The Leeson brothers had clearly made a significant contribution to the life of the two churches of St. George and also to the community; they would be a hard act to follow. Frederick Leeson was succeeded in 1871 by Henry John Hutchinson who was to remain as incumbent of the new church for thirteen years. There are parish records to show that the name of Henry John Hutchinson appeared in the burial registers of the old church from 1853 and for several years , where he is described as the "curate of Old St. George" though no license for such a role can be found.
Hutchinson's ministry was probably the quietest of all of the incumbents of either of the two churches and diocesan records show a mere five letters exchanged between himself and the diocesan office during the whole of his ministry. This most certainly does not suggest that his ministry was in any sense insignificant, for during his time as incumbent the parish church of New St George flourished and further developed to show an attendance figure higher than at any time before him. He it was that initiated moves to develop the school, not only as an institution of the church, but as a resource for the locality. In one report on Hutchinson, he is described as "a quiet and gentle man, who simply and efficiently got on with the job of being a Minister". It was during his final year at the church that he was joined by a curate, the Revd J W Lewis, who stayed at the church for twelve months from 1883 until 1884. The Revd Lewis was to be the first of a succession of very successful curates at the new church.
John Leeson was succeeded at the old church by the Revd John B Jelly-Dudley in 1867. This was the same year that the new Victoria Bridge was constructed across the River Tame from Market Street to Trinity Street and certainly the Revd Jelly-Dudley would build many "bridges" both within the church and the community during an eventful and effective ministry which was to last for thirty seven years until his death in 1904.
John B Jelly-Dudley, the longest serving incumbent of either of the two churches, is described as "a flamboyant figure with a great sense of humour, keenly interested in the young and their spiritual growth in the Church". From the onset of his ministry he became involved in the church schools in a way that his predecessors had not and this "new ministry" yielded fruit as the Sunday Schools increased dramatically.
When Jelly-Dudley came to Stalybridge the church had begun a more stable phase, but this was not reflected in the community at large. The War of Independence had affected the community in a tragic fashion. Looting was not uncommon as the hungry, jobless population tried to survive. On some occasions when looting bordered on the uncontrollable, the Army from the nearby barracks was used to deal with the mob rioting that occurred. This was a terrible time during the history of the community and many people suffered a level of deprivation unknown before that period.
It was also at this time that the community was disturbed by the arrival of a rather strange Irishman by the name of Murphy. Records of this man indicate that his sole interest was to sow the seeds of dissent between the Roman Catholics, who by this time had grown to significant proportions, and the Protestants. He succeeded in this goal only too well for a full year. During 1868 there were a number of violent disturbances and rioting created by this man who was a self confessed "renegade Roman Catholic". In his lectures to the public "pretending to expose the religious practices of the Roman Catholic Church", he became a master at whipping up a crowd into a frenzy. Newspaper reports of the time told of his common practice of waving a revolver in the air in "a most threatening manner". On one occasion this peculiar man, incited a riot of such proportions that a man was shot. The Parish Priest, Fr Daley, was tried but eventually acquitted at the Quarter Sessions. Following this particular incident, the community began to settle down and Mr Murphy chose to extend his political activities in other areas away from Stalybridge. Where he went to is not recorded..perhaps a good thing!
The Cotton Depression continued, and by 1871 the population of Stalybridge had reduced to 21,042, the lowest for forty years and unemployment continued at a very high level. The community had attempted to utilise this unused workforce by creating " schools" which were organised in many buildings where men were taught to read and write and the women were formed into sewing classes.
Throughout all of this time the Revd J B Jelly-Dudley worked to build upon the ministry of John Leeson, trying to create some kind of co-operation between the now many churches within the town. By this period all the Anglican churches (with the exception of Christ Church) were functioning quite well. The Roman Catholic church of St. Peter, the Methodists, Baptists, Unitarian and Quaker congregations also flourished. This was certainly a time when cooperation could have been very fruitful if organised on a better scale, but such co-operation was not to come into real force for another hundred years.
Things seemed to be going quite well at the two churches of St. George during this time but in the year of 1877 a very serious incident occurred.
The winter of 1876/7 had not been its usual mixture of heavy snow and freezing ground, but it had rather been a time of heavy rains and continual downpours. It has been suggested by many, that this series of downpours contributed to the incident which occurred in the middle of February, 1877. It is reported that at three o'clock in the morning of Monday the Twelfth of February, 1877 an "Alarming landslip occurred at Old St George's church yard." Below the church yard there was a road which at that time used to lead to Shepley's Firebrick Works and the new paper mill, and a section of the graveyard had collapsed onto the road. This portion of the yard, about twenty yards in length and two or three yards in width, gave way without any warning and an investigation by the police and the incumbent showed that five or six coffins had fallen with the soil. This particular corner of the church yard was mainly reserved for the interment of still-born children and it was these coffins that had fallen. Church records show that these were collected speedily, and respectfully, and removed to the mortuary house in the church yard. Surrounding this particular area were a number of large headstones which were removed immediately by workmen so as to relieve pressure on the earth and to reduce the danger of any further falls.
News of this landslip spread with great rapidity and by the early hours hundreds of people were viewing the scene and were reported to be "lining the bridge and adjoining places eager to get a view of all that had gone on." This kind of emotional trauma is often misreported and such was the case with the graveyard. Through letters and some of the newspaper reports it can be determined that a great deal of misinformation was given. One report suggested that the church itself had fallen over the cliff edge and that a large number of coffins had been washed down the river but of course this was totally untrue. The only uncertainty concerned the number of coffins actually within the debris, for although a width of only two or three yards had fallen, this did reflect a substantial amount of earth, though inspection of the records for that period would indicate that only two or three grave spaces would have been disturbed. What was clearly visible, was the end of a large coffin and this could be observed by all who stood on the roadway. Relatives and friends of deceased persons gathered at the church yard; the gates were kept securely locked and guarded by the local police. The incumbent spent many hours pacifying relatives and assuring them that all was well; the exception being "one stalwart woman who insisted on being allowed to see if her mother's grave had escaped desecration" - the incumbent allowed her to enter the yard with police supervision but no one else was afforded this luxury.
Immediate reparation began by the firm of Messrs. Gartside, Barnes, and Co who inspected the general foundations of the wall and of the church. The foundations of the retaining wall of the churchyard were built on "good sandstone grit, but between the layers of this sandstone there were strata of shale." Geological reports show that in the south-west corner, the area that had given way, the sandstone strata tapered away and there was a considerable amount of loose earth upon which part of the retaining wall must have rested. It is thought that the heavy rains which had fallen over the previous months had loosened this particular section and caused the slip. Letters show that this section had given concern to the incumbent and the church wardens because water naturally gathered in that corner and they had, only the week before, dug a drain in that section to take away the surface water and reduce the possibility of such a slip.
When the workmen began to sort through the debris the real truth of the number of coffins and bodies was determined. Though the church records had reported accurately the number of coffins present within the ground, what could not have been anticipated were the total number of bodies. This confusion was caused by the fact that a "considerable number of interments of still-born children were made in the quiet corner of the church yard in a secret manner." Infant mortality was commonplace and many people could not afford to have their children buried at all, nor indeed would they want the fact that a still-born child had been delivered known to the general public. In total there were bodies of five small children and two adults found within the debris at the foot of the wall but no count was made of the number of bodies not within coffins.
The workmen took some time to repair the wall as they had to dig out the whole of that section and rebuild from a new foundation. When this had been completed, the foundations were solid and this kept the wall in good repair for approximately the next hundred years when a similar incident occurred but with even greater significance.
What had not been taken into account in any very serious manner, was the fact that the shale strata supported not only the graveyard but the church itself. We can only presume that the fall of the original church some hundred years before this time, must have been caused by a similar geological fault. Over the next five year period concern grew for the church itself as smaller but still significant slips occurred around the church and wall. In 1880 and 1881, church records show that "cracks had begun to appear in the south-west corner of the building." The same firm of Messrs. Gartside, Barnes and Co. undertook reparation work.
The cracks got bigger and more frequent leading to a letter in 1882 to the Diocesan Bishop indicating that, in the view of the incumbent and wardens, the church was now in a dangerous condition and liable to collapse. After inspection by more building officials and people from the diocese, it was decided to take the safest way out, and so on 10th December the church was officially closed and would remain so for the next six years. Worship in the parish continued to take place in the school attached to the church.
1881 and 1882 proved to be important years for the new church of St George as well as that of the old. Though the ministry of Henry Hutchinson remained quiet and loving, his churchwardens were very eager in their efforts to change the building itself and accommodate the "modern day needs of the congregation." The new church of St George had been built to seat over twelve hundred people and some of this seating was specifically employed to accommodate the Hussars from the barracks at Ashton. Not long after the France dilemma, and before Leeson could get a hold of the church, the soldiers moved from St George's down to Ashton Parish Church, thus making the large balconies somewhat superfluous to the needs of the local community.
There followed in 1881, considerable correspondence between the churchwarden, Mr Wilfred Hopwood, and the Diocesan Bishop about the good sense "of removing such pews and indeed the whole balcony." It was in fact Wilfred Hopwood who first used the title of New St George's with a capital "N" in his correspondence about the church and from that time all correspondence referred to the new church in this way therefore assuming the title. This "letter of assumption" was dated 5th of February, 1881.
Hopwood's letter which accompanied the request for faculty permission to remove the balconies was worded in this manner:-
"The seats are old high pews of such construction as to prevent kneeling, and are very uncomfortable. The galleries were originally constructed to accommodate the soldiers; they have also been made with very wide aisles at the back for the holding of the sunday schools; the soldiers no longer attend and a proper school has been built. They are unsightly, and they darken the church; They are unused and give the church an air of desolation. In most of the gallery sittings it is difficult, if not impossible, to see or hear."
The Bishop and diocesan authorities were convinced by this and other letters and granted the faculty in March of 1881. Work soon commenced and by the beginning of the following year, the side balconies on the north and south wall had been completely removed leaving only the rear balcony over the west end. This completely changed the whole feeling of the building and it then became "a much more brighter, open and welcoming church building." Henry Hutchinson used this building for two more years before he left and was succeeded by the Revd John Thomas Reed in 1884.
All was not necessarily doom, gloom and confusion within Stalybridge at this time for those who know the author's keen interest in football will be glad to know that in 1887 Stalybridge had a successful and blossoming football team. The history of the Manchester County Football Association is somewhat sporadic in its early years but they do record the fact that in the season 1887/8 there were sixteen clubs registered in the league. Among these clubs Stalybridge St George was listed along with many other local names, but this league did include the teams of Ardwick and Newton Heath LYR. Ardwick became the team now known as Manchester City and Newton Heath became Manchester United - exalted company indeed!
1887 was also the year that the church of Old St George, having had plans and surveys completed, submitted a faculty for the demolition and rebuilding of the church. This faculty was dated 4th February 1887 and read:-
"To pull down the present church to the ground line and rebuild same upon the old foundations, excepting the additions of entrance porch staircase according to plans and particulars of said church now deposited in the public Episcopal Registry at Manchester."
The faculty request is signed by John B Jelly-Dudley and his two wardens, Frederick John Robert-Dudley and Allwood Simpson. This work was undertaken by the same company of Gartside, Barnes and Co. who managed to save a considerable amount of the church furniture for the new church.
On 21st December, 1886 a contract between Gartside, Barnes and Co. and the church in the name of J B Jelly-Dudley was drawn up to construct a new church under the design of John Lowe, a Manchester architect, for a total cost of £2770. This money was to be paid over a period of time with eight instalments and the money would be raised once again by subscription but with a number of substantial grants.
The original architect's drawings show a substantial change to the old church. The church remained in its octagonal form with upper and lower windows, but the mullions and shape of the windows were now significantly different. The roof was no longer in a semi-pitch form but now of a complete pitched construction rising to a point. The front porch was changed from a single door with steps rising some five feet from the ground, to a flat entrance and double doors. To the right of the entrance, those who remember the church, will see that the drawings do not show the single rise tower. That was added after the drawings had been agreed. The internal seating plan still shows the great difference between the rich and the poor as the number of free pews are by far outweighed by those of the Pew Rent Seat Holders.
The day of the great re-opening drew near and the church published a Notice in the local newspapers so that everyone would be aware of all the plans for the week. The Notice read as follows:
"OLD ST GEORGE'S, COCKER HILL, STALYBRIDGE,- Consecrated 1776. The following services will be held in connection with the RE-OPENING of the above named church:- On Wednesday March 21st, 1888, 7.30pm, the Preacher The Right Revd Lord Bishop of Manchester. On Thursday March 22nd at 7.30pm, Preacher The Revd Canon J D Kelly, MA, Rector of St Matthew's Church, Manchester. On Sunday March 25th, Three Services will be held. Morning at 10.30 Preacher the Revd Canon T Eager, MA, Rural Dean and Rector of Ashton-U-Lyne. Afternoon at 3.00 Preacher Revd W B Kirk, LLD, Vicar of St. Peter Ashton-U-Lyne. Evening at 6.30 Preacher The Revd T Holmes Sheriff, MA, Vicar of St Paul's, Staley. On Wednesday evening Mr Irvine Dearnaley will preside at the organ. Anthem, "In that day" (Sir George Elvey) On Thursday evening Mr Enos Andrew will preside at the organ. Anthem, "I have surely built a house" (Dr. Boyce) On Sunday Mr John Brookes will preside at the organ. Afternoon Anthem, "Blessed be the God and Father" (Dr Wesley) Evening Anthem, "O praise God in His Holiness" (Clarke Whitfield) Collections will be made at each of the services for the Church Restoration Fund."
The copy of the church register for those services show a staggering amount of £110 was collected on this re-opening day.
It was at this re-opening service that the new Bishop of Manchester, The Right Revd James Moorhouse, chose to break with the more sombre tradition of colourless robes usually seen on such occasions. He wore the brighter Convocation colours. One local paper reported this in the following way:-
"The observed of all observers at the re-opening of Old St George's, was the Bishop. His Lordship was resplendent in his scarlet robe, which had lawn sleeves, with frills of white cambric and scarlet at the wrists. The front of the robe was also white, and the bands in front were of a pink shade. There was a big array of parsons, but among the lesser fry the Bishop stood out in all the glory of his brilliant robe, and before him the small stars paled their lights. The Bishop used to appear in much more sombre hues, and the new occupant of the See of Manchester must have astonished some folk by his brilliant get-up on Wednesday evening."...clearly a rather sarcastic and elaborate account of the proceedings but making an interesting point!
The new building is described in much of the correspondence of the time, and in the local newspapers as being "an improvement on the old, and its interior is light and airy"- the church was now restored to its former position and splendour. Certainly the parish records indicate great interest in the new church as congregations swelled for many years to come. J. B. Jelly-Dudley had been prominent in the restoration of the church in all respects and he continued to serve in the parish until his death in 1904.
At the new church not only had the removal of the galleries made a significant difference to the whole atmosphere, but John Thomas Read was keen, or at least his Wardens were, on physical changes. It was during his time as incumbent that changes were made to the west end; the four gospel figures which now reside in the south wall of the church nearest to the Lady Chapel, were moved from the east window so that a wooden reredos could be built there.
From the plan of this reredos, dated 1892, it can be seen that the existing form was accepted with the exception of the three inner panels. The plans show that these panels were intended to carry some detailed carving, but correspondence makes it quite clear that this was beyond the means of the church at that time and so the panels remained, and still remain, in plain wood. The reredos was constructed and dedicated in the later part of 1894.
John Thomas Read was to remain at the church for only a further three years until 1897 when he was succeeded by the Revd Thomas Murphy Oldfield, the longest serving incumbent of the new church of St George.