History of St Chad's


We have two useful histories of the church for you to enjoy. They are both entitled "Top of the Steps". The book by Wild is out of print but well worth a read for its detail. You can buy a copy of the more recent history by Ken Dixon at £3 from the Church or download it here (for free - do buy a hard copy when you visit!!)

Download a pdf of a history of St Chad's by AS Wild

Download a pdf of a history of St Chad's by KH Dixon

Download a Chronology of events at St Chad's since Saxon times

Early history of the church

Situated on an eminence overlooking the busy town of Rochdale, the Parish Church of St. Chad has been a geographical and spiritual focal point for at least 800 years. In common with that other famous local enimage - the 'Roman Road' over Blackstone Edge - the origins of the Parish Church are hidden in the mist of antiquity.

The first written record of the existence of the Church is in a document of 1194 which refers to Geoffrey the Elder, Dean of Whalley, as Vicar of Rochdale.  Hence the 800th anniversary was celebrated in 1994 with a visit by Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip.

However, the dedication to St Chad argues that the Church may have a much earlier foundation.  Ceadda or St Chad as he became known, was born in the 7th century and educated under St Aidan in the monastery on Linidisfarne.  He is known to have made several missionary journeys on foot in the north before being consecrated Bishop of Mercia.

He died soon aftwards in 672.  It is not impossible that he founded this church in Rochdale on one of his journeys.  In the window dedicated to him in the south aisle, he is pictured preaching in Rochdale and his image is over the south porch holding the church in his hands.  St Chad is much venerated in the Diocese of Manchester; there are five other churches dedicated to him, but none is of ancient foundation except Rochdale.  However, there are two in North Lancashire - Poulton-le-Fylde and Claughton - which are.  There are no remains of an earlier church foundation except the so-called "Saxon Wall" at the northwest boundary of the churchyard.  This consists of some 30ft of slab of local stone slotted into uprights.  It was found partly buried and re-erected in 1903.  The authority for describing the wall as "Saxon" is obscure.


The fact that there is no mention of a church in Rochdale in the Domesday Book (1086) is not conclusive.  Lancashire, due to the difficult terrain and sparse population, was not as thoroughly surveyed as elsewhere.  However it is recorded in the Domesday Book that Gamel the Thane held two hides of land (240 acres) in Rochdale from the King.  It was Gamel who, according to local legend, commenced to build a church on the north side of the River Roch.

However, each night the stones were removed to the top of the hill by supernatural means until it was decided that this was where the church was meant to be and here the church has stood ever since.

Gamel was in the highest order of Thanes by virtue of his holding his land directly from the King.  Therefore it can be assumed that he had a church.

Before 1194, Adam de Spotland gave land for the Love of God and to save his soul and his wives, his ancestors and succession to all the Saints and to St Ceadda and the Church of Rochdale.

The patronage of the church passed to the Cistercian monks of Stanlow.  In 1296 they moved to Whalley.  In 1536 John Paslow, Abbot of Whalley, was executed at Lancaster for his part in the rebellion known as Pilgrimage of Grace.  Two years later, Henry VIII let the church and parsonage to one of his pages, Henry Parker, for 21 years after which they reverted to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This was confirmed by Edward VI.  It has been pointed out that the fact of the of Archbishop of Canterbury being for so long apatron had an important bearing on the type of parson who became Vicar of Rochdale.

The original Rochdale parish was very extensive covering an area of over 58,000 acres and stretching as far as Todmorden to the north and Saddleworth to the east.  It was 10.5 miles from north to south and 9 miles from east to west.  It was anciently divided into four townships: Huddersfield, Spotland, Castleton and Butterworth. Such was the extent that, as the population grew, what seem now extraordinary numbers of baptism, marriages and confirmations were carried out at St. Chad's.  In 1837 when there were only two other churches in Rochdale, 1560 baptisms took place, including 175 on one day - Februrary 16th.  In 1835, 518 marriages were celbrated at St. Chad's including 34 on one day.  Eventually 33 parishes were carved out of the original Rochdale parish.

The Churchyard

The churchyard was the burial place for the dead of Rochdale for several hundred years.  The level of the churchyard is much higher than the surrounding ground due to the number of interments which have taken place.  It has been estimated that it contains the remains of the 5,000 people (including over 500 buried at the time of the Great Plague in 1623).  The oldest remaining gravestone is dated 1659 and the churchyard was closed to further burials in 1813.

Burials then took place in the "new burial ground" across the road until 1855.  This contains a further 2,000 graves and it is estimated that about 6,000 people have been interred there.  Since 1855 Rochdale burials have been at the Municipal Cemetery off Bury Road.

An exception to this was the last interment inside church was was the daughter of Lord of the Manor, James Dearden, in 1858.  Many of the gravestones are sad memorials to past high levels of infact mortality; many are also the more interesting because of the local custom of including the inscription of occupation and address in the inscription.

In 1970 a large number of the gravestones were removed and placed to form pavements.  This, and the landscaping of lawns and rose beds, were executed at a cost of £7,000 by Rochale Council as the town's contribution to the then church restoration.  The council now accepts responsibility for the repair and maintenance of the churchyard.

Exterior of the Church

The church is now classified as a Grade II* listed building of special architectural and historic interest.  It presents a handsome, well-proportioned and harmonious appearance.  Although it has, it fact, been subjected to much re-building, restoration and enlargement over centuries.  It is "Queen Anne in front of Mary Anne behind", in that the south side is well built of ashlar stone, whereas the stonework on the north side, which is not subject to the same close inspection, is altogether rougher.

The nave and the lower tower incorporates the oldest part of the present church.  They contain some work dating back to the 14th Century and possibly earlier. In the 16th century an upper row of windows or clerestory was added and the church given a lot of features of Perpendicular style. Both north and south aisles were re-built at different times during the 19th century.  The Nave was re-roofed in 1856 and in 1873 a new south porch was added and the tower raised by 35ft to 95ft, the architect being WH Crossland who was also responsible for Rochdale Town Hall.  The porch is crowned by a welcoming figure of St. Chad holding the church in his hand.

In 1885, the chancel was completely re-built and much enlarged.  A clerestory was added and it was extended by two bays from the point marked by diagonal buttresses.

The nature of the stones changes from Rossendale millstone grit of which the main body of the church is built to Yorkshire sandstone for the extension.  Beneath the east windows are carved the head of Queen Victoria and three fishes representing the river Roach.  The architect of the new chancel was JS Crowther who also did much of the work on Manchester Cathedral and designed the new chancel for Littleborough Parish Church dedicated in 1890.

The Vicars of Rochdale

Entering the church by the porch on the south side, we pass boards on which are listed the 45 vicars since 1194, commencing with Geoffry the Dean.  Not all have been models of virtue.  It is recorded that Richard de Perebald (Vicar 1302-1317) was in 1306 fined 20 shillings for hunting and killing deer.  Gilbert Haybock (Vicar 1522-1554), the last appointment of a vicar by the Abbots of Whalley, refers in his will to his "bastard children".  However, several have been distinguished men for other reasons.  There have been many Deans, Archdeacons and Canons, amongst them Henry Tilson (Vicar 1615-1635) who became Dean of Dublin Cathedral and then Bishop of Elphin in Ireland. More recently David Boner (Vicar 1982-1986) was subsquently Bishop of Bolton.

Thomas de Boulton (Vicar 1317-1349) was almost certainly a victim of the Black Death, the bubonic plague which killed a third of the population at the time.  No successor was appointed for nine months, a long inter-regnum in those days.  Henry de Marland (Vicar 1426-1455) was the only local man to be appointed until Alan Shackleton (Vicar 1986-1997) was hailed from Milnrow.

Robert Bath was Vicar (1635-1662) during the Civil War period. Although originally a High Churchman, he accepted "The Solemn League and Covenant" and became a Presbyterian.  At the restoration of the monarchy in 1662 he would not recounce the Covenant and so was turned out of the Living together with his curate.  He took up residence in Deeplish where his preaching drew a large following.  He died in 1674 having become in effect the founder of Nonconformity in Rochdale.

His successor, Henry Pigot was Vicar for 60 years (1662-1722) until he died in 1794.  He was thus St. Chad's longest serving vicar.  The galleries west and south were erected in the church in his time and were not removed until 1855.  In 1678 the church sent to London the proceedings of the collection to pay towards the rebuilding of St. Pauls Cathedral in London after the Great Fire.

Samuel Dunester (Vicar 1724-1754), the builder of the old vicarage, died in office aged 81 and was succeeded by Nathanial Forester (Vicar 1754-1757).  A distinguished scholar, both an Oxford DD and a Fellow of the Royal Society, he died young at 41.  He was followed by James Tunstall (Vicar 1757-1762).  The concern of his wife to keep her seven daughters apart from the choirboys has already been mentioned.

It was during the vicariate of Richard Hind (1778-1790) that the sundial in the churchyard was installed in 1783.  His successor was Thomas Drake (Vicar 1790-1819) whose name is commemorated in that one of Rochdale's main streets.

The next Vicar William Hay (Vicar 1819-1839), was also a barrister.  His was not a popular appointment as, shortly before, in the capacity of Chairman of the Salford Quarter Sessions, he was responsible for reading the Riot Act at the gathering of some 50,000 in St. Peter's Field, Manchester.  The resultant bloodshed, including the eleven deaths, became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

When Hay's successor Dr. John Edward Nassua Molesworth (Vicar 1839-1877) took over he found a church "in a state of great collapse and stagnation".  In 1840 he called a meeting of ratepayers to set a "half penny rate" to pay for necessary repairs.

Molesworth's successor was Dr Edward Maclure (Vicar 1877-1890).  His memorial is the entirely rebuilt and enlarged chancel and the lengthening of the Trinity and St Katherin's Chapels, together with a very fine new organ.  He made St. Chad's what is called a "Double Apostles Church".  However, Dr. Maclure was appointed Dean of Manchester and Rochdale was nominated as no more than a Seat of an Archdeaconry.

The next vicar was the distinguished Dr. James Wilson (Vicar 1890-1905) ex Headmaster of Clifton College, and a noted mathematican and theologian.  The more recent vicars included another Molesworth, the great grandson of the first Gilbert Edward Nassau Molesworth.  Harry Nightingale (Vicar 1953-1970) who carried out the last major restoration.

The next vicar was Alan Shackleton (Vicar 1986-1997) who received HM The Queen and Prince Philip when they visited the church to mark the 800th anniversary celebration in 1994.