a A Short History of St Peter's Church, Ashton-under-Lyne

Written for its 150th birthday by John Hedges

”Have you seen St Peter’s Church
In Ashton-under-Lyne?
’Tis a Gothic edifice
Of excellent design.”

This is the first verse of a poem by the Rev W B KIRK of St Peter’s from 1882 to 1900. It is contained in a book of poems about Ashton, published only a year after Dr KIRK’s induction. Perhaps we should be grateful that Dr KIRK describes his book as a “few verses,” for some of it is very poor poetry, but there is no doubt about his interest in Ashton and his appreciation of St Peter’s church. The poem about St Peter’s is long – twenty-three pages – by one who had learnt in one year a great deal about local folk. He certainly realized how much St Peter’s was loved:

”My reasoning for describing
St Peter’s is merely
Because the parishioners
Love their church so dearly.”

Dr KIRK is remembered as one who “preached Jesus only” – according to the memorial tablet. There could be no better memorial than that for a priest of God.

The full list of incumbents of St Peter’s Church is:–

Dr W B Kirk
1824 — John HUTCHINSON
1847 — John HANDFORTH
1848 — T. W. MORRIS
1865 — William OGDEN
1882 — W. B. KIRK
1900 — T. W. PUGHE-MASON
1923 — A. J. PHILLIPS
1927 — L. A. OWEN
1954 — Robin BARSLEY
1961 — David SUTCLIFFE
1965 — John HEDGES

The foundation stone of this “Gothic edifice” was laid by Dr LAW, Bishop of Chester, on 24th October, 1821. It is one of the “Waterloo” churches. The Napoleonic Wars following the French Revolution had ended in 1815, and to show their gratitude for victory, the Parliamentary Commissioners voted one million pounds to the Church of England. Large, imposing churches were to be built with this money, so that English people might see how grateful the country was for peace at last.

St Peter’s received £12,000 from the Parliamentary Commissioners, leaving only £2,000 to be raised locally. A medal struck in 1821 states that “the area of the church will be 142 feet long by 65 feet wide and will be capable of containing 1,800 persons. The height of the tower will be 128 feet.”

Medal face
Medal reverse

Francis GOODWIN, of London, was the architect and he was able to see his work completed on 12th December, 1824, the date of its consecration. As the population grew and more houses were built for the mill workers, St Peter’s was to serve the people of the western side of Ashton. They were hard times for the working class people. The Napoleonic Wars, the end of which caused St Peter’s to be built, had left England a colossal National Debt. Rates and taxes were extremely high. And working conditions in factory and field were such that would never be allowed today. It was not unusual for men to starve to death.

Welbeck Street School
Welbeck Street School

The Church of England generally did not show up well as a champion of the workers’ cause. Usually, the parish churches remained remote from the poor, leaving hope in the hands of the Methodist Movement. Many people will have looked across the open spaces towards the large, impressive St Peter’s and noticed the employers going there to their very special pews. Probably they thought of the Church as they thought of the boss: “Master was master then; man had now’t to do wi’ it.”

The Rev John HUTCHINSON, assistant curate at the Parish Church of St Michel and All Angles, was the first Vicar of St Peter’s. He was able to use chalices and patens presented by the Parish Church and these are still in use today (1974).

If the Church was sometimes remote from the workers, it was soon to come in contact with their children.

Victoria Street School
Victoria Street School

The Welbeck school was built in 1835, the Victoria Street school in 1871. Many children of the area were educated at one or both of these buildings and thus came to know the Church from an early age. Few were to become worshippers, yet none can have failed to benefit in some way from the Christian education received. Both schools have now been replaced by the building on Oxford Street.

People visiting St Peter’s church comment on:

  • The east window, placed in church in 1853;
  • The oak panelling, installed in 1908;
  • The peal of eight bells, fitted in 1871;
  • The imposing nature of the building, both within, and viewed from any direction outside;
  • The well-kept churchyard, laid out by the Corporation Parks Department in 1973.

Rev William Ogden

One hears many stories of how full the church used to be on Sundays. Church attendance was a more recognised characteristic of family life in the last century, but St Peter’s has been blessed with a succession of fine Vicars. William OGDEN and William KIRK were noted preachers. The former’s gravestone says of him that “he consistently preached and taught the single doctrine of the truth as it is in Jesus.”

The Rev T W PUGHE-MASON is remembered by many parishioners. He was the Vicar from 1900-1923; and started disastrously! Unwittingly turning East for the Creed, as is the custom in the larger part of the Church of England, he caused a furore. The congregation had been used to Dr KIRK’s Irish Protestantism. No doubt they feared that a Papist had come amongst them! The parish divided into those who remained faithful to St Peter'’ and its new Vicar and those who left to form the Victoria Street Mission.

Rev Pughe-Morgan

Rev Pughe-Morgan

This Mission continued in existence long after Mr PUGHE-MORGAN had ceased being Vicar. It succeeded in bringing the Gospel to the southern half of the parish. People felt “at home” there, and left the church to the monied people who lived on Manchester Road and Richmond Street.

Nevertheless, Mr PUGHE-MORGAN exercised a deeply spiritual ministry and many still remember him with gratitude. Whilst he was Vicar, St Peter’s raised large amounts of money. The schools were improved. The churchyard walks were asphalted. The church was re-floored, and oak panelled. The chancel was raised. Electric lighting was installed. The church was redecorated. The baptistry was relaid in mosaic. The bells were restored . . . What a record!

Mr PUGHE-MORGAN also started the parish magazine; organised a very popular Church Lads’ Brigade; and arranged for a Mission to be conducted in the parish. In 1920, the Electoral Roll was formed, and the first Parochial Church Council elected.

All was going well. It was the hey-day of the cotton trade. Edward VII was King. There was a feeling of well-being in the air . . . The Great War of 1914-18 soon disturbed all that. So many lives were lost or ruined. Embittered by the war, men lost faith in God and gave up interest in the Church. The downward trend was starting.

Hearses at the Market Ground
Hearses at the Market Ground

In the midst of all this trouble, there came the great explosion from a munitions factory at the bottom of William Street. Forty parishioners were killed, many injured, and the damage to property was extensive. It is probably the greatest tragedy to hit this parish. Already badly shaken by war, the people now received this cruel blow. The hearses gathered at the Market Ground for the funeral service.

Through all this, Mr PUGHE-MORGAN ably led his parishioners, proving himself their spiritual leader through good and ill.

In 1923, the Rev A J PHILLIPS was inducted to the living. He stayed for four years, to be replaced by the man who stayed longer than any other. L A OWEN was Vicar here for twenty-seven years and is spoken of affectionately by all who knew him.

Mr OWEN provided the stability, necessary after Mr PHILLIPS’ short ministry and the upheavals of the closing years of Mr PUGHE-MORGAN’s ministry. He inherited the problem of a divided church (the Victoria Mission) and a divided Sunday School (Welbeck Street and Victoria Street). Much of the rivalry between the two schools was anything but friendly. Mr OWEN came as a peacemaker. Over the years he earned the love and respect of the majority of the parishioners. They thought of him as their “father in God.”

Pughe-Morgan family
The Pughe-Morgan family

But the Second World War came and crippled faith and churchgoing much further. The Vicar’s son was killed in action, a shock from which Mr OWEN never fully recovered. His ministry was not the same after the War and he eventually retired in 1953. He was a great man.

Robin BARSLEY came “to get things going again.” He must have had a hard time following Mr OWEN, but it is amazing how much was done in his ministry. The church had been allowed to deteriorate and a weekly “Save the Church” collection raised £5,000 in two years. St Peter’s was cured of dry rot, redecorated, and generally made beautiful once again.

The next task was the construction of a vicarage to replace the large building on M<anchester Road. This was completed in 1957, a fine house, far more welcoming that the old one.

A Christian Giving Campaign was held and the Envelope Scheme came into being. This had a highly satisfactory start but tailed off over the years, mainly due to people not fully understanding the meaning of Christian Stewardship. We give our money, and our whole lives, to God, in response to his complete giving of himself to us in the person of his own Son.

This was mainly material progress. David SUTCLIFFE came to be Vicar in 1961 with a full grasp of the Gospel and an intention of bringing as many as possible into a knowledge of the Christian life. He made a great impact on young people. The time was ripe for spiritual renewal and the congregation grew in numbers. At last the Church of St Peter’s began to be a church of the people and this was helped a lot by the establishment of the weekly Parish Communion, to which all the faithful are welcome to partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus.

David SUTCLIFFE gave of himself so completely for the people of St Peter’s, that it was inevitable that his would be a short incumbency. He left in 1965, to be replaced by the writer of this booklet. The work of worship and ministry goes on. People are baptized and married and, at the last, buried from, this grand old church.

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