Notes on a visit by Westhoughton Local History Group
On 18th February 2016 a large group from Westhoughton Local History Group made the
short walk to the United Reformed Church on the corner of Park Road and Leigh Road.
The church is known to one and all as “The Bethel” but lost that name officially in 1972 when
the English Presbyterians and the Congregational churches joined forces.
Church elders Margaret Curme and John Purnell welcomed our party and we were given a
concise history of the church.
The present church community originates from the preaching of William Alexander to a
group of impoverished villagers who met in a cottage at Old Sirs, Daisy Hill from 1810.
William Alexander was a poor Scot with religious leanings when he walked 170 miles to
Lancaster looking for work. It was in Lancaster that he became a member of the
Independent Church and was sent to preach to the villagers of Lancashire. He was based in
Leigh and walked many times from there to Daisy Hill and other small communities preaching the
doctrine of Congregationalism – much in the way that John Wesley had with the Methodist
By 1815 the congregation had outgrown Old Sirs and moved first to Mill Lane then to a
property on Leigh Road, approximately opposite Washacre in an area known as “Little
Ireland”. Another move was necessitated in 1835 and this was to 24-26 Park Road where
the congregation grew to 220 worshippers. The present church was built by public
subscription at a cost of £1600. The church was named “Bethel” which translated from
Hebrew means “House of God” The Sunday School at 20-22 Park Road was added in 1870
costing £1400. The Bethel also hosted a successful day school until 1915 when the pupils
transferred to a new school on Bolton Road.
The Bethel is now the oldest church building in Westhoughton.
After the church visit our Group were entertained with tea and biscuits in the Sunday School
and shown photos and a dvd of the many activities and organisations that have been based
in the church in recent years. It certainly was and continues to be a friendly and happy
church with an interesting history and we wish The Bethel well for the future.
Timeline of the Bethel, 1811 – 1870
1811 – William Alexander founded the church of the Congregational order in Westhoughton.
William Alexander, a native of Scotland was an important figure in the history of Congregationalism, made frequent visits to Westhoughton from Leigh, he carried out his work under extreme difficulties; for the people, largely through the effects of the French War, were experiencing bad trade, poverty and misery. Westhoughton was little more than a big village with a population of about 3,000. There was also much irreligion, so that Westhoughton was fortunate to have the timely evangelical services of Mr Alexander, who gathered round him the pioneers of the Congregational movement.
In one of his letters Mr Alexander, alluding to the conditions of his work, says, “Dark nights and bad roads make my journeys home unpleasant; but while the people are willing to attend, I hope I shall find pleasure in spending my legs and lungs in the service of their precious souls.”
According to some published histories of the church, public worship was at first conducted in a small cottage or barn, believed to have been at Old Sirs, Daisy Hill, but there is an element of mystery about those early days.
1815 – One of the history books has a reference to the acquisition in 1815 of a cottage at a yearly rent of £5. This meeting room – said to be in Leigh Road at Little Ireland, a site just north of Washacre and opposite Bankside Farm (now occupied by semi-detached property) soon proved too small because of increasing congregations. So another had to be found. This was opened in –
1817 – Obviously, the need for something more commodious existed, for apparently “about 200 children are taught in the morning and afternoon. Young men who formerly spent the day gambling and in idleness, now open the Sunday school with singing and with prayer,” says the record.
(This makes three buildings already in use, yet the same record speaks of “a third home” being provided in 1826….all this information appears in a 1915 centenary souvenir, later reprinted in a recent history written by the Rev. R. Walgate Johnson. Yet from another source we learn that the first reference in the record books is dated 1816, when the official return of “meeting places of Protestant Dissenters” shows premises at Chequerbent in the name of Thomas Turner…could he have been a relative of the Rev, William Turner, of Hindley, who was later to become a visiting minister at the church?).
By 1820 the Sunday school attendance was recorded as 300, and the picture becomes clearer…
1826 a room was built “In a more central situation equally convenient for the people at Chew Moor, Westhoughton and other populous villages.”
There was an element of caution in this project for – although the people responsible seemed confident enough, care was taken to construct it so that in case of failure “the building might be converted into two cottages.”
The building so constructed was that at 20-22 Park Road, this was demolished c.1969. It had finally been turned into two cottages, but not because of any failure. In fact it was the opposite – It was because of success.
1827 attendance at church and school continued to be so good that by September, 1827 a church was officially established and leaders appointed. Eight members were enrolled whose names are as follows: Thomas Green, Elizabeth Green, William Seddon, John Smith, John Whittle, James Critchley, John Platt, John Boardman. Thomas Green acted as choirmaster and the singing was supported by the help of three fiddles, played by Mr George Green, Amos Dickson and William Smith.
1831 a portion of the building had been fitted with a gallery and furnished with pews. But this did not solve the accommodation problem, and an addition was made to the block of property – later to become known as 24 and 26 Park Road. The pulpit was supplied by students from the Blackburn Academy, together with ministers from neighbouring towns.
1835 Accordingly in the year 1835 a building was provided by the liberality of Mr Thomas Green for the accommodation of the Church and School. This extension was officially opened on Whit Sunday, 1835, as a church with the older building reverting to a Sunday school, which had by this time 350 scholars and 40 teachers on its books. The building referred to was, properly speaking, the first Chapel. “Little idea,” wrote Mr Green, “was formed of what coming years were to reveal, for the Chapel was built of a size supposed then to be large enough for Westhoughton throughout all generations!”
1836 Mr Porter concluded his ministry at Westhoughton in August, 1836. He was a man of great ability and force of character, a stout Nonconformist, and an earnest worker in the cause of his Master. When he came to Westhoughton he was quite a young man. The portrait above represents him as he appeared in later life.
1837 Soon after Mr Porter’s removal there was preaching morning and afternoon, and a prayer meeting in the evening. Mr Baker began his pastorate in 1837 followed in 1839 by Rev. William Robinson who left in 1845.
Christian effort was not confined to home. Lover’s Lane, Chew Moor, Bag Lane and Daisy Hill in those early days enjoyed the ministrations of the earnest workers in the Church. The population of this district consisted largely of hand-loom weavers, and many of them, owing to bad trade, often had not sufficient decent clothing. Nevertheless, large congregations seem to have been the order of the day, for the Union’s Report of 1841 informs us that an average of 220 people attended the service on Sunday afternoons. Indeed, not once or twice in the earlier Reports it was stated that, though times were hard, and trade was slack, the Church and School were healthy, and the numbers were sustained if not increased.
The Chapel of 1835 was destined to be occupied for nearly 20 years for the purpose of Public Worship, and even so late as the year 1870 it was in use as a Sunday School. To us, accustomed to the luxuries of modern days, the aspect and appointments of this early sanctuary would, no doubt, appear homely indeed. One friend relates how artificial lights, for instance, were provided in the
shape of tallow candles fixed upon the pew tops. Subsequently paraffin lamps replaced these primitive luminaries, and were regarded as constituting so great an improvement that the neighbours came in to marvel and admire! The members of the congregation in these days appear to have constituted a happy family. Sunday was anticipated not only for its religious exercises but also for its social joys. The majority lived so far away that it was found convenient to bring some dinner with them. A fire was provided, and in the interval between the morning and afternoon assemblies due attention was paid to the needs of the physical man. A large iron kettle was procured, and for many years it regularly sang its humdrum song, to the rattle of spoons and teacups, and the cheerful talk of the diners
1845 By this time it was realized that accommodation had become too strait for the growing Church. A subscription list was opened and funds began to accumulate. There is a small and time-worn note book- a most interesting relic of the enterprise, in the possession of Mrs. Thomas Green of Bolton. This book contains autograph letters penned by various leaders of Congregationalism in the district and county, and commending the new building scheme; also lists of the subscribers and their subscriptions. A grant of £400 was obtained from the Lancashire and Cheshire Chapel Building Fund, while Sir James Watts, of Manchester, took a cordial interest in the scheme, and with purse and influence rendered most valuable aid. The site for the Chapel, valued at £100, was given by Mr Thomas and Miss Elizabeth Green.
1853 The new building, which cost altogether £1600, was opened on March 30th, 1853, by Drs, Raffles and Halley, while Dr. Vaughan, and the Rev. J.C. McMichael of Farnworth, preached the following Sunday. The singing was led by a harmonium. This was played by Mr John Green.
The members had to decide on a name, the vast majority voted to call it “Bethel”.
The opening of the present church in 1853 relieved pressure on church attendances, but the Sunday school still had to struggle on. One of the pioneers recorded in his notes that “For many years the school accommodation had been very inadequate to meet the number of scholars in attendance, besides being inconvenient and unhealthy; the want of separate classrooms of young men and women being much felt.”
1869 The next land mark in our story was the building of our School. The family, to some of whose members we have several times made allusion, again generously led the way with the gift of the site. Another family offered a gift of £110, and as money began to flow in from congregation and friends, the building committee decided to go ahead with their plans, which were prepared by Messrs Atherton & Tonge.
The contract was let of £1,050 and the total cost of the project reached £1,400, towards which the Lancashire and Cheshire School Building Society contributed £300.
1870 The foundation stone was laid on Good Friday, April 15, 1870, by Mr Alfred Barnes of Farnworth, to whom a trowel, mallet and square was presented. The address was given by the Rev. J.A. Macfadyen of Manchester, and by the time the school was officially opened in October of the same year, the debt had been reduced to a modest £300. In October 1870 the Day and Sunday school was opened.