By Stephen Horrocks, Chapel Trustee, caretaker and groundskeeper
The foundation of the Chapel
Until the mid 17th century there was only one building used for public worship in Ainsworth and that was “Cockey Chapel”, now known as Christ Church Ainsworth. Historical records show that in 1647 the Trustees of Cockey Chapel were Presbyterians, as was the majority of the congregation. Even the ministers were of Presbyterian persuasion. Apparently the church would have a Church of England service in the morning and a nonconformist service in the afternoon.
This strange situation appears to have carried on even after the 1662 Act of Uniformity was passed, forbidding any kind of worship other than Church of England worship. The strength of Presbyterianism on Cockey moor was such that the law didn’t have much effect.
However, things changed for the worse with the passing of the Five Mile Act in 1667. This act made it a crime for any nonconformist minister to be found within five miles of any place where he had been minister. Deprived of a minister and a place of worship the Presbyterians began to meet and worship in secret in the hollow of the hills behind what is now Ainsworth Nursing home, where the upper lodge is today.
Things changed when Charles II issued the “Declaration of Indulgence” that suspended all penal laws against nonconformist worship. After 10 years of persecution, dissenting ministers were once again free to preach under licence.
On 5th Sept. 1672 a Mr John Lever was granted a licence to preach at a “new” Presbyterian meeting house on Cockey Moor in the parish of Middleton. This earlier chapel was so close to Christ Church that the two congregations could hear each other singing! Its location remains a mystery, but we do know it was in existence from 1672 till 1715 when the present chapel was built.
Built with locally quarried stone, the splendid new meeting-house soon became known as Cockey New Chapel. These were the days before artificial lighting and the chapel’s numerous windows were carefully positioned to take advantage of the available natural light. Originally, the north and south walls had two rows of three mullioned windows and not the two rows of four we see today.
The windows in the south wall were the chapel’s main source of light and for this reason the pulpit would have been placed just in front of its central windows. The brilliant sun light from those windows would have provided ample illumination for the minister when reading from the bible during the long services. However, it was less than ideal for the congregation who had to sit facing the glare from the windows.
The ‘front’ of the chapel is the east wall and it appears to have had two separate entrance doors, each opening directly onto one of the internal aisles. Unusually, the aisles are not central, but offset to the south. This made the entrance doors and the ground floor windows in the rear wall out of symmetry with the windows above.
The chapel was built with two internal galleries, each with its own staircase. The galleries ran along the east and west walls and the staircases were positioned in the corners against the north wall (either side of the present pulpit).
The position of the staircases along the north wall is the reason for the two internal aisles being offset to the south and not central. Both aisles contain the graves of early chapel members and that of the first minister, Mr Joseph Whitworth. The inscription on his grave states he died 13th February 1721 and was minister at Cockey for near 25 years. Further evidence of an earlier meeting house.
The bell cote is an original feature of the chapel and still houses the bell that was cast in 1728 by Luke Ashton of Wigan. Close inspection of the bell cote reveals a number of small faces carved into the stonework.
The louvres in the bell cote appear to be cut from stone roof tiles. The same stone tiles would have covered the whole of the chapel roof prior to the re-roofing with Westmorland slate in 1911.
The Old Stables
In 1768, the chapel Trustees acquired an adjacent piece of land on the north side of the chapel measuring 18 yards by 6 yards. On it they erected a three-story building with a yard. The ground floor was a stable for horses and the two floors above were sitting rooms and “other apartments for the ease and convenience of such of the said congregation, whose respective places of abode are remote from the chapel.” An old fashioned mounting stock, used when mounting horses, can still be seen next to the old stable door.
Over the years this building has also been used as a school, a reading room and a reform club. The building was sold in the 1970s and is now part of a large house.
The 1773 Chapel Enlargement
The chapel was enlarged in an easterly direction, by adding the fourth 12-foot section, complete with matching windows and ceiling to three sections that already existed, thereby keeping the symmetrical aspect of the building. The two main entrance doors appear to have been repositioned in the new east wall and were still in line with the aisles. In the course of enlargement the east gallery appears to have been dismantled and complete with its staircase, moved and reassembled against the new east wall.
The Alterations of 1845
In 1845 the undersides of the galleries were lowered to allow the installation of the new organ and also extended inwards towards the centre of the chapel. The pulpit was then moved across to the centre of the north wall and a central bridging gallery constructed along the south wall to join up the two existing galleries. The result considerably increased the seating capacity of the chapel.
Literally squeezed in, the organ sits on the very base of the gallery behind the panelling and still almost touches the ceiling. Originally, the organ was powered by hand pumped bellows, operated by a lever that projected out of the right hand side of the organ. It must have been hard work during long services for one poor member of the congregation! Today, the organ is “blown” by an electrically driven fan. At this time a new boiler house was built on the southwest corner to house the new heating ‘apparatus’. A small doorway in the southwest corner of the south wall was then ‘bricked up’ together with the two main doorways in the east wall and the small ground floor widow in the rear wall.
A new central main entrance was then created in the east wall, complete with porch and a magnificent portico, topped with a stone acorn. In recent years the acorn became loose and was removed for safety reasons. After years in storage it is now back in place.