interpretation board). A large memorial to Reverend Alfred Hewett, the beloved minister of the second church, is a prominent monument. There are many other graves and memorials of varying styles within the churchyard grounds.
Facing the site is the old vicarage, where the arsonist knocked to wake Reverend King. This building had been derelict, but has been restored over the last twenty years by its owners. The gardens can be visited by appointment, and the owner has put together a fascinating website about its renovation and history. See here.
Dam House, a spectacular manorial home can also be visited. It has a popular cafe and grounds that can be explored. See our page on it here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2020
Park at the free car park for Dam House on Astley Hall Drive.