The Leeson Era
During the difficult period of Isaac Newton France oscillating between the new and old churches of St. George, John Leeson had been appointed as incumbent of the new church in 1846. He remained at that church for four years, coinciding with the death of Mr France in 1850 and during his time at the new church he had made steady progress with the work of building up the newly formed parish. Parochial records show that numbers at the services had increased substantially and that the church was moving into a viable stage for the first time since the consecration in 1840. Very soon after Mr Leeson had arrived at the church, endowments began to build up and his stipend was assured; clearly the future of the church looked promising under his guidance and prayer.
When Isaac Newton France died in 1850, the Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Manchester was obviously a man of some sensitivity. Along with his advisors, the Bishop decided upon a course of action not repeated, as far as the author is aware, in this diocese or in others. The Bishop, because of the good reputation of Mr Leeson in the local community, decided to transfer him from the new church to the old and along with this move, inducted his brother Frederick as incumbent at the new church. This produced a rather unique situation and clearly one that the Bishop hoped might solve the festering problems within the town and the parishes. The brothers were now in charge of the two churches of St. George, and the Bishop in his correspondence to the Leeson brothers, assured them of his support as they tried to bridge the widening gap between the congregations and their ministers. This piece of innovative thinking certainly bore fruit during the long incumbencies that both brothers served in these churches, but not without its cost!
John Leeson was a man who did not enjoy good health, and he had suffered badly whilst he was the curate of St. Paul's in the neighbouring parish and this deterioration continued during his incumbency at the new church. He was a sensitive man and was well aware of all the troubles that had beset the old church but managed to remain objective, not allowing himself to be sucked into the politics of that sad situation. Before accepting the post at the new church, he had long and discursive conversations with Mr Hall and Mr Bates, the two irregularly elected Wardens of his predecessor's time at the church. He received assurances of "an open attitude" and in particular, because the schools were in such a poor state by this time, that the parish would agree, with the consent of the Patron, to replace the buildings. With these assurances John Leeson accepted his new charge as did his brother. A new era had begun within the community of Stalybridge.
Some had regarded Isaac Newton France as the villain of the piece with regard to Pew Rents and his relationship with the Seat Holders, but John Leeson appeared to know more about this situation, or instinctively felt that a perversion of justice had taken place. His letters show that he was deeply concerned about the fate of his predecessor and of the treatment he had received during his incumbency. He recognised that Mr Hall and Mr Bates wanted to be the superior positions in the church and very much went it alone, disregarding the incumbent. This situation did not change, as had been hoped with Leeson's appointment, and Mr Hall continued to promote his own position at the expense of everyone else including the incumbent.
John Leeson, though a sick man, was not to be put away so easily, nor would he allow Mr Hall the freedom, nor the "game playing" that his predecessor had endured.
On the 4th December, 1850, Cocker Hill Chapel was once again opened as a centre of worship rather than the arena of conflict it had become over the past years. The records show that the attendance on that occasion was so numerous that "many of those anxious to contribute to the cost of the repairs were obliged to return home." After the sermons in the morning and in the afternoon, collections amounting to between £60 and £70 were made for the repair of the building. Good will abounded but not with all who were present in the chapel.
In the early part of 1851, John Leeson wrote to the Bishop of the Diocese asking if it would be possible to remove the principal of Pew Rent and Seat Holding from his chapel. His argument was simply that this had caused so much trouble in the past and that people had gained too much power because of it. The removal of this ancient system would prevent any re-occurrence of the old problems during his time and that of his successors but sadly the Bishop did not agree with this idea and chose to ignore the suggestion. The system remained but the system was abused.
It would appear that James Hall and John Bates were not particularly honest in their collection of pew rents and the assignment of such funds to the incumbent. Investigation by John Leeson proved that this practice had gone on for some years and certainly during the time of his predecessor and, in his view, contributed to the whole problem with which Isaac Newton France had to cope.
On March 25th, 1851 John Leeson took the unprecedented step of issuing a "Broad Sheet" notice to the people of Stalybridge and this was posted in all the public places of the town. Though this is a fairly lengthy document, it is worth recording as John Leeson sets out the issues as they appeared to him and makes the whole France issue clearer.
The Notice was addressed to the "Inhabitants of Stalybridge,...especially those attending Cocker Hill Chapel" and read.....
"My Dear Friends,
You will be surprised at the notice given you respecting Pew-Rents on Sunday last, and grieving to hear of the fresh and disgraceful attempt to disturb the peace of Cocker Hill Chapel. But as you must have heard of this, I deem it my duty to explain the circumstances to you.
You are quite aware of the dispute as to the wardenship of this Chapel. With that question I have never interfered:- but have simply taken my duties in the chapel, and allowed the parties to pursue their own course,- looking forward to Easter for the settlement of this dispute, -by the appointment of a NO PARTY MAN. MR JAMES HALL has assumed the right from the first, of making every appointment and letting every Pew without once consulting me.
He appointed the Clerk - Sexton - Organist and choir and he took upon himself the duty of receiving every farthing of the money collected at the opening of the chapel.
Now I have never complained, even of the want of ordinary courtesy, or common decency in these proceedings, resolving rather to submit to any indignity, than be the cause of any agitation.
I have now discovered in the past week that the parties now disturbing the peace of the place, cannot be satisfied, when they have entirely their own way.
I have been urged many times in the past few weeks to call a public meeting of the Seat Holders, in order to pay off the debts incurred in contending with the late incumbent, as well as some debts ALLEGED to be owing when the Revd Wm. Hall left the chapel- now nearly five years ago. And because I would not consent to preside at such an irregular meeting, in defiance of the commands of my Bishop, and in contemptuous opposition to the wishes of the Patron- or in other words,- because I would not consent to commit actual perjury, to please Mr James Hall and John Bates, I have received a succession of the most unprovoked and disgusting insults.
The sum claimed by MR HALL, after deducting nearly £70 collected at the opening of the chapel- is I believe about £130. His bill however contains some items which may appear objectionable to other people as well as to myself. There is one- if I am rightly informed- for a journey to London, for advice-five years ago-£15.
Another for beer and refreshments, supplied to men who were employed to desecrate and destroy the chapel.
From the last item it appears, -that you have been so liberal as to pay for the new windows, MR JAMES HALL will now give you an opportunity for paying for pulling out the old ones.
But perhaps when he sees this, MR HALL like an honest man, will let the world know what he wants this large sum of money for. If he does not, I for one shall conclude that he found the TRADE of agitation a profitable one, and that he is now anxious to keep up the business, simply for what he can get out of it. I cannot help leaning to this notion, because I have told MR HALL, if he would be quiet until Easter, I would see him paid every farthing. But it is quite evident that peace is not the thing desired. He cannot be quiet, and therefore, I shall decline paying any part of the debt, and shall not sanction the laying of any rate upon the pews for that purpose without the direct approval of Lord Stamford.
At the meeting held in opposition to myself, on Friday last, it was resolved:-"that five pence per quarter on every Sitting, (or rather more than one farthing a Sunday) should be collected for the minister, and that three shillings and four pence per annum, on each Sitting, should be collected for MR JAMES HALL." I leave the public to make their own comment upon the unprovoked insult thus offered to myself. And be content with stating,- that I have never asked for Pew Rent at all,- but I have no wish to receive them at present;- and have discharged MR JAMES HALL from collecting any rent in my name. If the public- especially the poor of Stalybridge, should wish me to perform the duties of Cocker Hill Chapel for nothing, I am prepared to do so. It will not be the first time I have done it. But I must say, that I have no inclination to preach to Gentlemen of great wealth,- and decorated with broad cloth and gold rings and chains- for one farthing a Sunday. And who are so tenacious in their rights, as to wrestle with a widow during Divine service for possession of one of these farthing Sittings, and who in order to keep the widow out, -are willing to deprive themselves of the privilege of possession, by putting strong iron plates upon the doors, and keeping the pew empty for several Sundays in succession. And many erroneous reports have been circulated respecting the income of this chapel, I beg to say, that its value at this time from endowment is under £90 per annum. Of this £90 - £45 is derived from Queen Anne's Bounty, and the remainder from two small farms. If any man can prove it to be worth more, he shall have the money for his trouble. Out of this income, the law compels me to repair the parsonage house, in which I am also obliged to reside, and to sustain the property of the church. I have not derived any benefit of the money paid by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Co., for a portion of the parsonage ground sold during the lifetime of the late incumbent, nor do I expect to do so for a long time to come. That like the other affairs of Cocker Hill chapel remains to be settled.
I have only to call your attention to the printed notice posted upon the chapel doors on Sunday last, which is as follows:-
The Warden will attend at the Sunday School belonging to this chapel to receive the half years PEW Rents now due.
On MONDAY from 2 to 5 o'clock
do do 7 to 9 ,,
On TUESDAY from 2 to 5 ,,
do do 7 to 9 ,,
Dated Stalybridge, March 22nd, 1851 JAMES HALL, WARDEN
After the explanation that I have given, it only remains for me to say, that I should be very sorry to accuse MR JAMES HALL, of obtaining money under false pretences but I leave him now to explain to the public, why he should collect my money, after being discharged from doing so,- or why he should, under pretence of collecting my Pew Rents, collect a rate for himself.
I am, my Dear Friends,
JOHN E LEESON
P.S. In consequence of the offensive, and disgraceful conduct of the organist last Sunday, in playing at the conclusion of Divine service, "See the Conquering Hero Comes." I have felt it my duty peremptorily to dismiss Him, and the choir."
John Leeson explained himself in a very clear manner and laid out the challenge to James Hall and John Bates to respond to the very definite accusations made within the notice and, in a sense, to answer for their actions with the former Vicar. John Leeson accused them of using their power as Chapel Wardens to manipulate the situation to their own advantage and accrue an illegal income.
It was as if time had stood still and Isaac Newton France had simply undergone a kind of metamorphosis and become John Leeson, for the Wardens continued to persecute the new incumbent as they had the old. There followed for the next two year period, a vitriolic exchange between John Leeson and his Wardens, but the truth of the affair only started to emerge toward the end of the period.
As with his predecessor, John Leeson found that the Easter appointment of the chapel wardens in 1852 was not to be the straightforward committee procedure he had come to expect from his former charges. It would appear that at this particular Vestry Meeting that there were present, "gentlemen who considered themselves, and are in fact, Seat Holders, having had pews allotted to them by the Warden for the time being, and not having been dispossessed in the mode pointed out by the deed of consecration, and never having refused to pay any legal rate when demanded from them." Leeson was trying to differentiate between real seat holders, those who were allotted seats by the legitimately elected wardens, and those who were not.
At this particular meeting which took place on the 12th April, 1852 a representative of the Earl of Stamford was in attendance, namely Mr Alexander Cheyne. He claimed to hold the proxy, signed by the Earl, to be used for the purpose of casting a vote for a particular warden. This was clearly a "put up job" and one which the incumbent chose to ignore. Rather than enter into a debacle, he made a statement from the altar steps as follows:-
"I see many here who are not seat holders, and I do not address myself to them, but to those who have a right to be present. You know the purpose for which we have met here this morning; and, as we are unanimous upon this subject, there will be little difficulty, and the business will soon be over. I am too unwell to speak much myself, and I will not listen to others talking; we are met for the purpose of appointing a chapel warden. Does anyone propose a person to fill that office?"
Apparently Mr Henry Heap was proposed by Mr Southall, and was seconded by Mr Moores, the father of the chapel clerk. Following this proposal, Walker Butterworth proposed Mr James Heap, one of those who played a major part in the troubles of the France days, and he was seconded by a Mr Higginbottom. Both James Heap and Mr Higginbottom were pew holders who had been given their position by the illegally elected warden and so John Leeson rightly said, "You are not seat holders; you have not paid for the seats;" he summarily refused to receive the name and continued with the election of Henry Heap who received 13 votes and the support of the incumbent. At this point Walker Butterworth protested strongly against the proceedings and at the refusal of the incumbent to allow the name of his nominee to go forward. Others objected but they too did not have the right to do so. John Leeson then seemingly lost control and proclaimed in a loud voice, "a cockpit is the proper place for you; you are more fit for a cockpit than a place of worship" and to others he said, "you are thieves and robbers; you want to rob me of the pew rents" and to the Earl's representative Mr Cheyne he asked, "who are you? Do you appear here professionally? ...A pretty fellow you are to mix yourself up with such a lot of low-life blackguards! I will let the Lord Stamford know of your ungentlemanly conduct. I will let Lord Stamford hear of this through the public press."
This action prompted a series of correspondence in the local press which the Editor was pleased to publish, including a rather peculiar letter from Alexander Cheyne. Mr Cheyne purported to declare himself the innocent victim of an incumbent who had lost control and had disgraced himself. But was that really the case?
Leeson's outburst, the words of a rather sick man, but words of truth as he saw it, certainly embarrassed the members who had been present at the Vestry Meeting and each proceeded to attempt to plead innocence both in the press and in letters to the Bishop of Manchester. But they protested too much and proved nothing of the kind. Leeson resolved to write to Lord Stamford to determine his mind on the matter and to see if he had indeed asked Mr Cheyne to vote by proxy on his account. In his letter to Lord Stamford, Leeson reminded the Patron that such action was in fact illegal and therefore, as incumbent, he was forced to disregard it altogether.
The row continued in earnest through the public press and Leeson used this same medium to his advantage by asking the public to hold a balanced view of all that had occurred. He wrote in a local newspaper, "I am under the necessity of begging, through your columns, that the friends of religion, and morality, and order, suspend their judgement on the case until I have had an opportunity of removing the threadbare cloak - made up of pride, ignorance, duplicity and revenge,- which has for so many years concealed from the public eye, the unparalleled wickedness perpetrated in this place. Allow me, sir, to state that I am fully sensible that the language I am obliged to use in describing these occurrences must give pain to men of mawkish sensibility, and to those who, form their opinions from insufficient evidence. If these gentlemen would take the trouble to estimate the amount of mischief entailed upon the community by a ten years' exhibition of Lynch Law in Stalybridge, I believe that they would be disposed to withdraw the censure they have so gratuitously bestowed upon me, for daring to expose with unsparing hand- and in words which convey but an inadequate description- the outrages which have been committed in this chapel. At the Visitation yesterday, the proceeds of Mr Butterworth and the "respectable gentleman" at Cocker Hill Chapel, on Easter Monday, were pronounced illegal. Mr Butterworth's contradictions of Mr Cheyne were fully confirmed by the statements of Mr James Hall, the pseudo chairman; and the warden who they had pretended to elect was of course publicly rejected."
As could be expected this brought a tirade of abuse upon Leeson's head and caused him much distress about the matter and he was reminded very forcibly of an occurrence twelve months before in April of 1851, where "armed men proceeded to break into the school and possess it in the fashion of their forebears...this could be repeated!". It seems then that Leeson, like France before him, was to fight a lone battle against the complicated chapel warden system, but a series of letters in support of him did appear in the public press and copies were sent to Leeson privately. One man who simply signed himself "J.R." gave great support and explained the situation in a fascinating manner. I include extracts from the letter to explain things in a very different way indeed:-
"....on the re-opening of Cocker Hill Chapel, it seemed very remarkable to me to see almost every Sitting in the place taken by most of the wealthy men in the town; it really was astonishing to see how many respectable gentlemen attended every Sunday, Divine service. I could not at first account for it, but, after a little enquiry, I found that the Sittings were more than one half less than those of any other church in the neighbourhood. I can hardly express the surprise I felt when I understood that all these respectable gentlemen had left other churches which they had been attending, given up their pews in them, and taken nearly all the pews in Cocker Hill Chapel, because there was a good minister, good choir, and hardly anything to pay, for I believe that it was understood that there was to be only one collection during the whole year......would it not be more respectable of these gentlemen to let the poor have the privilege of attending so cheap a place of worship?...a few weeks after, I had the pleasure in seeing the matter tried, for I heard that the Revd J E Leeson had been ordered to make the Sittings on a level of those of other churches. The report proved true; and believe me, the announcement of his intention was no sooner made than all these respectable gentlemen left the place, and commenced such a disgraceful attack upon the benevolent gentleman, that I, and many of my friends as well as most of the inhabitants of the town, were completely disgusted. I use the word benevolent, because I have proof that he is so; I have seen many poor families that he has comforted and relieved.....They say now that the congregation that attends the chapel is composed of nothing but factory operatives, and go about swaggering and boasting that the incumbent can get no respectable gentleman to attend the church. I must say, that if such really be the case, that it is no credit to these gentlemen to allow a number of poor men to replace them and pay willingly the paltry sum that they would not....but I am glad to say that among the congregation of Cocker Hill there are some real gentlemen, who are not too miserly to pay the 8 shillings per Sitting, but pay it willingly, and are so happy at having so worthy a minister as their incumbent to pay it to, as they proved themselves last Friday but one, when, in the short space of five minutes, the sum of £36 11s was collected to assist in defending him against this disgraceful persecution....if these are respectable gentlemen, I hope that I may always remain a honest working man... J.R."
This particular letter caused Mr Hall and Mr Bates and many of the "Seat Holders" great embarrassment, as it drew to the attention of the public their own disgraceful behaviour. For years there had been many irregular matters that had occurred with regard to the financing of the chapel, and now the present incumbent, supported by the ordinary people, was prepared to stand up and expose them.
Perhaps because of his illness, Leeson's patience ran out and he brought matters to a head by issuing a sort of ultimatum to a man called Legh Richmond, the agent to the Earl of Stamford, but implicating Hall and many others by the nature of the text. In May of 1852, a letter was sent to Mr Richmond which left nothing to the imagination. Richmond had taken a back seat through all of the current proceedings, as he had during the problems with the previous incumbent, but matters had come to Leeson's attention which denied such a passive role. Rather than just write a personal letter, Leeson chose the public press to make his case. Once again only extracts will be used here to show the tenor of the argument:-
"...I have every reason to believe that you were aware of my intention to make the affairs of this chapel public, and no right, therefore, to expect that I should not turn your correspondence to public account....your affectation of "unfeigned regret for the disturbance which took place on Easter Monday" accords very badly, with the fact, that you have been the professional advisor to those who have made all the uproar at Cocker Hill Chapel for ten years past. Your statement that "Lord Stamford's vote was given under no party feeling," is untrue for you have known for at least the twelve months past, as I can show from your own handwriting, that the parties in whose favour that vote was given have been bitterly and violently opposed to myself and congregation, and have annoyed us in every way possible.....I should like to know by what right you suggested Mr James Heap should be elected as he is clearly not a Seat Holder; and has never attended the chapel in the past year except for a funeral; and that he does not reside in my district nor indeed in the diocese of Manchester nor the county of Lancaster and has been one of the leaders, as you well know, in the broils of Cocker Hill Chapel for many years. And I must remind you, that although you appear unkindly to have forgotten him now, he was actually your colleague in an Office at Cocker Hill Chapel a few years ago (in 1845 or 46), when you found it convenient to have two wardens, in direct violation of the fact that only one could legally be appointed...whether you have any reason to feel ashamed of your connection with these parties is not for me to decide. But as they paid you some very heavy sums for advice during the contentions with my predecessor, to say the least, this forgetfulness looks very much like dragging your friends into difficulty and leaving them there, without sympathy or the means of escape....very soon after my appointment..I talked with you about the schools, pointing out the dilapidated state of the latter, and spoke to you freely about soliciting Lord Stamford for a more convenient site, which you had told me had been promised to my predecessor; and I proposed to pull the old one down, and use the materials to build a new one....you conveyed your own approbation (agreement) and stating your belief that Lord Stamford would readily give his consent. After this I regarded the schools as my own, and am still under the impression that they belong to my chapel, although you have thought proper, in the last year.. to pull them down-.....I beg now to ask by whose authority these schools were pulled down, and the materials sold... to Mr James Hall for £30?"
Leeson concludes this indictment by asking Richmond the straightforward question about ownership of the schools. If they were the Chapel's, then all was well but the responsibility of destruction would have to be laid at his door and recompense assured, and if they were not, then why had he encouraged both the public and the clergy to financially support them when they were not part of the church!
Leeson was in no mood to pull punches and, with the support of the Diocesan Bishop, pushed for an answer but none came forth. The whole issue then seemed to ebb away with embarrassed wardens leaving the church and the public and the incumbent content. A settled period then followed with increased congregations who were supportive to their incumbent for the first time for many years. "Real Gentlemen" joined the congregation and the past problems were seemingly put to rest.
John Leeson was very much a priest of the people and was loved by the church and community alike as indeed appears to have been his brother, Frederick. Frederick, by all accounts, had a very successful ministry indeed at the new church, building up the congregation upon the firm foundation established by his brother. The only hiccup in his ministry at the church was an accusation by some of the congregation that he was guilty of Popish acts. He apparently used "chanting" during some of the "offices" of Evensong but this proved not to be an issue of any real significance.
In 1861 the population of the town grew to 24,921 and in that same year, because of the difficulties created by the American War of Independence,the supply of cotton to this flourishing mill town began to dry up. Mills began to close and by 1863 over 7,000 people were unemployed. Local records show that the church played a significant part in the life of the town at this time, and brought not only a spiritual, but very often a physical comfort to families in real need. The Leeson brothers were loved because of their charitable works and the way in which they particularly supported the very poor of the area.
In 1864 the boundaries for both old and new St. George's were established in the Gazette (a Parliamentary publication) which gave definite districts to the parishes. This procedure had been first agreed in 1847.
The Leeson brothers gave a very stable feeling to the churches of St. George during their lengthy ministries (Frederick continued until 1870 and John until 1867). The work of John Leeson in particular, brought into question the whole erroneous business of Isaac Newton France and the Wardens. Isaac had a great deal to answer for by his negative attitude and the unco-operative manner by which he conducted himself during the dispute, but was he as guilty as the newspapers and his "wardens" had implied?
The truth must remain unknown and lost in history but John Leeson most certainly gave the people of that time considerable food for thought!