Ravenstonedale Kirkby Stephen Cumbria

Talk by Chris Irwin. Final Service at High Chapel, Ravenstonedale, 29th April 2006

Contributor and Copyright: Chris Irwin

I have been asked this afternoon to say a few words about the history of High Chapel and the part it has played in the Dale for the last 345 years. Fortunately the fascinating and complex history of this ancient meeting has been extremely well recorded by the late Cecil J. Woodger.

He has left us a detailed typescript which includes transcriptions of many of the original deeds and documents relating to the church. Three copies exist, one is in Dr William’s Library in London, the second will be deposited in the County Record office at Kendal. The third is to go to the library at Westminster College in Cambridge, a body with which this church has had many connections over the years.

In 1662 the ejected vicar of Crosby Garrett, the Reverend Christopher Jackson came to live in Ravenstonedale, offered sanctuary and a small income by the fourth Baron Wharton. Wharton himself was what we would call a liberal (with a small l) but seems to have sufficient influence both with the Commonwealth and the Crown to have protected his protégés during both regimes.

From his arrival Jackson seems to have gathered around him a small group determined to worship God in the manner they felt was appropriate. Details are hard to come by. This is not surprising if we remember that during the reigns of Charles II and James II some 60,000 persons were persecuted for their non-conformity. Of these 5,000 died in prison and many others were banished or sold for slaves. One native of the Dale, Elizabeth Gaunt, was even burnt at the stake for harbouring a religious fugitive. So we can see that it was a very brave group of Christians who gathered together in one or the other’s house to pray.

We shall never know exactly who they were, though there are many hints. Among the families that were, and continued to be, connected with that early group were Fothergills, Hunters, Fawcetts, Bousfells, Parkins, Knewstubbs, Murthwaites and Cautleys. Their problems seemed to have been eased a little in 1673 when Anthony Proctor became Curate at St Oswald’s Church. His preaching was satisfactory to the dissenters, but not the ritual. A fascinating compromise was reached whereby the non-conformists lurked outside until the end of the Nicene Creed. At that point a small bell was rung to summons them inside to hear the sermon! Honour was satisfied.

1689 was the next significant date in our history. The Toleration Act allowed the little congregation to call a Minister of their own. They also obtained a licence to hold their regular meeting at the house of George Parkin. Timothy Puncheon accepted the call and so became the first regular minister. In 1697 he was succeeded by James Mitchell, who ministered until his death in 1712..

His successor, John Magee, was not to everyone’s taste and a few members formed a splinter group under the Reverend Caleb Rotherham. Magee was obviously popular with most, however, as he is recorded as having 300 hearers including four gentlemen! No doubt there was a certain amount of overcrowding at poor George Parkin’s.

So in 1726 the congregation bought the plot of land on which we are meeting today. It was behind the cottages on Front Street, which stood where the burial ground is now. They paid £6 for it to Richard Hewitson of Ellergill and he generously donated £4 of that to the building fund. Work must have proceeded quickly because the new chapel was licensed in 1727.

What was the new building like? Well, all that survives today are the three walls behind and on either side of me. The fourth wall was about half-way down the present  church. It was fitted out with oak box pews and had a three-decker pulpit against the west wall. There were two doors on the front and five small square windows. These were revealed when the rendering was removed during restoration a few years ago.

The 18th century seems to have been a time of mixed fortunes for High Chapel. Mr Magee’s successor, Dr James Ritchie, seems to have got across the Trustees pretty quickly as they stopped his salary and ejected him from the meeting house. In turn he sued for salary and repossession and the ensuing case began to resemble Dickens’s Jarndyce & Jarndyce. It took 14 years to settle at a cost to the Trustees of £820, said to have been half paid by Ritchie.

Later in the century the Chapel settled down to a succession of ministers, the last was John Hill, a highly energetic man. During his time the cottage in front of the chapel was taken down and the grounds extended. He also for several years made a monthly visit to the Dent Congregationalists in his shandry.

Sadly in the early 19th century the church went into a decline and by the 1820s the building was on the point of falling down with a tiny congregation. The Reverend William Hesell was appointed to sort things out but there seem to have been two rival factions amongst the worshippers as Mr Hesell promptly seceded to the Wesleyans taking some of the congregation with him. They built Low Chapel further down the hill in 1839.

The Church was re-constituted in 1838 by four women and three men. They called the Reverend William Sedgwick as minister, a keen young man. He started the rebuilding of the congregation, which by 1854 had obviously grown enough to erect a new manse, still in use today.

In 1868 the first major re-building took place. The chapel was lengthened and the second door moved south to give into a lobby. The other door and the square windows were built up and the present windows installed. The floor was relaid and the present pews fitted.

The Reverend William Nicholls was appointed to the new church in 1860. He wrote The History & Traditions of Ravenstonedale, our standard local history,  which was published in 1877. In this, incidentally, he refers the building as ‘High Meeting’. He went on to other churches in the north, but retired to the dale and wrote a second volume of the village history in 1914 - some 37 years after Volume One! In this second book he refers to The High Chapel, the name we know it by today.

In the later 19th century the church went from strength to strength financially, aided by generous gifts from the Carver and Hewitson families. Numerically it waxed and waned - down to six members in 1898 and up to over 100 in 1909. More extensions and improvements were carried out around 1908 when the vestry and schoolroom were built and the door moved south again for the last time, as did the bell cote! This was all during the pastorate of the Reverend George Manning, a most active man who was to return for a further three-year stint just before his final retirement.

His son was to become possibly the most famous congregational scholar of the last century. Bernard Lord Manning, a true ‘son of the manse’. His speciality was mediaeval history but he also designed the Pulpit, Lectern, and Communion Rails you see at the front here for Cheshunt College. When that establishment closed the furnishings were kindly given to Ravenstonedale, where he had spent many of his formative years and I am pleased to say that after closure they are to be returned to Westminster College in Cambridge.

And so, just about a century ago we leave the church as the first great international conflict is about to break out. Of the people and events which followed that war Wendy Hunter will tell us in due course.