Ickornshaw: The Last Days of a West Riding Chapel

CREDITS: Mr. W. R. Mitchell
First published in ‘THE DALESMAN’ – August 1985.

The few stalwarts who remained at Ickornshaw had the sad task of closing down their old familiar place of worship.
They did it without fuss, holding anordinary service and a Sacrament.Then the door was closed on overa century of fervent witness.                                                                                                                                                                                         Plain and substantial — that was how a local newspaper referred to Ickornshaw Chapel when it was opened in the summer of 1876. Plain indeed, and looking more substantial with the passing years as the sandstone walls absorbed something of the grime of industry. The buildings of Cowling are like a string of dark beads beside the road from Yorkshire into Lancashire.
The Chapels of the old West Riding were a product of Victorian certainty that God was in His Heaven, and all would be right with the world. Some of the most imposing chapels were built largely with the money of textile magnates — mill-owners who managed to worship both God and Mammon — but Ickornshaw was not one of these. It served a proud and independent type of person, a moor-edger who had been a small-holder, with a handloom in the attic, but who became, during the heady rush into industrialisation, just a cog in a wheel. Ickornshaw was supported by the small-time farmers and craftsmen who proliferated when the little communities lived virtually for themselves.
The Chapel’s great days were when it was both a spiritual powerhouse and a social centre for people who lacked the mobility now provided by cars and buses. The building has been closed down because only a faithful few remained and expenses were high.
A steward I met at Ickornshaw, a few weeks before the final service was to be held, said the Chapel had been built on the lines of an old preaching house. “Beyond a bit of cornice, there’s nothing fancy,” he added. Strong affinities exist between such a Victorian chapel and the Victorian mill. Each was constructed with the theme “fitness for purpose,” being substantial and roomy, with huge windows to capture every glint of daylight and transmit it to the gas-lit rooms within.
Ickornshaw Chapel was opened as the textile industry reached its peak, and declined during the period when industry declined. Chapel and mill experienced mini-booms during the two great wars. The great days for Ickornshaw were before the 1914-18 war. At major events, the 500 seats were scarcely adequate for those who wished to attend, and extra chairs were set out in the aisles. The Sunday School, with its hall and two big classrooms, could and did accommodate up to 300 young people and their teachers.

Tour of Inspection.
I had arranged to meet two stalwarts of Ickornshaw Chapel, Mrs. Alice Smith and Mr. Holmes Gott, for a last tour of the old place of worship. The name “Wesleyan Chapel”, unforgettably large, adorned the wall. At close quarters, some of the structural defects that led to talk of closure were to be seen — a few cracks on Welsh roofing slates, a few holes in the panes of glass, sun-shrivelled paintwork and wood showing the effects of being exposed to the searing blast of Pennine gales.
I was first shown into the Schoolroom. Familiar scents and sights were about me — the mustiness of old paper and the sweetish tang of furniture polish; the ornamented pillars and floorboards scoured by the footwear of generations of lively children. Young life had already drained away from Ickornshaw, the remaining scholars being absorbed into the Sunday School at St. Andrew’s.
Change and decay are part of the order of things. In its time, Ickornshaw was a powerful force for good, and its impact on Cowling and district incalculable. There were humble beginnings, in 1796, when Abram Binns introduced Wesleyan Methodism into the Cowling area, establishing a Sunday School and keeping it alive at his own expense. Abram died in 1812, by which time there were enough Methodists to require larger premises. Two cottages, and a smithy were absorbed, then demolished to make way for a Chapel that would hold 300 people.
The Baptists had been at a Chapel on Cowling Hill for many years. Not until 1845 was an Anglican church built. The Methodists made their strongest appeal to ordinary, unpretentious folk. They witnessed powerfully and saved souls; they shamed local people out of excessive drinking and offered a joyous form of worship, singing and testifying. Here stood the sweet singers of Zion — the local preachers, serious-minded men who lived and worked in the locality and were therefore well-known to the congregation.                                                                                                                          The preachers frequently resorted to local dialect to drive home a “spiritual truth”. They stoked up a congregation’s fears of Hell fire; they buttressed the people’s hopes for a better life; they had a no-holds-barred attitude towards religion that is so refreshing at a time when we believe little, if at all.

A Neat Structure.
The present Ickornshaw Chapel was designed by Messrs Hargreaves and Bailey, of Bradford, and built by a local firm, Messrs Bancroft and Gott. Mr. Robert Sugden, of Keighley, did the joinery work. The stone was wrested from Earls Crag quarry, to which was added bits and pieces of the former Chapel. These were incorporated for effect, and also that good things should not be wasted!
Ickornshaw impressed all who saw it. “Very neat and well arranged,” the Keighley News recorded. Of the cost, about £2,276, almost half had been raised on the day the premises were officially opened.                                                         Standing in the Sunday School — a surprisingly bright room, with lots of red paint — I listened as ray two companions recalled the days of huge classes and earnest instruction. Victorian scholars had to conform to a level of discipline which would not be tolerated today, though when the superintendent decided a child should be punished “cruelty shall be avoided.”
Scholars attending the two Sunday sessions of the school must be “clean washed”, their hair combed. “The scholars shall be com­manded to kneel at prayer, none shall be allowed to sit? The rules extended to the behaviour of the scholars when walking to and from School. They must “walk soberly”, be civil to strangers and “yield proper obedience to their teachers.”
The great day in the Ickornshaw year was “Feast Sunday”, a local name for the Sunday School Anniversary. (In later times, the Anniversaries of both Ickornshaw and the larger Bar Chapel at Cowling were celebrated on the same day, yet both places could expect packed congregations). A stage was erected in the Chapel. All the parents who could manage the expense provided their offspring with new clothes, the girls wearing white frocks. There were stirring addresses by men like the Rev. Peter McKenzie and the Rev. John Gawthrop.

In the Vestries.
Ickornshaw Chapel, like others of its time, was well endowed with Vestries. The Minister’s Vestry was the smallest, cosiest, arguably best furnished of the several Vestries, the walls being decked with old photographs. The Chapel safe protruded from one of these walls.
Here, in the Minister’s Vestry, the count­down to  a service took place, with much scribbling in the notices book, much twitching by nervous young preachers, until the steward led the way to the pulpit. But first the choir must leave their Vestry and occupy the choir gallery, the space behind the pulpit and between the two sections of the organ.
Was Ickornshaw one of those places where a preacher’s notes could be seen by members of the choir, who might afterwards comment about them? “He’s preached that sermon afore; his notes were as black as fireback.” Or: “I was that relieved when I saw he’d got down to t’last page!”
We entered the Chapel. Mr. Gott went to one of the doors, and scanned the heavy graining for a date inscribed there — the year 1926, when last the door was painted. I was told that the walls and ceiling were last re-decorated, from scaffolding, in 1959. (When Ickornshaw was first opened, the painters were still at work and for a week or two the services took place in the Sunday School).
In 1959 one of the trustees had observed: “It isn’t worth re-decorating because we’ll be shut in a year or two!” Much of the woodwork, being pine, did not need to be painted. Varnish was the thing. I noticed that many of the downstairs pews were covered with red, black-patterned felt to cushion the human frame during what used to be interminably long sermons. Yet Ickornshaw had a reputa­tion for being a homely place.

Board used for seat rents

There was a week in the Ickornshaw year when the big guns were directed against back-sliders and evil-doers. Each winter, at special Revival services, which were always well attended, mostly by the devout, “conver­sion” was the thing. Special preachers could deflate pomposity, sicken the sinful so that they were ready to renounce their selfishness — and create new members, ensuring the continua­tion of the cause. In those days, people were not afraid to show their emotions and a simple message brought a heartfelt response.
The Band of Hope waged war against the evils of strong drink, to such good effect that in 1882 there were 140 members at Ickornshaw alone — with a further 150 joining in meetings of the United Temperance Society at the Bar Chapel. It is no wonder the local publicans looked thin and shabby. By 1888, it is recorded, the number of licensed houses had dwindled “and almost every household enjoyed comfort and dignity.”

The Minister’s Vestry

Glory Hole.
On my tour of Ickornshaw, we looked into the Glory Hole — the space under the pulpit which, like that in so many Chapels, was built expansively, like the bridge of a small coaster. At Ickornshaw, they referred to Under t’Pulpit. I was shown the gargantuan music stand, originally brought from Albert Road Methodist Church at Colne when those premises were being rebuilt. The stand has been used for many musical occasions.
There were two black “coffin stools” and a wooden box which, when opened, was revealed as that used when seat rents were charged. In the lid of the box was a plan of the gallery, each pew numbered, and in the bottom of the box a plan of the lower pews. Two wooden bowls were there, to hold the rent money of those who turned up at the appointed times. I was shown the “free sittings”, which are inward-facing, college style, situated at one side of the pulpit. John Thomas Thornton, a stalwart of Ickornshaw who used to deal with the pew rents, described himself in Biblical terms as “sitting at the receipt of custom.”
Also in the Glory Hole was an acetylene burner for the projector used when lantern slides were screened. Those were the days of “magic” lantern shows, the precursor of television as a method of visual entertainment.
Ickornshaw had its “library vestry”, with a good stock of books that could be borrowed. It was once a prime factor in local education.
Philip Snowden, the first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, attended Ickornshaw as a young man and, after a service, joined with other men in lively discussions about politics and religion. He learnt much from his experiences of village Methodism — from the oratory of the preachers, from the devout prayers and from the cut and thrust of informal discussions.

Musical Moments.
Methodism was bom in song. Ickornshaw had a strong musical life to the last. Its organ — made by Laycock and Bannister, the local firm — was a two manual instrument built in 1908 and maintained in good order.
Ickornshaw’s congregation had been declin­ing for years and was down to a score or so of people by 1958 when a long musical tradition was crowned by the presentation of oratorios by a greatly augmented choir. Nurse Alice Smith suggested that Ickornshaw might present Haydn’s Creation. The idea was taken up enthusiastically by Mary Robinson, organist at the chapel, by Alice Smith, the conductor and the choir committee.
A small choir was assembled and the members had to learn every note of Creation “from scratch”. It is related that during a choir practice, the trustees had assembled to do some redecorating of the Chapel interior and one of them, hearing the choir’s efforts, said: “They’ll never get it together in time.” But they did!
It was succeeded by other oratorios, conducted by Alice Smith, who has been the choirmistress for 38 years. The invitation to sing was open to anyone. The most that assembled for a performance was 99. “We never got to the 100,” she commented. “I said there must have been one sheep lost!”
Just before Christmas, for the last five years, the choir and some well-known principals gathered for The Messiah, an oratorio which the West Riding Chapels took to their hearts and sang so frequently a choir member scarcely needed to look at the musical score. I attended one of the last performances. It cost £1, which was a moderate charge in these days, and tea and biscuits were served in the pews during the interval.
The choir and local people also sang While Shepherds Watched to the tune “Angel’s Song”, from a faded hymn sheet printed and published at Todmorden long years ago. The arrangement was by Mr. J. Gaukroger, who set a choir a stiff task. “You cannot sing the hymn in unison; you’re forced to have four parts. It takes some singing, I can tell you,” said Mrs. Smith.

The Decline.
The few stalwarts who remained at Ickornshaw had the sad task of closing down their old familiar place of worship. One of them blamed the first world war for the start of the decline in Chapelgoing. “A lot of men didn’t return. Some of those who did come back were disillusioned. Their children formed a generation that grew up knowing little about the Chapel… The same thing happened in the second war.”
Mrs. Smith said: “The building’s condition had been deteriorating for a while. It was going to cost £20,000 to repair the Chapel. We had only 20 in the congregation and 24 Sunday School scholars. We could not see any point in raising all that money just for a handful of people.”
The Chapel has 38 large windows. It would have cost about £200 to repair each window. When the boiler was converted from coke to oil, the bill for 500 gallons of oil was about £35 and rose to £458. The recital of expenses could be extended to every aspect of the Chapel’s century-old fabric.
Ickornshaw’s last witness was clear and loud, with performances of Stainer’s The Crucifixion and Mendelssohn’s Elijah in March and May respectively. The final service was held on the 26th day of May. “In the morning, we will have a service — just an ordinary service. Then a Sacrament. Then — finish!”
To the stalwarts who remained to the last, the loss of Ickornshaw was like losing a home. “T’Chapel’s gone,” said one of them, “but nobody can rob us of our memories.”

W. R. Mitchell