Isaac Newton France
Genesis 21 v 3 "And Sarah bore Abraham a son and they called him Isaac"
The name of Isaac was thought appropriate those many years ago because Sarah was so happy that she could bear a child late on in her age, that she "laughed"; the name Isaac in Hebrew has the meaning of laughter. Sadly the name of Isaac, as associated with Isaac Newton France, was to give little or no laughter to the people of the Chapel on Cocker Hill.
Isaac had had a rather turbulent career. He was first the curate in the neighbouring and mother parish of Ashton. He was reported to have created a deserted church under his curacy to an extent never known before, and had created sects and divisions throughout the church and the community before moving to Staley Bridge. As we have seen by the Articles of Enquiry of 1811, the church flourished and was well served by a good congregation who maintained the building and worshipped in a joyful and hopeful manner. From the appointment of Isaac Newton France in 1822, things seems to have taken a downward path, and surely and steadily the numbers in the congregation declined. This is graphically reported in the summary of a petition sent to the House of Commons in which was stated, "the Chapel of Cocker Hill under his incumbency was deserted to a great extent". The same petition records that some years before "the organ which had been borrowed by Mr. France was kept for so long, that the owner had found it necessary to remove it by main force, the civil authorities having to be brought in". He clearly had a very bad time.
All of this took place over the first thirteen years of Isaac's incumbency at the Chapel of Ease, during which time he continued to feel discontent with the church and a growing disaffection with the people. It was in the year 1835 that he first made concrete moves to the Patron, the Earl of Stamford, about the possibility of closing the existing Chapel of Ease, due to its bad repair and general unsafe condition, and building a new more secure church in a different area. He felt that the Chapel was in danger and was built on rather unsafe ground and that its future was very limited. Clearly his powers of persuasion were great for Lord Stamford heard his plea and agreed that the best course of action would be the closure of that building and the erection of a new church.
On 30th November, 1835 the Earl of Stamford agreed to the Conveyance of a plot of land "in Ridgehill and Lanes in the parish of Ashton underlyne in the county of Lancaster for the site of a new church". This is the present site of the church of St. George and embodies 10,000 square yards in all.
Once the Earl had agreed to the conveyance of the land, the Commissioners for building new churches agreed to advance the sum of £2,500 to defray some of the cost of the work. It was always the responsibility of the new church to find funds from within its prospective membership and this would be done through subscription, as was the case with the original church of 1776. It was agreed between Isaac Newton France and the Commissioners that the congregation would raise £1,400, the balance of the cost of building the new church. A grant of £800 was given by the Incorporated Society for promoting the enlargement, building and repair of Churches and Chapels - a further grant of £500 came from the same society on the understanding that the church would have increased seating from 1250 to 1500 seats. Of these 1500 seats, "850 were to be free and unappropriated sittings." On this basis the work for building the church was commissioned and as the plans show, this was to be an ambitious enterprise.
The Foundation Stone of the new church was laid on 1st September, 1838 and this seemed to be a rather grand affair organised by the local Masonic Lodge. It was a Monday and it would appear that the foundation stones of both St. George's and St. John's, Dukinfield were to be laid at the same time. Both tasks were undertaken by a Past Grand Master of the Lodge namely, Lord Viscount Cumbermere who "performed this operation with Masonic Honours and solemn prayer" (where the actual foundation stone is laid remains unknown. No markings are visible and no record was kept of the event. Typically the foundation stone would be laid at the principal door or in the area of the sanctuary). It is recorded that a very large procession of Masons and many others moved from one church to the other. The event proved to be such a large undertaking that the whole of the evening was taken up with a public dinner in the Town Hall and it is understood that approximately 175 persons sat down to eat the meal. Records show that the Grand Master of the Lodge, Captain Hollingworth was in the chair and that he was supported "on his right by Lord Viscount Cumbermere, the Revd C.K.Prescott, Rector of Stockport and David Harrison Esq; and on his left by J. Preston Esq. , the Revd I.N.France, Jas Adshead Esq. and others.
It took the contractors some twenty months to complete the work on the church and the consecration was fixed for Wednesday 24th June, 1840 and this too proved to be a large affair with many guests. One report puts it in these terms, "On Wednesday last the new Church St. George's , Stalybridge was consecrated by the Rt Revd The Lord Bishop of Chester after a breakfast at Heyrod Hall, the house of Ralph Ousey Esq., to which the clergy of the neighbourhood were invited to meet their Diocesan, the party proceeded to the new church which is in plain Gothic Structure on an elevation to the north side of the town capable of accommodating some 1500 persons. The usual ceremony of consecration being performed by the Bishop and the clergy, the Morning Service was read by the Revd Charles Henry Burton, BA, Curate of the church, after which an eloquent and impressive sermon was delivered by the worthy Diocesan and a handsome collection made for defraying the expenses". This was the first and indeed the last service of any note to be held in that church for nearly seven years. The next seven years would be a time of great distress and unrest.
It is not at all clear, according to the church records, when precisely the Chapel of Ease of St. George actually closed. We must assume that this hidden event was a gradual process over a period of time, for fewer services were held towards the end of that year. What is clear, from the point of consecration, is that the old church ceased to exist in any functional terms and that all the people were expected to transfer to the new building. Not only was the intention to transfer the people, but in order that Isaac Newton France and his successors might have an income on which to survive, all Endowments would similarly be transferred from the old to the new church.
It is a peculiar twist to the story to find that the new church was consecrated as St. George at all. As the consecration took place on the 24th June, it would not have been unusual, nor indeed unexpected, for the church to bear the name of St. John the Baptist. The 24th June is the Feast Day of this saint and yet his name was not chosen for the new church. This could only have been for political reasons and a means of making the point that one church had ceased to exist and a new one born in its place, but of course though that was clearly the idea, this did not come to fruition in the way that the church authorities had hoped it might.
The titles of "old" and "new" St. George seem to have been attached during the three year period that followed the consecration of the new building. Bishop Bird, in his consecration address, referred to the "new" Church of St. George and indeed this was how the church was referred to in many documents of the time. Not surprisingly, this led to the small "n" becoming a capital "N" and the word "New" became part of the title of the building which was never the intention. Banners, memorials and other artefacts within the church bear the name of "New St. George's the Hague", as if it was a real title when in fact it was nothing more than a name of convenience. The same of course is true of "Old" St. George's Church, again a title of mere convenience but one used very much as a proud "banner" behind which to stand and make a significant point.
As with the congregations of Ashton Parish Church and with Cocker Hill Chapel, Isaac proved to be less than an attractive incumbent and support for the church services began to wane. Parish records show that numbers in the congregation fell as low as six or seven people on a very regular basis. This must have been extremely worrying for the new incumbent and caused considerable concern as regards any possible income. The possibility of raising the £1,400 promised by Isaac Newton France for the building costs, seemed an impossibility as indeed it was. The following years continued to see a decline to a point where Church Wardens could not be found. During one twelve month period of those early years, there was only a single service of Morning Prayer held in the church and it was reported in a local newspaper that, "Mr. France, the incumbent, was not generally respected; the sacrament of the Lord's Supper had not been administered during the sixteen months preceding; the church was in a very dirty filthy state; and in their opinion, the duties of the incumbent were not satisfactorily performed." Isaac really was in trouble.
When the Revd France convinced Lord Stamford of the wisdom in building a new church, he certainly did not take with him the good will of the people of the Cocker Hill Chapel. They were very concerned at the idea of closing the church but became quite incensed when they learned that it was the intention of the incumbent to have the church demolished. Many of the remaining parishioners had long associations with the church and they held "reverential feeling for the place, having parents, children or friends lying in the Chapel or Chapel Yard, and having lived in the hope that it would be the last resting place of themselves and their families". The feeling was very strong that it was necessary to preserve the Chapel raised by their fathers from desecration, and they resolved, where it was possible, to repair the Chapel in the most efficient manner. In a petition to the Bishop, they even offered to re-endow the church if that were necessary, so that a new incumbent could be found.
Such feelings impressed the Lord Bishop of the diocese who gave permission for the parishioners to make the "chapel safe and good", and so for three years from 1840 to 1843 this became the quest of the parishioners in the old chapel area. The work was far from inexpensive but public subscription once again, and unceasing toil, proved be the winning combination of the day. A petition was then sent to the Bishop of the Diocese asking that the chapel be re-opened in the year of 1843.
The Bishop and the Patron, the Earl Stamford, agreed that an appointment of a new minister should be made and that a distinction of assigning Districts to both the old chapel and the new church would prevent any misunderstandings in terms of boundaries. Fees accrued in the old Chapel would be given to Isaac Newton France by agreement of transfer as well as the transferred endowments. This proved a most agreeable idea to both of the churches. The congregation of the old chapel agreed to guarantee a salary of at least £100 to any minister appointed by the Bishop as a sign of good will and intent. The chapel was completed under the direction "of superior architects", and the chapel yard enlarged and fenced by a substantial stone wall, surmounted by a costly palisade. The old organ was removed and a new one substituted and an entirely new heating and ventilation system was installed. The total costs of these changes came to a staggering £1,500, but they clearly felt that this was money well spent as the Bishop on the 29th September, 1843 appointed the Revd William Hall of Clare Hall, Cambridge as their new incumbent.
So as to make the distinction quite clear and to avoid any ill feelings between the two incumbents, the Bishop defined the rights of privileges of the old and new churches in the following way - writing to Isaac Newton France he says,"a compensation will be assigned to you for all fees received there ( meaning the old chapel), and I write to have an account of them without delay; also a map or rough plan of that portion of the township which ought to be attached to the old St. George's taken from your district without trenching on St. Paul's, (another church in Stalybridge), and containing about 4,000 people. Mr Hall and yourself will be quite independent of each other, each will have the sole ecclesiastical care of his own district and each officiating in his own church." So it would appear that all was clear, amicable and settled - or was it?
Early in the year of 1844, the seemingly straightforward business of transferring the endowments and assigning a district, did not progress as anyone had expected and representations were made to the Bishop of the Diocese on the subject. The Bishop responded to the Revd William Hall saying, "the assignment of a district is always a work of time, as it has to go through several public offices, all full of business; but, though slow, it is sure, and you and your friends may consider it so as completely as if you were in possession of the documents. Whatever, the church, or church yard, is as much yours now as it ever can be; Mr France has no concern except with the fees, so that you may set up your organ and complete your enclosure without scruple or annoyance. Nothing depends on the Commissioners except the pastoral charge".
All of this seemed very straightforward as far as the Bishop saw it but the commissioners saw the whole matter in a very different light.
It was in February of 1844 that the Commissioners discovered that a new district could not be legally assigned until the Rights and Endowments were removed from Cocker Hill Chapel to the new church. Not only was this true but the Commissioners discovered that they had no power to transfer the Endowments at all. This was the source of increased discontent by all concerned and became the pivotal point on which the whole scheme was to flounder. It was discovered that despite these assurances, the Commissioners were unable to complete any transfer without the absolute consent of the participating incumbents. Though Isaac Newton France had previously agreed to the removal of all of the Endowments, the new church had not proved the new opportunity that he had hoped for and he consequently resolved to cut his losses.
France gave notice to the Diocesan Bishop in November of that year of his intention to take up his legal right to be re installed as the incumbent of the old church. This declaration told of his intention to "take possession of the old church on the 1st January, 1846", though this was very much against the express wishes of the Archdeacon and of the Bishop of the Diocese. They urged him to remain in the new church and spoke of the impropriety of such conduct, despite his unquestionable right to do so.
This was a particularly sad time for William Hall who had, though in a very short ministry, performed marvels in the church of Cocker Hill. The Sunday School had started to flourish, congregations had multiplied at an incredible rate coming close to the previous numbers of 450 persons, and now he was faced with the possibility of losing it all. This is best expressed by quoting the submission to the House of Commons concerning that particular period where it states, "that during these difficulties the minister of Cocker Hill Chapel, the Revd William Hall, was most assiduous in his duties as a pastor, the Day and Sunday Schools were raised under his care to a point of usefulness not surpassed by any in the neighbourhood, and his ministry was attended with the best results generally, scarcely a single pew in the chapel was ever without an owner and occupier: but the continued annoyances arising from the disputes as to the rights of the two churches and their ministers, induced Mr Hall, ultimately to quit his charge, and on the last Sunday of July, 1846, he preached his last sermon at Cocker Hill Chapel and shortly afterwards returned his licence to the Bishop."
The stage was now set for the unhappiest period in the church's life; the new church of St. George was built and was ready to receive its new congregation, but had a minister who had lost heart and interest and seemed incapable of generating sufficient interest and spirituality to draw people into the flock. The old church had prospered in the previous three years against all odds and, with a new minister, had resumed its former glory, but now had no minister at all and only the prospect of receiving back as its incumbent, the man hated for his contribution to the closure some few years earlier.
The next four years became the darkest days in the history of the two churches.