1846 - 1850
1846 proved to be a year of considerable change, and on the very first day of the year, Isaac Newton France had declared his intention to resume his duties in the church as soon as was possible. This must have been a dreadful time for William Hall who was nothing more than an observer to all that was happening. He remained for only seven more months, and following his last service at the end of July of that year, the church was closed, and the congregation anticipated "with some dismay and alarm", the return of their former incumbent.
The newspapers of the time did not lose the opportunity of making much of this situation and, to some degree, inflamed the whole affair by their style of sensationalist reporting. They certainly gave the impression that Isaac was to return on the singular grounds of pure finance, in that it appeared that he wanted to come back to a flourishing church and congregation where his stipend would be assured, rather than take the plunge into the missionary field of a new church and parish.
Isaac made application in the month of August to the Chapel Wardens for the return of the keys, but this request "was resolutely refused no matter what the consequences." The Revd France therefore threatened legal proceedings, though he was assured by the Wardens, "that should he insist on returning to the chapel, that with one or two exceptions, the congregation would leave the chapel....and that they would take away articles such as the organ which they had purchased". They were well aware of the disastrous effect that Isaac had had on the new church which very few people attended, other than the presence of the Military who had recently started to worship at the church around the year of 1845. These were the soldiers from the Ashton Barracks.
The saga of the Church Wardens and the incumbent continued through the month of August and the old chapel remained closed. The Church Wardens were constantly at the church waiting to see if Isaac would attend as he had indicated, and were regularly in touch with the Diocesan Bishop to see if he had concluded what might resolve the situation. They reminded the Bishop of their guarantee of £100 per year towards the support of a minister and that this would be withdrawn if they were not allowed to "hold the chapel in their own hands" - the Church Wardens were clearly determined not to hand over possession to Isaac.
It was in this same month of August that the new church was to receive its second incumbent. The Revd J.E. Leeson, B.A., former curate of St. Paul, Staley, was appointed as the incumbent of St. George, Stalybridge in the place of the Revd I.N.France. He, writing in a letter to the parishioners, had this to say, "I have long been looking forward with much pleasure to the time when I should take up my permanent abode among you as the newly appointed Minister of St. George's church. The time has at last arrived, and I hope that with the Divine permission, to address you face to face on Sunday next. Meanwhile I write to you "with paper and ink" a word of affectionate invitation, to come forward and share with me the difficulties and burdens of the undertaking in which we have embarked".
"I shall hope to know you all personally, and shall ever be ready and thankful to pray with - to exhort, and to encourage you. And therefore "I venture to stir up in your minds by way of remembrance", of the duty you owe to the church of your forefathers; and, - to ask you to support me, not so much with gifts, but with your prayers and presence at the church." Mr. Leeson concludes his letter speaking about the walls of Jerusalem and his hopes that he and the congregation together might "build up a wall that would repair old wounds and cause no more reproach", quoting the prophet Nehemiah. His letter is dated the 8th October, 1846.
The situation at the old church was now growing very poor indeed, so much so that the local M.P. Mr Tollmache, Member for North Cheshire, was involved and intended to put before Parliament this whole issue for debate. What followed prior to the debate in the Commons was unsavoury and unnecessary, as anger from both sides rose to a point of fury.
The dispute between the Wardens and the incumbent seemed to focus, at least initially, around the right to fees. The Wardens, as they had possession of the chapel, believed that all fees should be paid to them for the rites of funerals etc. They believed strongly that the Revd France was not entitled to any demand for such fees and printed notices were pasted on the chapel doors to this effect. On Sunday the 1st April, 1847 it appeared that the burial of a child named George Saxon was to have taken place. Due notice was given to Isaac Newton France to attend the funeral. He did attend, but on his arrival stated that before he would inter the child's remains he must be paid six shillings. This increased fee was due to the fact that the deceased child had been brought across the river, a matter of a few yards, and was not, therefore, an inhabitant of the parish.
A great argument ensued and the relatives refused to pay Mr France any fee, as was clearly indicated on the door of the chapel. France consequently refused to inter and simply left the chapel. In somewhat of a dilemma, the relatives of the deceased child went to see the Revd Leeson who had recently become incumbent of the neighbouring church. They requested of him that he should come and inter the deceased, but Mr. Leeson was under strict instructions from the Diocesan Bishop not to interfere in any way with the Chapel on Cocker Hill, and therefore he could not accede to their request. Undeterred, the friends and relatives returned to the chapel and fully intended to inter the corpse themselves after reading the burial service over the child. When this was attempted, it is recorded that the mother of the child "simply faded away and remained insensible for upwards of half of an hour". To appease the grieving mother, the friends went to see the Revd France and pleaded with him to come and inter the body of the child, but again he refused unless the money was paid to him.
Eventually the relatives paid the demand of six shillings to inter the corpse and France returned to the yard but did not complete the whole of the service but skimped quickly through it.
By this time a large crowd had gathered in the chapel yard and on the roadway beside it. When Isaac Newton France left the chapel grounds, he was followed by the crowds who hounded and jeered at him through the streets all the way to his own home. This scene by the crowd was the first of many such incidents that were to occur in the next few months and years.
The following week saw the Annual Vestry meeting, the occasion when the election of the Church Wardens was to take place. The time of the meeting was set for precisely eleven o'clock and at this time the Wardens opened the doors ready to begin the business.
Historically it is the sole right of the incumbent of any parish to chair such a meeting, but the Wardens seemed intent on ignoring this rule. Isaac Newton France arrived at the meeting a few minutes late as in fact he had planned, and upon his arrival at the meeting Mr Bates, one of the retiring Wardens, moved that Mr Alfred Hall, a cotton spinner, should take the Chair. This motion was immediately seconded and carried with every hand being "held up high in the air" with the exception of Isaac Newton France and that of his nominee Mr Heap, the auctioneer. Alfred Hall took the chair and began to read the Notice of the meeting when he was interrupted by the Revd France who exercised his exclusive right to act as chairman. Mr France said that he was "astonished that any persons could be found to question his rights".
Isaac in an apparently calm manner, expressed shock at the conduct and presumption of Mr Hall - he invited anyone who felt that he was wrong in this matter to simply "turn him out" but Mr Hall being an aware person, asked for some authority that would show the claim of the incumbent to be true. Mr Hall continued to hold the chair and told Revd France "that though many people in the building probably wanted to turn him out, they had too much regard for the sanctity of the place and could not allow themselves to be diverted in any way into indecent proceedings".
Mr Bates read out the section within the consecration deed referring to the election of the Wardens, and the meeting "continued in that like manner", though quite illegally, as was to be determined at the Archdeacon's Visitation the following week. The new Wardens had expected to be admitted but the Archdeacon, unable to determine the legality of the previous meeting as it was not under the chairmanship of the incumbent, could not allow the "Wardens to be admitted" but said that the case would await the outcome of the tribunal. This tribunal was in fact the Houses of Parliament.
Mr James Hall, the Warden and Mr James Heap, the late Warden, went to London with petitions asking for an investigation into the conduct of the Revd France in connection with the chapel. They were to lobby some of the M.P.s. with the assistance of Mr Tollmache, M.P. for North Cheshire.
In the absence of the Wardens, Mr Henry Heap, who had been appointed by Mr France as his Warden, went to the house of Mr Hall to get his keys so that he might have entry to the chapel. His request was refused and he therefore proceeded to the chapel and broke in the doors, so that he might take out the surplice for Mr France so that it might be washed and prepared for the Revd gentleman to conduct a service on the Sunday for the first time since July the previous year. This having been accomplished, Mr Heap then fitted new locks to the doors and made all secure, thus giving himself possession of the chapel as the incumbent's Warden. When the actions of Mr Heap became known to the family of Mr Hall, they wrote to him in London asking him to return, which he did by the Saturday evening.
At 6.45am on the Sunday morning, Mr Hall proceeded to the chapel in company with a local blacksmith to take off the new locks fitted by Mr Heap. While the blacksmith was engaged in this duty, Mr Heap, along with some of his bailiffs, came to prevent them from completing their task and to ensure possession of the chapel. Mr Hall requested that they should withdraw from the grounds of the chapel but Mr Heap refused. Mr Hall accordingly left and returned accompanied "by several men, his opponents say that these were drunken Navigators" who at once overpowered Mr Heap and his party and turned them out of the chapel. The doors were secured once again by these men who remained in the chapel all that day.
Around about 10.30am a cab drove up to the chapel gates bearing Mr France, Mr Heap, the auctioneer and Mr John Ousey another auctioneer from Heyrod. Mr Heap and Mr Ousey, with the assistance of some bailiffs, broke open the doors with a sledge hammer.
By this time a large crowd had assembled around the church and once the doors were opened, by use of a heavy hammer, the chapel was immediately filled by all kinds "of men and women and children, some smoking, others with their hats on, walking up and down the aisles, cursing and swearing, several being intoxicated." After a short period the incumbent came into the church and made his way to the vestry, putting on his surplice, he mounted the pulpit and began to read the prayers. Records show that he attempted to sing a hymn but was shouted down, and he continued with the prayers. It is recorded in several newspaper accounts that dogs who had come into the chapel with their owners, began to bark. This continued through the whole of the morning service - if that is what it could be called. A newspaper report of the time records that, "as the dogs began to bark some one cried "Give that dog a bone", another, "And give Isaac one, too," (meaning the minister); another shouted, "speak up Isaac" - the scene must have been unbelievable.
The incumbent did not attempt to preach a sermon and after he had completed the prayers, he returned home guarded by some of the local police.
The men who had been employed to keep possession of the chapel in the morning still remained and were supplied with bread, cheese and ale in the chapel itself. At around 2.30pm Mr Heap and his friends returned to the chapel but seeing that the place was well garrisoned, returned home and applied to several magistrates who refused to interfere, saying, "that the applicants were equally as bad as those they complained of."
Newspaper reports of the time suggest that at certain periods of that awful day, there were not less than 2,000 persons collected in and around the chapel.
The following week the incumbent published a notice of intent in a local newspaper dated 21st May, 1847 stating that it was illegal to interrupt an act of worship in the manner that had occurred in the previous week, and under statute 52 George 3rd Cap.55, proceedings would be taken against "any such person who acted wilfully, maliciously or contemptuously, to disquiet or disturb any meeting, assembly or congregation of persons assembling for religious worship, or shall in any way disturb, molest or interfere with any preacher, teacher or person or persons there assembled etc etc".
This notice obviously inspired Mr Hall to respond in like fashion and the following day on 22nd May, he produced a public notice that appeared around the town saying, "A pompous placard having been posted on the walls of the town bearing the signature of I.N.France, and purport being to deter the honest inhabitants of the town from watching the Revd gentleman performing the act that a man could be guilty of - I do hereby give notice that as Warden of Cocker Hill Chapel, I intend to prevent the said I.N.France from performing any service there tomorrow that the act of parliament to which reference has been made bears no relation to the course I intend to take, and therefore all persons assisting me in the performance of my duties, I therefore hold harmless of any consequences."
Following these two notices, the town was at fever pitch and it is reported that three to four thousand people were in and about the chapel yard ready for the next instalment of this continuing saga. Though Mr France appeared in time for the service, he did not go into the chapel but returned to the house of Mr Heap, his Warden. He sought the assistance of the local magistrates as well as that of Mr Hickey, Superintendent of Police, who, at the direction of the magistrates, went to inform Mr Hall that those who were holding possession of the gates were acting illegally. If Mr France wished to enter the church to perform an act of worship, he should not be prevented from doing so. Nothing happened.
The local Justices of the Peace grew very concerned about this whole matter to the point that they felt it necessary to post a public notice declaring their intent with regard to any person breaking the law. The notice read:
"Where it hath been represented unto us, that great numbers of people have, on the last two Sundays, assembled together in the public street at Cocker Hill Chapel, in the town of Stalybridge, and as such proceedings are highly indecorous, and, if repeated, may tend to a disturbance of the public peace, we hereby caution all persons against joining in such assemblies, and request them to refrain therefrom. For the information of the public, we subjoin the following extracts from the Act of Parliament for regulating the police of the said town - "if any person or persons shall, in any of the streets or public places of the said town, by standing, loitering, or remaining in any footway or causeway (without reasonable cause), or in any other manner obstruct or incommode, hinder or prevent, the free passage of such footway or causeway, or prejudice, insult or annoy any person or persons travelling or passing thereon, each person so offending, or causing any of such offenses, to become committed shall forfeit and pay any sum not exceeding £5, and in default of payment, the offender may be committed to the house of correction, there to remain, without bail for any term not exceeding three calendar months" - dated the 25th May, 1847 and it was signed by David Harrison, John Cheetham, Edward Sidebottom and Robert Platt.
The following Sunday morning, the Warden, Mr Hall, and about fifty of the seat holders, assembled in the chapel yard at about ten o'clock. John Ousey, the auctioneer, and a few singers " who were partisans of Mr France, came to the chapel gates but finding them locked demanded admittance which was refused by the person in charge of the gates." Ousey and the party left with threats of legal proceedings. Mr Hall marshalled his troops and was ready for " an attack that was expected in the afternoon" but this did not occur. Though it was understood that Mr France was in the area, he did not appear.
The incumbent took legal proceedings against John Bardsley, Joseph Shawcross, James Swallow and William Smith who appeared before magistrates at Stalybridge Petty Session at the beginning of June. This became a ridiculous situation and the report of the Sessions is far too long to record in this book but some of the facts should prove interesting.
The Petty Sessions were conducted by the magistrates Harrison, Cheetham and Sidebottom and though charges had been brought against all four of the people, only the case against Joseph Shawcross, the publican, was heard. Mr Pollock, a barrister, instructed by Mr Buckley of Ashton, appeared on behalf of Mr France and Mr De Lara of Audenshaw, for the defendant.
Mr Shawcross was charged with having interfered with Mr France in the execution of his duties as a clergyman. This was remarkable as it could not be understood why Mr Shawcross was involved at all as he had no connection with the church or the dispute between the incumbent and his congregation. This was made much of by the barrister acting for Mr France. There followed an over-complicated debate between the two advocates as to the exact nature of the charges and whether the defendant was charged under the "William and Mary" or the "Act of King George"; one would mean imprisonment and the other a hefty fine of some £40. This was clearly a "red herring" by the defence, but when the evidence began, it emerged that Mr Ousey had heard Mr Heap specifically ask the defendant to remove his hat when in the chapel. The magistrates asked for an exact account of the details despite any abusive language that may have been used. Mr Ousey continued, "Shawcross called Mr Heap a ------- little monkey and said he would kick his ----". Mr Ousey then gave a quite graphic account of all that had occurred within the church, being challenged here and there on legal points of order by Mr De Lara, who was trying to make a case that Mr Ousey had singled out his client and that there had been many people wearing hats and smoking. Mr Heap was very quiet during the whole of the proceedings and offered no evidence.
Another witness called Robert Mayes reported that he was an occasional worshipper at the church. He told the court that he was not a "Navvy" (Navigator) but he thought he would have some influence with them and tried to prevent them from making a disturbance. He witnessed that he saw Mr Shawcross there making "a great noise and in his opinion, he appeared to be the leader". Mr De Lara cross examined the witness at some length, but failed to make any difference to his testimony.
Much evidence was given then each of the advocates summarised their case in a coherent manner. The Magistrates retired to consult one another and, on returning to court, the Chairman said that they had decided to bind Mr Shawcross over to answer an indictment at the Sessions.
The other defendants were then called to answer the charges laid against them, but " Mr de Lara then offered to apologise for the whole of the defendants, and expressed their regret at having interfered with Mr France in the manner in which they had done, on condition that the proceedings against Shawcross were abandoned." After a long conversation between all those concerned, it was agreed that the apology should be accepted and that further proceedings would stop.
Mr Cheetham, for the bench, said that "though he had personally been away from the town during the events of that particular day, that he felt that the whole proceedings were a disgrace, not only to the town, but to the whole district. He had heard the matter commented upon by several Members of Parliament and they had so expressed themselves. He would be glad if some arrangement could be found in order to settle the matter in a friendly way."
Disgraceful though it was, the appalling scenes continued and, though never quite repeated to that degree, became a continuing embarrassment to the Christian Church in the area.
The ridiculous, but now common sight, of Mr France going to the church gates and asking for entry was again repeated at the end of June. On this occasion it began at 3 am on a Sunday morning. Even at this ungodly hour, a number of principal seat holders had begun to assemble outside the chapel. By the time that Isaac Newton France arrived, accompanied by Mr Heap, Mr Ousey, and Mr Brierley, the surgeon, the number of people inside the chapel was described as "numerous". Mr France tried the gates and found them locked. He asked for the gates to be opened so that he could enter for Divine worship. Mr Hall in his usual fashion refused to comply with this request unless Mr France could produce a "Bishop's authority" to celebrate that day. The scene was now somewhat bizarre as the incumbent then took the names of all those inside the gates putting them into a pocket book. It is recorded that he took the names of 35 gentlemen.
The following Sunday the same scenes were repeated in an almost parrot like fashion as indeed they continued to be for nearly two years up to April, 1849.
It is difficult to see why the church authorities allowed this fiasco to get to such a ridiculous level, but seemingly no action was taken by the Diocese of Chester or of Manchester after it had been constituted in the year 1847.
On the 8th April, 1849 we see the familiar pattern repeated once again. On the Saturday morning the doors were broken down on the orders of the incumbent, so that the chapel could be prepared for worship the following day. New locks were fitted on the doors and, on Mr France's instruction, the passing bell was tolled at 8 pm. The chapel Warden tried to gain entry but of course his keys would not fit and it would seem that a rather heated conversation took place over the next two hours. Eventually the chapel Warden broke down the doors and on the Sunday morning, Mr Heap, accompanied by his two sons, tried to enter the chapel but could not do so. Mr France was told of this and he made immediate application for some help from the police but they refused to act. A similar application was also refused by the local magistrates who now felt that they " wanted nothing to do with the affair."
Mr France and his friends then went to the chapel and broke down the door with a large hammer. The scene was witnessed by "upwards of 1,000 persons".
A funeral service was due to take place that day and as was his usual custom, Isaac demanded his fee before he would perform the service. Whilst the service was in progress Mr France had yet another lock fitted to the door. On the following day Mr Hall wanted to get into the chapel, and to his surprise he found all the doors wide open. This was the day for the election of the new Wardens and, as custom dictated, the meeting began at eleven o'clock. There were various objections to people being there who were not Seat Holders, and in particular an objection was raised about the presence of Mr Bates, the former Warden, because he owed over one and a half years of pew rent.
Albert Hall, the cotton spinner, was again called upon to chair the meeting and from that point the meeting took a familiar pattern of illegality, objections by the incumbent and ignorance by the Wardens. Mr France was told by Mr Hall that "he had so outraged all law, and disgraced his profession to such an extent that he did not consider him fit to preside over any assembly" - (Isaac wanted to ignore the traditional election of two Wardens apparently for no other reason than to add to the troubles). The people simply ignored Isaac and elected James Hall to act as chapel Warden for the following year. This election came as a direct request of Legh Richmond, agent for the Earl of Stamford!
Newspaper reports of the meeting record, not so much the dilemma and confusion that occurred within the building but the terrible condition of the chapel itself. The reports pointed out "that the chapel is in a very dirty state and one of the doors consists of a number of rough boards nailed on the old framework, and had the appearance of an outhouse door rather than that of a chapel".
The saga continued the following week when many people were appalled to learn that the Revd France had failed to complete the burial service on the previous Sunday, and that Mr Leeson had to be called upon to inter the remains. The Revd France had ordered his joiner to board up the doors with any pieces of wood that he could find, making a complete mess of the whole doorway; Mr France had taken exception to the son of the Sexton and had ordered him out of the chapel, but he refused to leave. The joiner, on the instructions of the incumbent, tried to put him out and a fist fight took place watched by the incumbent and this continued until the arrival of the Sexton. Mr Hall arrived and, having seen what had taken place, decided to move what remained of the chapel furniture to a place of safety.
Mr Hall had heard that there was to be an attempt to take over the chapel by the incumbent and some of his friends, and so on the Sunday morning he is reported to have asked for some volunteers to act as a "defence party". The adversaries arrived led by Mr France and his Wardens and two of Mr Heap's bailiffs carrying sledge hammers. They broke open the outer gate and immediately set to work on the principal doors. The doors soon gave way. France "demanded in an impertinent tone the surrender of those within the building - but he was told that no person would be admitted". This scene continued for nearly two hours, and the police chose to do little, though "bystanders heard them cheer on occasions, giving encouragement to the besieging party". By this time Mr Hickey had become Deputy - Constable and was in charge of overseeing the event; France asked for his help but he gave none.
Over 1,000 people gathered to watch this spectacle.
Eventually France and his supporters withdrew as did the crowd. The chapel Wardens reaffirmed their previous offer that Mr France should receive the Endowments of the church but they insisted that the Bishop should appoint a new incumbent in his place. No official reply was ever given to this request but it was clear that Isaac had no intention of allowing the Wardens or anyone else to dictate to him.
The traumas were now nearing an end.
Historical reports of the chapel at this time of May 1849 state that the chapel was in a dilapidated condition. Most of the lower windows were broken as were many of those in the upper floor. The doorway was smashed beyond repair and the graveyard was in an atrocious condition. Very little of the chapel furniture remained except the heavy and immoveable pews. There seemed no real solution to the problem - the disagreeing parties were unable to come to a common mind; the Bishop and the church authorities had no intention of intervening and so the whole situation festered on in an uncontrolled manner. The only person who appeared to profit from this whole mess was the local locksmith!
This shameful desecration of a building and the wilful acts of the incumbent and the wardens continued for another twelve month period until the annual Archdeacon's Visitation that was held in Ashton Parish Church in the early part of May 1850.
At the annual Visitation by Archdeacon Rushton a double return was made from the old church. The Archdeacon enquired about the circumstances and why a double return of wardens was before him. He heard, as had his predecessors, of the illegal act of election and how the incumbent was not given his right of chairing the meeting. As before, the Archdeacon declared the meeting void and would not admit the wardens.
At this point Isaac Newton France and other incumbents present were sitting in the sanctuary. Suddenly Isaac stood up and staggered around, falling on the steps of the altar. People rushed to his aid but he was found to be dead. A chaise was sent for and his body was taken to his home. Reports at the time suggest that he was in good health but that "he had walked in great haste after missing the train and had exerted himself very much".
A coroner's inquest was convened in the same week in the home of the late incumbent. Clearly the man had been under considerable strain and after all the evidence had been heard, a verdict of "death by natural causes" was returned. Isaac was 55 years old.
The unhappy Isaac was dead, the church looked terrible and the future was uncertain.